Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English comic novelist, who enjoyed enormous popular success during a career of more than 70 years and continues to be widely read. Despite the political and social upheavals that occurred during his life, much of which was spent in France and the United States, Wodehouse's main canvas remained that of prewar English upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful writing career.
An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by modern writers such as Douglas Adams, Salman Rushdie and Terry Pratchett. Sean O'Casey famously called him "English literature's performing flea", a description that Wodehouse used as the title of a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend.
Best known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934) and frequently collaborated with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), wrote the lyrics for the Gershwin - Romberg musical Rosalie (1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928).
Wodehouse, called "Plum by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane) whilst she was visiting Guildford . His father, Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929), was a British judge in Hong Kong. The Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's great-grandfather Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse, was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop, after whom he was named.
When he was just three years old, Wodehouse was brought back to England and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely six months in total. (McCrum, 2004, pp 14-15) Wodehouse grew very close to his brother, who shared his love for art. Wodehouse filled the voids in his life by writing relentlessly. He spent quite a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another; it has been speculated that this gave him a healthy horror of the "gaggle of aunts", reflected in Bertie Wooster's formidable aunts Agatha and Dahlia, as well as Lady Constance Keeble's tyranny over her many nieces and nephews in the Blandings Castle series.
Wodehouse was educated at Dulwich College, where the library is now named after him. He enjoyed his time at Dulwich, where he was successful both as a student and as a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest students) and a School prefect, he edited the college magazine, The Alleynian, sang and acted leading roles in musical and theatrical productions, and gained his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and rugby football First XV; he also represented the school at boxing (until barred by poor eyesight) and his house at athletics.
Wodehouse's elder brother, Armine, had won a classics scholarship to Oxford University (where he gained a first class degree) and Pelham was widely expected to follow in his brother's footsteps, but a fall in the value of the Indian rupee (in which currency his father's pension was expressed) forced him to abandon such plans. His father found him a position with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC), where, after two years' training in London, he would have been posted to an overseas branch. However, Wodehouse was never interested in banking as a career and "never learned a thing about banking". He wrote part-time while working in the bank, and in 1902 became a journalist with The Globe (a now defunct newspaper), taking over the comic column from a friend who had resigned. He contributed regularly to Punch, and wrote stories for schoolboy's magazines (The Captain and Public School Magazine) which were collected together to form his first published novels. During his 1909 stay in Greenwich Village he "sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for a total of $500 - much more than I had ever earned before." He resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York, where he became a regular contributor (under a variety of pseudonyms) to the newly-founded Vanity Fair. However "the wolf was always at the door", and it was not until The Saturday Evening Post serialised Something New in 1915 that he had his "first break." Around this time he began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on (eventually eighteen) musical comedies.
In the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he claimed he was greatly over-paid. Many of his novels were also serialised in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.
Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman in 1914, gaining a stepdaughter, Leonora. He had no biological children, perhaps owing to having contracted mumps as a young man.
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he shared his time between England and the United States. In 1934, he took up residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the US. He was also profoundly uninterested in politics and world affairs. When World War II broke out in 1939 he remained at his seaside home in Le Touquet, France, instead of returning to England, apparently failing to recognise the seriousness of the conflict. He was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and interned by them for a year, first in Belgium, then at Tost (now Toszek) in Upper Silesia (now in Poland). He is recorded as saying, "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like..."
While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. After being released from internment, a few months short of his 60th birthday, he used these dialogues as a basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America (then not at war) that the Germans tricked him into making from Berlin. Wodehouse believed he would be admired as showing himself to have ‘kept a stiff upper lip’ during his internment. Wartime England was in no mood for light-hearted banter, however, and the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaboration with the Nazis and even treason. Some libraries banned his books. Foremost among his critics was A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh books; Wodehouse got revenge by creating a ridiculous character named Timothy Bobbin, who starred in parodies of some of Milne's children's poetry. Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. An investigation by the British security service MI5 concurred with Orwell's opinion, concluding that Wodehouse was naive and foolish but not a traitor. Documents declassified in the 1980s revealed that while living in Paris, his living expenses were paid by the Nazis. However papers released by the British Public Record Office in 1999 showed these had been accounted for by MI5 investigators when establishing Wodehouse's innocence.
The criticism led Wodehouse and his wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from Leonora, who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became an American citizen in 1955 and never returned to his homeland, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, Long Island.
In 2000, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize was established and named in his honour; it is given annually for the finest example in the UK of comic writing.
Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote:
In the same article, Wodehouse names some contemporary humorists whom he held in high regard. These include Frank Sullivan, A. P. Herbert, and Alex Atkinson. Two essays in Tales of St. Austin’s satirize modern literary criticism; “The Tom Brown Question” is a parody of Homeric analysts, and “Notes” criticizes both classical and English critics, with an ironic exception for those explicating the meaning of Browning. In “Work,” Wodehouse calls the claim that “Virgil is hard,” “a shallow falsehood,” but notes that “Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon.” Shakespeare and Tennyson were also obvious influences; their works were the only books Wodehouse brought with him in his internment. Wodehouse also seems to have enjoyed the traditional English thriller; in the 1960s he gave important praise for the debut novels of Gavin Lyall and George MacDonald Fraser. In later life, he read mysteries by Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout, and unfailingly watched the soap opera The Edge of Night.
Wodehouse's characters, however, were not always popular with the establishment, notably the foppish foolishness of Bertie Wooster. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for the Order of the Companions of Honour, Sir Patrick Dean, the British ambassador in Washington, argued that it "would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."
Wodehouse's characters are often eccentric, with peculiar attachments, such as to pigs (Lord Emsworth), newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle), or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted schemes to improve a bad situation.
Wodehouse's aristocrats, however, embody many of the comic attributes that characterize buffoons. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upper class give rise to plot complications.
Relatives, especially aunts and uncles, are commonly depicted with an exaggerated power to help or impede marriage or financial prospects, or simply to make life miserable. Friends are often more a trouble than a comfort in Wodehouse stories: the main character is typically being placed in a most painful situation just to please a friend. Antagonists (particularly rivals in love) are frequently terrifying and just as often get their comeuppance in a delicious fashion.
Policemen and magistrates are typically portrayed as threatening, yet easy to fool, often through the simple expedient of giving a false name. A recurring motif is the theft of policemen's helmets.
In a manner going back to the stock characters of Roman comedy (such as Plautus), Wodehouse's servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes. It recurs elsewhere, such as the efficient (though despised) Baxter, secretary to the befogged Lord Emsworth.
Although his plots are on the surface formulaic, Wodehouse's genius lies in the tangled layers of comedic complications that the characters must endure to reach the invariable happy ending. Typically, a relative or friend makes some demand that forces a character into a bizarre situation from which it seems impossible to recover, only to resolve itself in a clever and satisfying finale. The layers pile up thickly in the longer works, with a character getting into multiple dangerous situations by mid-story. An outstanding example of this is The Code of the Woosters where most of the chapters have an essential plot point reversed in the last sentence, catapulting the characters forward into greater diplomatic disasters.
Engagements are a common theme in Wodehouse stories. A man may be unable to become engaged to the woman he loves due to some impediment. Just as often, he becomes unwillingly, or even accidentally, engaged to a woman he does not love and needs to find some back-door way out other than breaking it off directly (which goes against a gentleman's code of honour). A case in point is Freddie in Something Fresh, where his engagement to Miss Peters apparently broke off after she eloped with George Emerson. A very sad situation of a girl choosing a spirited man instead of her dim witted fiancé was cleverly made light-hearted by showing how Freddie could not care less, as he was more interested in meeting the revered writer of detective stories, Ashe Marson, and so on.
Assumed identities and resulting confusion are particularly common in the Blandings books.
Gambling often plays a large role in Wodehouse plots, typically with someone manipulating the outcome of the wager.
Another subject which features strongly in Wodehouse's plots is alcohol, and many plots revolve around the tipsiness of a major character. It is clear that Wodehouse himself was fond of a tipple, and he enumerated what many people consider as the definitive list of hangovers: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. Furthermore, he makes several references to a drink called the "May Queen", described by Uncle Fred as "any good dry champagne, to which is added liqueur brandy, armagnac, kümmel, yellow liqueur, and old stout, to taste", which inspires several characters to acts of daring, such as proposing to their true loves.
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in a career spanning from 1902 to 1975. His works include novels, collections of short stories, and a musical comedy. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by "series", being:
Considering the extent of his success, there have been comparatively few adaptations of Wodehouse's works. He was reluctant to allow others to adapt the Jeeves stories:
"One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip". But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book." (from Wodehouse's introduction to the compilation The World of Jeeves, 1967)
Doing his own adaptations for film did not attract him either. He had been retained by MGM in 1930 but little used: "They paid me $2,000 a week.... Yet apparently they had the greatest difficulty in finding anything for me to do.". He returned to MGM in 1937 to work on the screenplay of Rosalie, but even though he was now being paid $2,500 a week and living luxuriously in Hollywood, he said "I'm not enjoying life much just now. I don't like doing pictures.
However, he formed a warm working relationship with Ian Hay, who adapted A Damsel in Distress as a stage play in 1928, with Hay, Wodehouse and A. A. Milne all investing in the production. Wodehouse and Hay holidayed together in Scotland, finding "a lot of interests in common". Wodehouse went on to help dramatise Hay's story Baa Baa Black Sheep in 1929, and in 1930 they co-wrote the stage version of Leave it to Psmith.
Wodehouse wrote the screenplay for the musical film A Damsel in Distress released in 1937, starring Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. A 1962 film adaptation of The Girl On The Boat starred Norman Wisdom, Millicent Martin and Richard Briers.
Both the Blandings and Jeeves stories have been adapted as BBC television series: the Jeeves series has been adapted for television twice, once in the 1960s (for the BBC), with the title World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster, and Dennis Price as Jeeves—and again in the 1990s (by Granada Television for ITV), with the title Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. David Niven and Arthur Treacher also starred as Bertie and Jeeves, respectively, in a short 1930s film that was a very loose adaptation of Thank You, Jeeves, and Treacher played Jeeves without Bertie in an original sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves.
In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical, originally titled Jeeves. In 1996, it was rewritten as the more successful By Jeeves, which made it to Broadway, and a performance recorded as a video film, also shown on TV.
There was also a series of BBC adaptations of various short works, mostly from the Mulliner series, under the title of Wodehouse Playhouse starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, which aired starting in 1975. The first series was introduced by Wodehouse himself, which was extraordinary considering he was 93 at the time and died the year the TV series started.
Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud, and its sequel Arthur II: On the Rocks, were also an adaptation of the characters of Bertie and Jeeves, although not officially acknowledged, and many of the lines and incidents from the movie, including the main plot involving an engagement, were directly influenced by Wodehouse's characters.
Wodehouse's involvement with film and television from around the world is chronicled in Brian Taves, P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires, and Adaptations (McFarland, 2006).
Wodehouse's work contains a number of recurring protagonists, narrators and principal characters, including:
Certain of Wodehouse's less central characters are particularly well-known, despite being less critical elements of his works as a whole.