He was dubbed Plum by his friends, caused a kerfluffle in the MI5 and amongst his heretofore adoring British public during WWII due to his apparent early naiveté regarding the Germans' malevolent true intentions and crafted some of the most enduring and unique works of English comic literature yet written. His adherents and defenders have run the gamut from Rudyard Kipling to Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams to George Orwell, and even–Right ho!–the fan-fiction cabal of Weird Tales magazine and H.P. Lovecraft aficionados. Sir Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse's persistent popularity on contemporary comic prose, and what it meant to be English, in a certain way, at a certain time, has never (like the music of Cole Porter, with whom he worked on the legendary Broadway musical Anything Goes) gone out of style, or for that matter, print. (Here it should be noted that A.A. Milne, of all people, loathed Woodhouse. Et tu, Pooh?)
Now, Wodehouse's epistolary output has finally been collected in a sweeping, 600-page volume that reveals the author's penchant for punning, childlike charm aided and abetted by a brilliant metaphorical mindset, a near-lethal rapier wit when it came to his critics, and, above all, his unswerving, perpetually stiff Brit lip. Letters to luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ira Gershwin, and Evelyn Waugh reveal, among much else, his distaste for Hollywood (which came calling in 1937, via George Stevens’ adaptation of Wodehouse's play A Damsel in Distress) and his borderline jejune appraisal of the looming Nazi threat as late at 1939, while the author and his wife Ethel resided in Paris. He never fully recovered from the loss of his step-daughter Leonora–she died while he was interned in a German POW camp–and Wodehouse eventually left the UK behind in the mid-1950s for a presumably less snippy and more intellectually potent New York.
Speaking about her introduction to Wodehouse, Sophie Ratcliffe (pictured above), a professor at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and the editor of P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, was 14 years old when she first encountered Wodehouse. She was looking at the top of her family’s bookshelf. “I think I was trying to find something rude because I'd recently found Lady Chatterley's Lover up there,” she recalls, “and felt there might be something else really racy."
What she discovered, instead, was an orange paperback titled The Inimitable Jeeves. “I took it out into the garden and just read it and thought it was amazing, utterly brilliant,” she says. “I ran back in to my mother and asked her if she had read it. She hadn't, but she told me it had belonged to my father, who had died the year before, and that he had really loved Wodehouse. So that was my first experience with Wodehouse, really."
Ratcliffe's childhood infatuation with Bertie, Jeeves, and eventually all things Plummy eventually led her to Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum's Wodehouse: A Life. McCrum had recently uncovered a trove of the author's letters and emailed Ratcliffe, saying he was “looking for a younger scholar to take on the job and would I be interested?" Ratcliffe was, and the project was drawn largely from a vast collection known as The Wodehouse Archive (although "the really juicy, interesting stuff was sort of scattered all over the place, in private collections and in library archives, most of which are in America," Ratcliffe explains). She adds that "the internet and some very persistent Googling" were also involved. The project eventually ran to six years and the births of Ratcliffe's two children.
"There are very few writers who manage to create literary characters who can kind of live free of their works,” Ratcliffe explains. “There's something that frees certain characters and that allows them to take on an almost kind of iconic status, not least of all Jeeves, who ended up on a kind of search engine.
"Possibly Wodehouse provided a sort of shorthand of what it means to be English," Ratcliffe adds. "Not particularly English now, but a certain sort of character of Englishness. And it's not really England, but a sort of strange, alternative reality England."
Perhaps not unlike the current Anglophilic turn televised pop culture has taken of late, particularly in America, where deeply British icons Doctor Who, Sherlock [Holmes, of course], and, going back a ways, John Cleese's harried and hapless Basil Fawlty have all touched, in their own distinct fashions, on a certain sort of Wodehouse-ian Englishness.
"I think the nearest analogy might be [Ricky Gervais’ original version of] The Office," Ratcliffe posits. "Really good sitcoms work on what happens when you disturb some nuance of a world which would otherwise seem quite banal. For me, that's really like Wodehouse's interest in structure and structure gone wrong. Wodehouse plays most of the time with structures in country houses and how they get turned upside down by the loss of a pig, or in the breaking of convention, when, for instance, Bingo Little wants to marry a waitress.” Wodehouse loved to turn institutions upside down, lower class and upper class, in this case. “Shakespeare did it with the pastoral,” she says. “I think that's what intrigues us: learning all these minute details and then seeing them all fall apart."
For the past 20 years, Marc Savlov has covered film, books, music, and pretty much everything else for The Austin Chronicle. Currently on a year-long sabbatical, he's trekking around Southeast Asia as you read this, fighting tigers, fending off box jellyfish, and exploring the myriad forgotten and ghost-haunted movie palaces of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Follow his patently punk rock and decidedly un-Jeeves-like adventures at http://astroboy1966.tumblr.com and www.sickwrong.com.