Two things stand out when discussing Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE. First, he was single-mindedly devoted to his craft—a workaholic—and second, he was, by any measure, unworldly. His views on the threat of an impending war with Germany were invariably off the mark. Despite Hitler’s rejection of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in April 1939, Wodehouse was adamant “that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present”. And again:
Anyway, no war in our lifetime is my feeling. I don’t think wars start with months of preparation in the way of slanging matches. When you get a sort of brooding peace, as in 1914, when a spark lights the [powder] magazine, that’s when you get a war. Nowadays, I feel that the nations just take it out in blowing off steam.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Yet he was full of praise for Winston Churchill’s anti-Nazi broadcasts on the BBC: “I can’t help feeling we’re being a bit too gentlemanly. Someone ought to get up in Parliament and call Hitler a swine.”
Wodehouse’s own war began in the French coastal resort of Le Touquet in May 1940. He was approaching sixty and had published forty-five of his ever-increasingly popular novels as well as eighteen collections of short stories. The property at Le Touquet had been his principal address since 1934. The day before his war began, he had worked on a new novel, taken a few breaks to feed an absent neighbour’s pet parrot, walked out with his own tribe of dogs, and tended to a stray cat that had just produced kittens. That was a typical Wodehouse day.
The swiftness of Germany’s advance into northern France took everybody by surprise, and when it became imperative to leave Le Touquet, Wodehouse and his wife Edith botched it. Their motor vehicle performed so badly on roads that were already cluttered with evacuees on foot that they decided there was no choice but to return home. This meant they would soon be trapped behind enemy lines, and already they could hear the distant battle taking place in Boulogne.
Initially, the German intrusion into Le Touquet was benign. Wodehouse later related:
The first time you see a German soldier in your garden, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. But this feeling of embarrassment soon passes … in the end familiarity so breeds indifference that you are able to sustain without a tremor the spectacle of men in steel helmets riding around your lawn on bicycles and even that two or three of them have dropped in and are taking a bath in your bathroom.
The male inhabitants of Le Touquet who had remained behind were to report daily to a Kommandant set up in a local hotel, and this continued until July. A decision was then made that all Englishmen under the age of sixty were to be interned. So, when a contingent of German soldiers arrived at the Wodehouse home and gave its owner ten minutes to pack some things, he obligingly did so. Tobacco, several pipes, notepads, pencils, a pair of shoes, a razor, soap, half a pound of tea, a Complete Works of Shakespeare (he read the Complete Works every year) and a volume of Alfred Tennyson’s poems were shoved into a bag. In the rush, the manuscript of his novel in progress (Joy in the Morning) was left behind. He also forgot to take his passport.
The internees were taken sixty miles away to the city of Lille. Here Wodehouse was registered as “Widhorse” and shared Cell 44 with two others, a retired stage comic and a piano tuner. Before the group were transferred to a squalid Belgian barracks in Liège, a German soldier sidled up to Wodehouse to thank him for creating his hyper-clever manservant, Jeeves. The stay at Liège was short. The next stop was a purpose-built prison at Huy where “Widhorse” transmogrified into “Whitehouse”. Here, the men did little else but endlessly parade, a practice which encouraged one wag to announce: “When the war is over, if I have any money, I’m going to buy a German and keep him in the garden and count him!”
Next stop was a converted lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia, where Wodehouse made a note: “If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?” He cannot have known that the complex of camps known collectively as Auschwitz were close by.
Wodehouse was incarcerated here for ten months until June 1941. He and his fellow prisoners kept their spirits up with the usual camp camaraderie and endless ping-pong. Late in 1940, Wodehouse’s literary agent, Paul Reynolds, received a note written on a plain card from his client under his new persona, Gefangennummer 796. The Upper Silesian camp had become known as Ilag VIII and the message read:
Goodness knows when you will get this. Will you send me a five-pound parcel, one pound Prince Albert tobacco, the rest nut chocolate. Repeat monthly. Am quite happy here and have thought out a new novel.
Wodehouse had also taken to amusing himself and his fellow prisoners by writing humorous accounts of camp life, which he read aloud to his appreciative audience.
The camp’s Lagerfuhrer, Commander Buchelt, was keenly aware of Wodehouse’s international fame, as well as the fact that the wider world had taken an interest in the writer’s plight after Reynolds had managed to get prisoner 796’s note published in the December issue of Time magazine. Buchelt had made every effort to make his celebrity author comfortable, and this extended to the use of a camp typewriter. Indeed, it was a meeting in Buchelt’s office in May 1941, on the pretext of discussing the continued use of the typewriter, that would ultimately have dire consequences for Wodehouse. At this meeting he agreed to the notion of making broadcasts to America. The purpose of these was to suggest that essentially the Germans were not such a bad bunch and that innocent parties such as Wodehouse and his fellow inmates had little to fear.
It sounded like an innocent proposal to the naive Wodehouse, who also saw the broadcasts as potentially giving him a chance to acknowledge his copious fan mail as a result of the Time article (and by now the New York Times had taken up his cause as well). George Orwell, in his essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” (1945), put it succinctly: from Wodehouse’s standpoint “the main idea … was to keep in touch with his public and—the comedian’s ruling passion—to get a laugh”.
Having agreed to the proposal, Wodehouse was released from Ilag VIII a month later. He was whisked away during an internee cricket match (when he was halfway through bowling an over) and hurried by two Gestapo flunkies onto the night train to Berlin, where he was accommodated in the city’s best hotel. Wodehouse tried to convince himself that he had been released as a result of turning sixty.
The five recorded broadcasts as well as the CBS interview that preceded them proved catastrophic for Wodehouse’s international reputation. Wodehouse’s biographer, Robert McCrum, puts it plainly. Here was Wodehouse, “in a luxury hotel in the heart of Nazi Germany, eager to avoid the hardship of life in Britain, unconcerned about England’s fate, and posing as an American”. The net effect was that he “came across as cowardly, disloyal and selfish”.
The truth was that Wodehouse had been blind to the implications of his new situation. Worse still, he appeared ignorant of the scale of Germany’s misdeeds. To put it bluntly, his tunnel vision never allowed him to think that he could be seen as a Nazi collaborator. He was also unaware that the German Ministry of Propaganda had formed a special radio department. This meant that his “live” broadcasts could be repeatedly aired and worse still made available to English audiences as well as the American audiences for whom they had originally been intended.
His fellow internees may have got this wry humour—“There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You get a lot of sleep”—or laughed out loud—“I was strolling on the lawn with my wife one morning, when she lowered her voice and said ‘Don’t look now, but here comes the German army’.” But the rest of the world, and the English in particular, were not in the mood.
England’s Daily Mirror reacted with venom: “great acres of London, Coventry, Liverpool and other cities had been flattened by his Hunnish hosts”. Bill Townend, a lifelong friend, his most faithful advocate, and perhaps the person who knew Wodehouse best, was forced to acknowledge:
The trouble with P.G. is that he has always lived in a kind of unpractical dream, taking little interest in anything save … his stories, his home … his dogs, his family, his plays, and—I have to add—his earnings.
In Parliament, Anthony Eden accused Wodehouse of being a German propagandist, and Quintin Hogg went further and labelled him a traitor. The feisty journalist William Cooper, in a controversial BBC broadcast, explained to his listeners:
I have come here to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale—that of his own country. It is a sombre story of honour pawned to the Nazis for the price of a soft bed in a luxury hotel. It is the record of P.G. Wodehouse ending forty years of money-making fun with the worst joke he ever made in his life.
Some British libraries withdrew their Wodehouse holdings, pulped them, and placed bans on future acquisitions. The BBC announced that it would no longer broadcast anything associated with his stories or song lyrics.
When Wodehouse was finally permitted to leave Germany for Paris in the autumn of 1943, it fell upon a young MI6 liaison officer, Malcolm Muggeridge, to inform him of the possible consequences of his error of judgment. Muggeridge was captivated by Wodehouse and observed a man:
ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict. He just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone … such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen in the mid-twentieth century.
The British interrogatory report simply found: “A jury would find difficulty in convicting him of an intention to assist the enemy.”
While in Paris, however, registered under another erroneous title, this time “Monsieur Wodenhorse”, he was arrested by the French on the assumption that he had been a traitor. And though he was soon released, the opinion of him in England was reflected by the comments of Winston Churchill:
We would prefer not ever to hear about him again … His name stinks here, but he would not be sent to prison. However, if there is no other resort, he should be sent over here and if there is no charge against him, he can live secluded in some place or go to hell as soon as there is a vacant passage.
Consequently, Wodehouse spent the rest of his life in America, where he became a citizen in 1955. A New Yorker columnist, Frank Sullivan, quipped that this seemed like a fair exchange for T.S. Eliot and Henry James. Not until 1965 was he assured that there would be no proceedings against him should he choose to return “home”. He never did, but he was knighted in the British New Year’s Honours List of 1975 at the age of ninety-four—six weeks before his death.
The reality of Wodehouse’s prolonged stay in Berlin was, in his own words, as follows:
Get up, do my Daily Dozen [his exercises], bathe, shave, breakfast, take dog for saunter [this was after wife Ethel and the remaining family pet had been reunited with him], start work. Work till lunch. After lunch, the exercise walk, resuming work at five. Work from five till eight. Go down to dinner, back to my room to read or else walk round and round the corridors of my floor, thinking. Except when we went to lunch with an English or American friend, this programme never varied. I seldom spoke to a German. Occasionally one would come up to our table and say he liked my books and I would be civil, but that was all.
In a letter of explanation to the British Foreign Office in 1942, Wodehouse described the broadcasts as “a series of purely humorous and frivolous reminiscences”, the sort of thing, he said, that had he been in England might have appeared in Punch. In a letter to Reynolds—after more negative fallout from an article Wodehouse had written for America’s Saturday Evening Post, expressing sentiments in line with the Berlin broadcasts—he said that he felt he was merely “doing something mildly courageous and praiseworthy in showing that it was possible, even though in a prison camp, to keep one’s end up and not bellyache”.
His writing was always his primary concern. He could still boast to the Post’s editor, Wesley Stout, that his “Art” was “flourishing like the family of an Australian rabbit” and further:
I have in my desk, complete to the last comma, a Jeeves novel called Joy in the Morning—and when I say a Jeeves novel, I mean the supreme Jeeves novel of all time. This is the one I was writing when I was interned, and I have now been able to finish it.
He had also completed the gangster novel Money in the Bank during his internment by the Germans and put together much of Uncle Dynamite while detained by the French police. His ability to churn out fiction was indefatigable.
While Bertie Wooster makes the poignant observation in Joy in the Morning—“I doubt if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself”—McCrum argues that, in this novel, “a more brilliant example of Wodehouse’s literary escapism is hard to find”. Bertie Wooster—holed up in the backwater of Steeple Bumpleigh with an ex-fiancée, her irritable father and irritating brother and her new betrothed, “Stilton” Cheesewright—becomes embroiled in a romance involving Zenobia “Nobby” Hopwood and her intended, George “Boko” Fittleworth. It is a diplomatic nightmare that, of course, only the inimitable Jeeves can adequately deal with.
There was never any chance of Wodehouse’s private life imposing on his work. He wrote to Townend on this topic years earlier with reference to Shakespeare:
a thing I can never understand is why all the critics seem to assume that his plays are a reflection of his personal moods and dictated by the circumstances of his private life. You know the sort of thing I mean. They say “Timon of Athens is a gloomy bit of work. That means Shakespeare was having a lousy time when he wrote it.” I can’t see it. Do you find that your private life affects your work? I don’t.
Of Joy in the Morning, eventually published in 1946, the New York Times Book Review said: “Maybe Wodehouse uses the same plot over and over again. Whatever he does, it’s moderately wonderful, a ray of pale English sunshine in a grey world.” It closed with a comment Wodehouse thought “terrific”:
There is, of course, the question of Mr Wodehouse’s “war guilt”. Upon mature post-war reflection, it turned out to be about equal to the war guilt of the dachshunds which were stoned by super-heated patriots during World War I.
Wodehouse was enough of a writer for T.S. Eliot to confess that he took a stance only “this side of idolatry”. Evelyn Waugh was less restrained: “One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes on each page.” Ludwig Wittgenstein thought Honeysuckle Cottage (1927) the funniest thing he had ever read, and Christopher Hitchens called Wodehouse “the gold standard of English wit”.
Some Wodehouse jokes never found their way into the books, however. He offered a gem in a 1948 letter to fellow writer Guy Bolton. A clergyman is doing a crossword puzzle on a railway journey and is perplexed over his answer to 15 Across. He consults a colleague seated opposite:
“15 Across—‘Appertaining to the female sex’? Something–U–N–T?”
“Ah, yes, of course,” replies the clergyman. “I say, have you an eraser?”
- Transcripts of Wodehouse’s Berlin broadcasts can be found via the five links at the foot of this pgwodehousebooks page
Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor on literature and history, lives in Geelong