The wonderfully talented and impossibly prolific P. G. Wodehouse was born 134 years ago today in Guildford, 27 miles southwest of central London. He was educated at Dulwich College (as was Raymond Chandler, as it happens) and after a short stint working at a bank, he turned to writing humorous fiction, a change in direction for which readers around the world should be eternally grateful.
P. G. Wodehouse’s best-remembered characters are the affable but dim upper-cruster Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, but he created many other memorable and recurring characters, among them Psmith, Lord Emsworth and Mr Mulliner.
In the early 1900s, he composed lyrics for songs Jerome Kern was writing for shows at London’s Aldwych Theatre. A decade later, he achieved success on Broadway in collaboration with writer Guy Bolton and a number of composers, including Kern.
The 1930s saw Wodehouse achieve his greatest success as a writer, but because he was splitting his time between England and the United States, he had tax troubles, which he solved by moving to a house near Le Touquet, France. As the Germans advanced through northern France the spring of 1940, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, tried to drive to Portugal, from which they intended to fly to the United States, but they experienced car trouble and had to return to their home.
Wodehouse was imprisoned by the Nazis, first in a prison near Lille, and later in Tost (then in Germany, now known as Toszek in Poland). Public pressure was put on the Nazis to release Wodehouse but to no avail. His internment lasted until June 21 1941, not long before his sixtieth birthday, when he was sent to the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Soon thereafter, Wodehouse perhaps unwisely took part in five broadcasts to the United States via German radio, along with the the Berlin-based correspondent of the Columbia Broadcast System. Wodehouse seems to have seen these broadcasts as something of a lark—they were humorous commentaries entitled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training—but many in England and elsewhere saw Wodehouse as collaborating with the enemy and the broadcasts created quite an uproar.
Wodehouse tried to return to England to repair the damage and explain his participation in the broadcasts, but he was not allowed to leave Berlin. He later wrote, “Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn’t. I suppose prison life saps the intellect.”
The Wodehouses didn’t manage to leave German until September 1943, when they were allowed to go to Nazi-occupied Paris. They were residing there when the city was liberated on August 25, 1944. Finally, in April 1947, they sailed for New York. They felt oddly uncomfortable in New York City, a town that had suited them well in earlier decades, and eventually made their home in Southhampton on Long Island. Though Ethel returned at least once to England, in 1948, P. G. remained in the U.S. after 1947 and he never again set foot in England.
In 1975, it was announced that Wodehouse was to be awarded knighthood, in the same honours list as Charlie Chaplin. All was finally forgiven.
Thankfully, P. G. Wodehouse is remembered today for his wonderful work, not his wartime missteps. He wrote upwards of ninety books, forty plays, two hundred short stories and other works between 1902 and 1974. He died of a heart attack on Valentine’s Day, 1975, in a Southhampton hospital.
Happy birthday, Mr. Wodehouse, wherever you may be, and what ho!