No snarling

Fatema Ahmed

  • Wodehouse by Joseph Connolly
    Haus, 192 pp, £9.99, September 2004, ISBN 1 904341 68 3
  • Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
    Penguin, 542 pp, £8.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 14 100048 1

On my father’s bookshelves, tucked between yet another novel by Somerset Maugham and J.B. Priestley’s account of a journey to Mexico with his archaeologist wife, was a copy of Carry On, Jeeves. I had never heard of P.G. Wodehouse and racing through these stories of a master and his manservant I was surprised to find that, so far as I could tell, they were seriously funny and devoid of serious meaning. There was no more Wodehouse at home; my father took a dim view of frivolous books. But my local library took a dim view of the contemporary unless it was slightly unfashionable or too popular to ignore – and the shortage of more recent fiction left room for two whole shelves of Wodehouse. I read nearly 50 books before the supply ran out. I wouldn’t really recommend this: prolonged exposure to Wodehouse can stop you taking anything seriously. Worse still, it can stop other people taking you seriously.

Biographers of Wodehouse have fallen into two camps: outright fans and well-disposed (but essentially sane) observers. Joseph Connolly’s biography is a harrowing example of the former; denied permission to quote from Wodehouse’s work he compensates by adopting a jaunty tone. Unlike Wodehouse, however, but like many would-be imitators, he falls into the trap of sounding patronising and long-winded: ‘P.G. Wodehouse was born in 1881, which surprised no one very much as he had been expected for some time . . . He was over six feet tall, and had two large hands and feet on the ends of the limbs you would expect.’

All the biographical attention – five full biographies and many literary/biographical studies – would have puzzled its subject. ‘What infernally dull reading an author’s life makes. It’s all right as long as you are struggling, but once you have become financially sound there is nothing to say,’ Wodehouse said during the preparation of Over Seventy (1957), his ‘sort of autobiography’. His own period of struggle was brief. Once he had broken into the American magazine market in 1915 – the Saturday Evening Post was particularly generous – he fully exploited the opportunity to sell his work twice, first to magazines and then as books. (The Post bought his first serial for $3500; in 1922, it paid $18,000 for Leave It to Psmith.)

The main facts of his life are these: Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881, the third son of a Hong Kong magistrate. He was sent home to England at the age of two and lived with a succession of relatives; at the age of five he went to boarding-school. Robert McCrum calculates that ‘in total, Wodehouse saw his parents for barely six months between the ages of three and 15.’ After he left Dulwich College, to which he remained deeply attached for the rest of his life, his father got him a job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He worked there for two years and left when he was able to support himself as a writer. His first novel, The Pothunters, was published in 1902. From 1904 onwards he made regular trips to the United States and spent all of the First World War there. He had a long career as a lyricist, his most successful collaboration being with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern: ‘Wodehouse and Bolton and Kern are my favourite indoor sport,’ Dorothy Parker said. In the 1930s he earned vast sums during two short spells as a Hollywood scriptwriter ($2500 a week in 1930; $1500 a week in 1934). His personal life was as uneventful as only that of someone who published more than ninety books in 73 years can be. He married in 1914. He and Ethel had a joint bank account (which Ethel controlled), separate bedrooms, no children and many Pekinese dogs.

Since Wodehouse’s death in 1975 there have been two authorised biographies. Frances Donaldson’s, published in 1982, is warmer about the man than the work. She was a schoolfriend of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter, Leonora. But she was a surprising choice for official biographer after her remarks in a 1967 memoir of Evelyn Waugh: ‘Although I had known Plummie Wodehouse all my life, I had never been able to read his books. I cannot see the point of them.’ Fifteen years later, she was still far from convinced: ‘Women as a whole do not care for masculine fantasy.’

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