Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (WOOD-hows) is a name that conjures up the most lighthearted and sunniest of comic worlds described by a master stylist of the English language. Born on October 15, 1881, in Guildford, England, he was the third son of a British civil servant serving in Hong Kong. To give their children an English education, his parents sent them to England; there they attended various boarding schools and visited relatives during the summer holidays. Wodehouse’s upbringing explains the relative scarcity of parental figures and the corresponding preponderance of aunts in his most popular works, especially in those featuring Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Bertie is firmly ruled by the strength of will of his female relatives, whether as likable as Aunt Dahlia or as terrifying as Aunt Agatha–both characters based on Wodehouse’s own aunts, undoubtedly an affectionate tribute to these important figures from his childhood.
P. G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse, who early acquired the lifelong nickname “Plum,” claimed that he started writing stories when he was five years old. His father, however, wanted his son to have a more secure future and obtained a position for Wodehouse as a clerk in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. To please his father, Wodehouse remained with the bank for two years, all the while writing short pieces for magazines. Then he landed a much more congenial job writing a column for a newspaper, the Globe, and in 1902 became a full-time writer. In 1904 he was asked to write lyrics for a new play, and thereupon launched on another long career, as a lyricist.
Wodehouse traveled to the United States a few times and was particularly impressed with the possibilities there in 1909, when he sold two short stories on the day he arrived. On his third visit, in 1914, he met and married Ethel Rowley, an Englishwoman. Writing under a number of pen names, Wodehouse became a theater critic for Vanity Fair. Over the years, with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, Wodehouse was part of a legendary trio that produced several successful Broadway shows. In his literary biography of Wodehouse, Benny Green argues that Wodehouse’s contribution to fifty-two dramatic works over a period of fifty years and his collaboration with other Broadway greats, such as Cole Porter, Florenz Ziegfeld, and George and Ira Gershwin, helped shape Wodehouse’s prose fiction.
A tragic incident that reveals the nature, appeal, and, for some critics, the problem with Wodehouse as a writer occurred during World War II. Wodehouse was already established as a master comic stylist and had created the major characters who would continue to be the mainstay of his work: Psmith, who first appeared in the schoolboy stories and later as an adult; Ukridge, an impoverished but creative zany; Mulliner, the narrator of Hollywood stories; two elderly earls–the bouncy and youthful Lord Ickenham and the dreamy but dedicated pig breeder Lord Emsworth; the dim-witted young men of the Drones Club; and the most famous Drone Club member, Bertie Wooster, and his stupendously well-read and intelligent personal valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse, who by all accounts was an extremely good-natured, innocent, and apolitical man, found himself a prisoner of the Germans during the occupation of France, where he and his wife were living at the time. He agreed to a request from some American companies to tape broadcasts to his concerned fans in the United States. Wodehouse described his unpleasant experiences in the humorous style so peculiarly his own, ridiculing the Germans and making light of his own miseries. He was branded a traitor by those who never heard the broadcasts but assumed that his agreeing to do them at all was suspect. While those who heard or read the broadcasts stoutly defended him, the storm of protest hurt Wodehouse. Though completely cleared of any charges, Wodehouse moved to the United States permanently in 1947, where he continued to write in much the same fashion as before the war.
The unworldly innocence apparent in this incident characterizes Wodehouse’s work. As Richard J. Voorhees notes, Wodehouse was born in the Victorian Age, came to manhood in the Edwardian, and continued to write, until the age of ninety-three, as if he still lived in that earlier time. His enduring appeal lies not only in the fantasy world he created but also in his careful and imaginative use of the full resources of the English language.