PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited, By Sophie Ratcliffe

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The Independent Culture

In her perceptive introduction, Sophie Ratcliffe explains why this scrupulously edited collection has appeared some 36 years after the writer's death at the age of 93. "The delay comes in part from Wodehouse's unusual place in the English canon... he has been simply enjoyed rather than studied."

Yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that lingering resentment over Wodehouse's wartime broadcasts may also have retarded an epistolary accolade. The greatest comic writer of the 20th century only received his knighthood "in a mock ceremony" on Long Island a few days before his death. The site that was briefly his childhood home at 62 Croxted Road, Dulwich, still lacks a blue plaque.

As with Robert McCrum's fine biography, the narrative is more amiable than enthralling until it gains a galvanic impetus from Wodehouse's moment of what he later described as "criminal madness". Those are the pages that you turn with rapt attention though fans will be absorbed by Wodehouse's breezy bulletins both before and after. The early letters remind you of his early fame and (far more important to him) fortune. His spell in the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, where he was despatched by his father instead of longed-for Oxford, proved to be as brief and fruitful as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory.

Ratcliffe notes that Wodehouse benefited from starting writing in 1901 when "print made its way into everyone's lives", but he was also blessed with a relentless and fertile talent. An extended quotation from an amusing Punch article in 1904 suggests there is treasure still to be unearthed. By 1909, he wrote from America announcing his ambition to an English friend with a rare, if telling immodesty: "I want to butt into the big league."

He managed this with astonishing rapidity both as humorous writer and Broadway lyricist. In a bizarre presaging of things to come, he was crossing the Atlantic on a German liner when war was declared in 1914.

As success piled on success for the man who called himself "a writing machine", Wodehouse accumulated celebrity acquaintances while tending old friendships by mail. Unfortunately for posterity, his geniality prevented him making any but the mildest criticism. In 1923 he noted that his Long Island neighbour Scott Fitzgerald was "a very nice chap indeed" barring his "scrubby chin, looking perfectly foul".

By 1932, he was "seeing a lot of Maurice Chevalier. Not a bad chap but rather a ham." He also liked HG Wells but when he discovered "TWO LOVERS BUILT THIS HOUSE" carved over the fireplace at Wells's home, he briskly appropriated the phrase for Code of the Woosters, substituting "nest" for "house".

"No war in our lifetime is my feeling," Wodehouse wrote to England in April 1939 from his home in Le Touquet before concluding, "Wonder [his Pekinese] and the pup are now great friends." An unwillingness to leave their beloved pets was a major factor that kept Wodehouse and his wife Ethel in France.

When war was declared, his blasé response ("They all say there is going to be a boom in books") becomes all the more astonishing when you learn he was devouring Churchill's books. "What strikes me most about them is what mugs the Germans were to take us on again."

When "the mugs" invaded France, the couple finally decided to evacuate but their car broke down "less than two miles from home". Two months later, Wodehouse was interned in Silesia ("really great fun"), where he completed Joy in the Morning, one of the finest Jeeves books. Whisked to Berlin, Wodehouse agreed to give a series of light-hearted radio broadcasts about life in the internment camp. Ratcliffe maintains they were "resistant satire". Wodehouse might have got away with his excuse that the talks offered a chance to respond to admirers in still-neutral America if he hadn't provided an introduction when the talks were re-broadcast to Britain.

German friends made him realise that "it was an insane thing". After the war, an investigation absolved him of guilt but it was never made public. Despite the defence mounted by Malcolm Muggeridge and George Orwell, Wodehouse never returned to Britain. Once restored to Long Island, his output regained its former vigour. Though concerned that it was "a waste of time to write about butlers" in the age of austerity, his sole concession was to change a luxurious breakfast of fried eggs to sardines in Joy in the Morning.

His correspondence also resumed, though in more unbuttoned mood. Wodehouse, who turned prudish with age ("Peyton Place is the filthiest thing ever penned"), would have been aghast at the inclusion of his risqué joke on page 420. The penultimate letter gives the recipe for Jeeves's celebrated morning-after restorative but this relishable collection will work equally well.