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WODEHOUSE by Robert McCrum

WODEHOUSE

A Life

By Robert McCrum

Pub Date: Nov. 29th, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-05159-5
Publisher: Norton

A graceful biography of the most British of all humorous novelists.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881–1975) was born at the height of the Victorian era to middle-class colonial administrators who left their children in the care of a nanny in England and barely saw them during their childhood. Wodehouse compensated, McCrum argues convincingly, as a youth by throwing himself cheerfully into the hierarchical world of the English boarding school, as an adult by throwing himself into work. Fortunately for readers around the world, his work turned out to be the creation of a series of brilliant comic archetypes: first, Psmith and Ukbridge, then the immortal manservant Jeeves and his foolish but sweet employer, Bertie Wooster, in a series of novels anchored in the secure Edwardian world of Plum’s young manhood. (His lively lyrics for Broadway’s pioneering Princess Theatre musicals, and his long-term sojourn in America, are also given their due.) Wodehouse put his foot wrong only once, when as a resident in occupied France he was interned by the Nazis during WWII and foolishly agreed to several radio interviews that forever tarnished his reputation and prompted charges of treason in his besieged homeland. British publisher/author McCrum (My Year Off, 1998, etc.) doesn’t gloss over the appalling lack of political sense that embroiled Wodehouse in this public relations disaster, concluding that “the moral test with which Wodehouse was confronted in June 1941 was one that was beyond him”—obsessed as always with the need to work and the desire to please his audience. But he judges his subject gently, backed up by no less an authority than George Orwell, as a duffer rather than a traitor who paid the price in declining sales and dismissal as the bard of a vanished age after the war. His biographer captures the warmth and charm of a man who wanted only to amuse, who loved his party-girl wife and his Pekinese dogs and his daily exercise.

A bit long, but a fitting tribute to one of the great purveyors of light—though not insubstantial—entertainment.