P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Norton, 602 pp., $35.00
Two great English writers, both born in 1903 and not so dissimilar in background, stood far apart in their work and their beliefs: George Orwell the socialist agnostic essayist (and novelist) and Evelyn Waugh the conservative Catholic novelist (and essayist). But they knew one another—Waugh visited Orwell in the sanatorium where he was dying—and they admired each other. At the time of his death Orwell was planning an essay on Waugh, with the faintly condescending theme that he was as good a writer as it was now possible to be while holding intolerable opinions, and in 1946 Waugh admiringly reviewed the first collection of Orwell’s essays.
A further link between the two was their shared fascination with another writer a generation older, about whom they corresponded, and whom they both discussed in print at some length. Orwell’s essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” was originally published in July 1945, when its subject thanked Orwell:
It was extraordinarily kind of you to write like that when you did not know me and I shall never forget it…. It was a masterly bit of work and I agree with every word of it.
Waugh commended the essay, although he took issue with some of its points. And years later, to celebrate Wodehouse’s eightieth birthday in 1961, although also on the twentieth anniversary of another broadcast, Waugh gave a talk on BBC radio entitled “An Act of Homage and Reparation.”
A “defence,” and perhaps a “reparation,” had become necessary after the most—or indeed only—dramatic event in the life of that wonderfully gifted and prolific writer but strange and mystifying personality. In 1939, Wodehouse was fifty-eight and at the height of his fame and fortune. His books were widely read in many countries, while he had made very successful further careers in American popular entertainment. But he also enjoyed, to a most unusual degree for a light-hearted farceur, the esteem of serious writers, scholars, and statesmen: Orwell and Waugh apart, his admirers have ranged from Asquith, Belloc, and Wittgenstein to Auden, Aldous Huxley, Lionel Trilling, and Garry Wills. His tales of Psmith and Ukridge, of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, of Lord Emsworth and Mr. Mulliner, written in exquisite fantastical prose, were relished both by those who read nothing else and those who read everything.
That summer Wodehouse went to Oxford to receive an honorary doctorate, which was particularly gratifying (“apparently a biggish honour,” he said in his unassuming way) forty years after he had longed, but been unable, to go there as an undergraduate. After the academic ceremony in June he returned to Le Touquet, on the French side of the Channel, where he and his wife Ethel had made their home since 1935, a resort the English then tended to associate with golf and adultery, although it was…
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George Orwell was born on this day 1903.
Best known as the author of dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’.
The background to this story has been covered in much detail elsewhere.*
Before the start of the Second World War, P.G. Wodehouse was living in France. When the German Army invaded, he was among those captured and interned — in a succession of prison camps, from Belgium to Upper Silesia. He continued to write throughout his internment, and read his light-hearted camp diary aloud for the amusement of his fellow internees.
The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye.
We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.
(Wodehouse’s Second Berlin Broadcast)
Wodehouse was released in June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, and deposited at the Albion hotel in Berlin. While staying there, he met an old acquaintance, Werner Plack, whom he’d known during his stint as a writer in Hollywood. It was Plack who encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts to fans in America (which had not yet entered the war) about his recent experience.
It seemed like a good idea to Wodehouse at the time. The talks made light of his experiences, in keeping with the British tradition of humour in the face of adversity.
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long weekend.
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Few people in Britain ever heard the broadcasts, but the ferocious public condemnation that followed was sufficient to convince many people that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser and traitor.
After the war, MI5 and British Foreign Office officials investigated the matter and agreed that Wodehouse had no case to answer. One British Foreign Office official noted:
I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that ‘L’affaire Wodehouse’ was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.
Sadly, the facts surrounding the broadcasts and findings of the MI5 investigation were never made public during Wodehouse’s lifetime, and even today some people find it difficult to shake their mistaken ideas about Wodehouse, or to report the matter with accuracy.
Writing in 1946, Orwell was certainly unaware of the full facts, and he had not heard or seen a transcript of the broadcasts. He unwittingly relies on misrepresented accounts of Wodehouse’s experience. For example, Orwell refers to “German officers in the neighbourhood frequently ‘dropping in for a bath or a party’” in the period immediately before Wodehouse’s internment.
With the full transcripts available to us, we can read Wodehouse’s remarks in context and understand there was no such party:
One’s reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternise and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is “Es ist schönes Wetter”, I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.
I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys. It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Orwell may have been misled on some of the details, and I don’t agree with all of the points he makes, but his analysis demonstrates a sound knowledge of Wodehouse’s work, along with Orwell’s usual political astuteness.
In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later – and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery – is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats – police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers – are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse – just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed.
George Orwell: In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse
The following references / further reading are highly recommended to anyone wishing to better understand this chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s life.
*Summary of the wartime controversy and full transcripts of the broadcasts
Wodehouse At War by Ian Sproat (1981)
Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum (2004)