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Biography: PG Wodehouse

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I’ve just finished reading Frances Donaldson’s biography of PG Wodehouse (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1980, Andre Deutsch 2014). It was the second time I had read it, and I felt again it was one of the best biographies I have read. But others failed to share my views, leading to some thoughts on why I liked the book so much.

But first the negative comment. Samuel Hynes in the New Republic (16 Jun 1982) says in part: “Lady Donaldson knew Wodehouse, and [wa]s a friend of his stepdaughter; she therefore writes her book as an insider and, in the long central section on the broadcasts, as an attorney for the defense…Apart from her psychologizing, Lady Donaldson provides some useful new material, especially letters and the broadcasts, though she leaves me convinced that there is a good deal more to be found, especially about the American years. She also offers in passing some generalizations on the differences between men and women that will offend feminists, and a view of “aristocratic virtues” that even monarchists will find excessive. Certainly it isn’t going to be the definitive life”.

The Kirkus Review of 27 May 1982 finds the same faults as Hynes, and reads in part: “… the biography itself, by a longtime Wodehouse friend (author of Edward VIII), is something of a disappointment–often charming or incisive, but ultimately spotty and lopsided… And on Wodehouse’s theater career, she is nothing less than irresponsible: virtually the entire contribution as musical-comedy lyricist/playwright–ably covered in the Green book–is dismissed in four misleading and grossly ignorant pages…though uneven, imbalanced, and sometimes untrustworthy as a biography, this addition to the Wodehouse shelf can be enjoyably sampled by Plum connoisseurs–for the sharp psychology, the new at-home details, and some of the literary analysis. David A. Jasen’s P. G. Wodehouse, though limited, remains the best all-around portrait”.

I fully agree with all the negative comment these two reviewers make, and feel their points are unimportant, that they don’t matter in the slightest (once one is aware of them) compared to what the book does achieve.

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Before looking at the Donaldson book though, I think it necessary to make a statement on what I believe a biography can do. I don’t think there is such a thing as a definitive biography. That’s just publisher’s advertising. New material comes to light, old material is discredited, lost material is rediscovered, prejudices are revealed, the taste and tolerance of the period in which the book is read changes. And if we want to we can read another biography on a person and get a new perspective on them.

Secondly, I feel that PG Wodehouse is a special case. Of his about 95 books you can single out his style, his plots, his characters, his humour…and find you haven’t in the end explained anything. It’s like trying to explain why a soap bubble delights a little child. Wodehouse is unexplainable. You must read some of his best books to experience him, and anything about him isn’t really needed. It’s an extra, in Donaldson’s case an enjoyable one. All Wodehouse did was write, most of what he talked about was writing, and he led a sedate, reasonably happy life marred only by a war with English and American Tax Departments, and a slanderous attack on his collaboration with the Nazis, made by a yellow press journalist in collusion with an insufferable Government Minister, which overshadowed the last years of his life.

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But now to get down to Frances Donaldson’s book. Firstly, I like her writing style. There is something astringent, yet slightly disjointed about it I find refreshing. And she has two absolutely marvellous advantages. She read Wodehouse late, when she was over seventy, and read him whole, letters, plays, lyrics and stories. Something of that enormous coming to terms, that enjoyable discovery, comes over in what she has written about Wodehouse’s books. She’s opinionated, which I like, even when she praises books I don’t like. She singles out with discrimination the best of his later work, and tries to rebuff the idea PGW was only at his peak in the 1920s and 1930s. And she dismisses the idea that, except in one or two cases, any Wodehouse character or event is based on fact. Wodehouse used the people and events of his life as material for his fiction, as all writers do, but he was not an autobiographical writer, nor the creator of a vanished pre WWI world of aristocratic privilege. He was just a writer of humorous stories.

Donaldson’s second advantage was that she knew Wodehouse well and liked him enormously (as apparently everyone did), tried to get on with his wife Ethel, and was best friends with his adopted step daughter Leonora (“Snorky”), who died tragically young in her 30s, perhaps as the result of medical mistreatment while in hospital (though the hospital claimed a congenital circulation problem). Donaldson’s portraits of PGW and Snorky are masterly, and bring them to life with a novelist’s skill, and I was moved by the account of Snorky’s death, as was Donaldson in the writing. Donaldson, like everyone, refers to Wodehouse as “Plum”, presumably Pelham without the vowels.

Donaldson is an amateur psychologist, and attempts to explain PGW’s character. She succeeds unexpectedly, and surprisingly well, perhaps because her analysis is complimentary rather than a pathology.

12-14.1974. Remsenburg, NY. The British author/humorist PG WODEHOUSE (Pelham Grenville, nickname "Plum") sits with his wife ETHEL sipping tea. He had just received news that HM Queen Elizabeth had bestowed an honor on him. He is seen in the garden of his Remsenburg, NY home

The criticisms levelled at Donaldson’s book deserve a mention, as they are accurate as far as they go.

Firstly, the song lyrics, musical plays and theatrical work, as well as movie scripts that PGW worked on, are given scant treatment in Donaldson’s book. There are full bibliographic references to everything of this nature he wrote (except the movies) all of which made him a wealthy man and founded one of his lifelong friendships. Donaldson’s judgment on this work is, that it has not lasted and is not worth talking about (I have mentioned she is opinionated about PGW’s work), and she quotes enough lyrics to convince me this is a sound judgment. Songs and theatre don’t last long, nor movies, and few now are moved to tears by The Birth of a Nation, DW Griffiths’ film on the US Civil War for example.

There are no “American years”, as PGW was an Atlantic commuter from early in his career, active (in different spheres) in each country. He eventually, because of Government prejudice in Britain, took out US citizenship and lived on Long Island for the last 20 years of his life. Donaldson makes little attempt to trace American contacts and activities. She is much more forthcoming on matters that took place in Britain. Yet she quotes enough of PGW’s correspondence to show he was mainly concerned with the technical aspects of theatrical production while in the USA, matter which added little to biographical insights.

More importantly, Donaldson spends more than half her book examining the radio broadcasts PGW made in Germany and gives transcripts of them. This really is overbalanced. The reaction in England to the charges made against Wodehouse (not the broadcasts themselves) was an example of war time hysteria, similar to the interning of Japanese Americans. The broadcasts were typical PGW, a Hogan’s Heroes depiction of life in detention camp originally written to cheer up his fellow inmates, which they succeeded in doing (if you’ve seen the film of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five you’ll get an idea of what happened). Someone in the German propaganda department thought a broadcast to the USA of these skits might help keep America out of the war by showing PGW’s many American fans that the Germans loved PGW too (which they did).

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Some felt it unethical that PGW made the broadcasts and so was seen as supporting in some nebulous way the Nazi regime, though they tend to overlook the fact that Wodehouse would have had no idea of Nazi atrocities. When he was interned, and in the years before, many English, European and Americans who followed European politics admired Hitler extravagantly and it is possible PGW had such an out of date grip on what was going on when he made the broadcasts. It was a shortcoming of the man that he always agreed to do as he was asked, no matter how unpalatable, and tried to slip out of it later.

PGW probably knew only that a war had started, and thought it was happening far away from where he was. Hundreds of other foreign nationals thought the same, and were swept up and interned by the Nazis. Millions of Jews were carried off to concentration camps instead of fleeing the country for the same reason. The Nazis concealed their atrocities, at least at first.

The broadcasts however attracted the attention of two dubious characters. They mounted a hugely effective smear campaign against PGW without hearing a word of the broadcasts, and the lies they spread convinced people, still to this day, that PGW was a traitor. Perhaps they didn’t like some of his books.

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This example of collusion is the only interesting bit about the broadcasts, and I skipped most of Donaldson’s section on them. William Connor (1909-1967) writing as Cassandra in the Daily Mirror on 28 June 1941, alleged PGW had made a deal with Dr Goebbels to do the broadcasts in return for luxurious living in a posh Berlin hotel. In a broadcast postscript to his article Connor painted a melodramatic picture of PGW as a fervent Nazi dominated by Goebbels and relishing the atrocities of the war. Every word that Connor wrote was a lie, the product of his disordered imagination and of his self enchantment with his own purple prose. It is embarrassing to read today. All of it was libellous and the BBC refused to broadcast it on the advice of their counsel and as against the spirit of their broadcast charter. It was as virulent as anything broadcast by Hitler, and Connor must have been influenced by the Führer when writing it.

It was as though Senator McCarthy had alleged that Humphrey Bogart was a mate of Stalin and all for the Gulag labour camps.

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The BBC were overruled by Duff Cooper (1890-1954), Minister of Information (shades of Nineteen Eighty Four) under Churchill, who was undergoing a slump in his career and perhaps thought the squashing of PGW might help. Cooper refused to read the scripts of PGW’s Berlin broadcasts, and claimed falsely that Churchill supported Connor’s broadcasts.

That a Cabinet Minister and a journalist should have conspired on a venomous and untrue attack on a writer about whom they knew nothing is the most interesting part of the whole affair. Otherwise Donaldson’s book is indeed unbalanced and partial about the affair. It takes careful sifting of the evidence she supplies to see the motive the two men had was probably self interest, gone a little too far too unscrupulously.

Other than this unbalance, and a little facile amateur psychology, I found little to fault in Donaldson’s book. It contains an exact bibliography, with alternate titles, of all his fiction, all his stage plays and musicals. It contains all the mundane details of his life, gives vivid depictions of PGW and family, and astute evaluations of his books which inspire interest in them. It does skim over his work in America, where he spent half his life, and is overly obsessed with defending him from the charge of treason, now a laughable one.

I liked the book because it made me want to know more about what Donaldson wrote about, propaganda, the war hysteria, musicals, early Hollywood, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the Gershwins, boy’s magazine fiction, prep schools, where Blandings Castle was located, how Jeeves evolved, the best of the television adaptions, PGW’s home life, what drove his wife Ethel and lots of other things I’ll probably gradually forget, but for the moment stirring in my mind. A very good book indeed.

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©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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This entry was posted on Monday, 12 September, 2016 by in books and tagged , , , .
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