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Wodehouse, P. G.

The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction

Sandra Kemp,

Charlotte Mitchell,

David Trotter

Wodehouse, P. G. [ Pelham Grenville Wodehouse] 

(1881–1975), KBE (1975), married (1914) Ethel Rowley née Newton (d. 1984).

Born in London, the son of a Hong Kong magistrate and a sister of Mary Deane, Wodehouse was sent home to England aged 2 because of the climate (like Cicely Hamilton and Kipling) and had an unstable childhood with various relations. ‘I know I was writing stories when I was five,’ he told the Paris Review. ‘I don't remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.’ He was educated in Guernsey and (1894–1900) at Dulwich College, south London, where he was happy. Because his father would not send both him and his elder brother to Oxford, he left school to work briefly and unsuccessfully in a bank. He was already selling stories to the boys' magazine, The Captain, edited by R. S. Warren Bell. Wodehouse left the bank to become a full-time writer in 1903, being assigned a regular column, ‘By the Way’, in the London Globe. In 1909, as his career as a comic writer blossomed, he went to the USA for a year, and thereafter spent at least half of every year there, writing lyrics for Broadway shows, working in particular with Jerome Kern (1885–1945). Meanwhile, he had moved from England to France, finally settling in 1934 in Le Touquet, in northern France, where he was captured and interned by the invading German army in the Second World War. Following his release in 1941 he indiscreetly made some broadcasts from Berlin to America. The fact that he had done so (rather than the innocently comic content of the talks) made him deeply unpopular in Britain, and after the war he moved to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1955. He was eventually knighted shortly before his death. Although Wodehouse continued writing stories, lyrics and plays throughout his long life, his basic comic style, the highly wrought mimicry of the upper-class stutter and drawl, and his basic comic characters—from Psmith to Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (who first appeared in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ in The Man with Two Left Feet, 1917)—were established by the end of the First World War. The basic formula is present in such early works as Love Among the Chickens (1906), A Gentleman of Leisure (1910), and The Little Nugget (1913). The Wodehouse world (which readily adapted to the stage, as in Wodehouse's collaborations with ‘Ian Hay’), the world of London clubs such as the Drones, of country houses such as Blandings Castle, of irascible peers and awesome aunts, of bold women (often American) in pursuit of enfeebled young men, was less a satire of the Edwardian upper class at play than a fantasy version of it, a fantasy with particular appeal to Americans. What makes Wodehouse a great comic artist, though, is not the world he imagines or the people that inhabit it, but the style. He was, above all, a highly skilled linguistic technician (hence his success as a Broadway lyricist). His very earliest publications were stories of public-school life, with familiar plots of dishonour and sporting prowess: The Pothunters (1902), A Prefect's Uncle (1903), Tales of St Austin's (1903), The Gold Bat (1904), The Head of Kay's (1905), The White Feather (1907) and Mike: A Public School Story (1909). In the last of these Wodehouse introduced the character of Psmith, who soon outstripped dull, athletic Mike as hero and foreshadowed the triumph of the frivolous over the authorities which was to be the characteristic dynamic of Wodehouse's fiction; he also appeared in Psmith in the City: A Sequel to Mike (1910), Psmith Journalist (1915), which includes, rather surprisingly, an exposé of New York slum landlords, and Leave it to Psmith (1924). In these early years Wodehouse also published sketches, a children's book, and a parody of the popular invasion scare stories: The Swoop!, or, How Clarence Saved England: A Tale of the Great Invasion (1909).