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Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) ( ) was an English writer whose body of work includes novels, collections of short stories, and musical theatre. Wodehouse enjoyed enormous popular success during a career of more than seventy years and his prolific writings continue to be widely read. Despite the political and social upheavals that occurred during his life, much of which was spent in France and the United States, Wodehouse's main canvas remained that of pre-war English upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful writing career.

An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by modern writers such as Douglas Adams, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Terry Pratchett. Sean O'Casey famously called him "English literature's performing flea", a description that Wodehouse used as the title of a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend.

Best known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934) and frequently collaborated with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), wrote lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's music for the Gershwin - Romberg musical Rosalie (1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928).

Early life

Wodehouse, called "Plum" by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane) while she was visiting Guildfordmarker. His father, Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929), was a British judge in Hong Kong. The Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's great-grandfather Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse, was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop, after whom he was named.

When he was just three years old, Wodehouse was brought back to England and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely six months in total. Wodehouse grew very close to his brother, who shared his love for art. Wodehouse filled the voids in his life by writing relentlessly. He spent quite a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another; it has been speculated that this gave him a healthy horror of the "gaggle of aunts", reflected in Bertie Wooster's formidable aunts Agatha and Dahlia, as well as Lady Constance Keeble's tyranny over her many nieces and nephews in the Blandings Castle series.

Wodehouse's first school was The Chalet School, Croydon (now Elmhurst School for Boys), which he attended between 1886 and 1889, together with his two older brothers. In 1889, the oldest brother, Peveril, was diagnosed as having a weak chest, and the three brothers were sent to Elizabeth College, Guernsey, where Peveril could benefit from the sea air. Wodehouse remained at Elizabeth College for two years, until, at age 10, it became time for him to move to a preparatory school. Wodehouse's first prep school was Malvern House, at Kearsney, near Dover, which specialised in preparing boys for entry to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Wodehouse spent two unhappy years at Malvern House before finally persuading his father to send him to Dulwich Collegemarker, where his elder brother Armine was already a student.

He enjoyed his time at Dulwich, where he was successful both as a student and as a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest students) and a School prefect, he edited the college magazine, The Alleynian, sang and acted leading roles in musical and theatrical productions, and gained his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and rugby football First XV; he also represented the school at boxing (until barred by poor eyesight) and his house at athletics. The library at Dulwich is now named after him.

Wodehouse's elder brother, Armine, had won a classics scholarship to Oxford Universitymarker (where he gained a first class degree) and Pelham was widely expected to follow in his brother's footsteps, but a fall in the value of the Indian rupee (in which currency his father's pension was expressed) forced him to abandon such plans. His father found him a position with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank , where, after two years' training in London, he would have been posted to an overseas branch. However, Wodehouse was never interested in banking as a career and "never learned a thing about banking". He wrote part-time while working in the bank, and in 1902 became a journalist with The Globe (a now defunct newspaper), taking over the comic column from a friend who had resigned.

Wodehouse contributed items to Punch, Vanity Fair (1903-1906), Daily Express (1904) and The World: A Journal for Men and Women (1906/1907). He also wrote stories for schoolboy's magazines (The Captain and Public School Magazine) that were compiled to form his first published novels and four playlets with his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson.During 1909, Wodehouse stayed in Greenwich Villagemarker and "sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for a total of $500 - much more than I had ever earned before." He then resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York, where he became a regular contributor (under a variety of pseudonyms) to the newly-founded Vanity Fair (1913). However "the wolf was always at the door", and it was not until The Saturday Evening Post serialised Something New in 1915 that he had his "first break". Around this time he began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on (eventually eighteen) musical comedies.

In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman and gained a stepdaughter called Leonora. He had no biological children, and it is possible that he was rendered infertile after contracting mumps as an adolescent.

During the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywoodmarker, where he claimed he was greatly overpaid. Many of his novels were also serialised in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.

Life beyond Britain

Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he shared his time between England and the United States. In 1934, he took up residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the U.S. He was also profoundly uninterested in politics and world affairs. When World War II broke out in 1939 he remained at his seaside home in Le Touquetmarker, France, instead of returning to England, apparently failing to recognise the seriousness of the conflict. (One version says that his wife couldn't bear to leave their dog, Wonder). He was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and interned by them for a year, first in Belgium, then at Tost (now Toszekmarker) in Upper Silesia (now in Polandmarker). He is recorded as saying, "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like..."

While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. After being released from internment, a few months short of his 60th birthday, he used these dialogues as a basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America (then not at war) that the Germans tricked him into making from Berlin. Wodehouse believed he would be admired as showing himself to have 'kept a stiff upper lip' during his internment. Wartime England was in no mood for light-hearted banter, however, and the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaboration with the Germans and even treason. Some libraries banned his books. Foremost among his critics was A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh books; Wodehouse took revenge in a short story parody where a character based on Milne wrote about his son, a ridiculous character named "Timothy Bobbin". Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. An investigation by the British security service MI5marker concurred with Orwell's opinion, concluding that Wodehouse was naive and foolish but not a traitor. Documents declassified in the 1980s revealed that while living in Paris, his living expenses were paid by the Nazis. However, papers released by the British Public Record Officemarker in 1999 showed these had been accounted for by MI5 investigators when establishing Wodehouse's innocence.

The criticism led Wodehouse and his wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from Leonora, who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became an American citizen in 1955 and never returned to his homeland, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburgmarker, Long Islandmarker.

Later life

He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1975 New Year Honours, six weeks before his death at the age of 93.It is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. In a BBC interview he said that he had no ambitions left now that he had been knighted and there was a waxwork of him in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museummarker. His doctor advised him not to travel to London to be knighted, and his wife later received the award on his behalf from the British consul.

The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, given annually for the finest example of comic writing in the UK, was established and named in his honour in 2000.

Writing style

Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote:

"I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that – humorists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at."


Literary tastes and influence

In the same article, Wodehouse names some contemporary humorists whom he held in high regard. These include Frank Sullivan, A. P. Herbert, and Alex Atkinson. Two essays in Tales of St. Austin’s satirize modern literary criticism; "The Tom Brown Question" is a parody of Homeric analysts, and "Notes" criticizes both classical and English critics, with an ironic exception for those explicating the meaning of Browning. In "Work," Wodehouse calls the claim that "Virgil is hard" "a shallow falsehood," but notes that "Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon." Shakespeare and Tennyson were also obvious influences; their works were the only books Wodehouse brought with him in his internment. Wodehouse also seems to have enjoyed the traditional English thriller; in the 1960s he gave important praise for the debut novels of Gavin Lyall and George MacDonald Fraser. In later life, he read mysteries by Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout, and unfailingly watched the soap opera The Edge of Night.

Characters

Wodehouse's characters, however, were not always popular with the establishment, notably the foppish foolishness of Bertie Wooster. Papers released by the Public Record Officemarker have disclosed that when Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for the Order of the Companions of Honour, Sir Patrick Dean, the British ambassador in Washington, argued that it "would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."

Wodehouse's characters are often eccentric, with peculiar attachments, such as to pigs (Lord Emsworth), newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle), or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted schemes to improve a bad situation.

Wodehouse's aristocrats, however, embody many of the comic attributes that characterize buffoons. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upper class give rise to plot complications. More than anything else, it was his continuous endeavours to satirise the ruling class (through characters such as Lord Emsworth, Roderick Spode and Bertie Wooster) that attracted the hostility of the British establishment to Wodehouse personally, and gave rise to his decision never to return to England.

Relatives, especially aunts and uncles, are commonly depicted with an exaggerated power to help or impede marriage or financial prospects, or simply to make life miserable. Children are depicted as a source of trouble along with having annoying traits. Friends are often more a trouble than a comfort in Wodehouse stories: the main character is typically being placed in a most painful situation just to please a friend. Antagonists (particularly rivals in love) are frequently terrifying and just as often get their comeuppance in a delicious fashion.

Policemen and magistrates are typically portrayed as threatening, yet easy to fool, often through the simple expedient of giving a false name. A recurring motif is the theft of policemen's helmets.

In a manner going back to the stock characters of Roman comedy (such as Plautus), Wodehouse's servants are frequently far cleverer than their masters. This is quintessentially true with Jeeves, who always pulls Bertie Wooster out of the direst scrapes. It recurs elsewhere, such as the efficient (though despised) Baxter, secretary to the befogged Lord Emsworth.

Plots

Even if the broad outlines of his plots were typically formulaic, Wodehouse was known for his consummate skill at their detailed construction and development. This did not come immediately to him; in the early Psmith novels Psmith In The City and Psmith, Journalist, the device by which the author rescues the protagonists from their mounting difficulties is a simple infusion of cash from Psmith's father. This would soon change, and by the 1920s his novels were already showing off his genius for creating multiple layers of comedic complications that the characters must endure to reach the invariable happy ending. Typically, a relative or friend makes some demand that forces a character into a bizarre situation from which it seems impossible to recover, only to resolve itself in a clever and satisfying finale. The layers pile up thickly in the longer works, with a character getting into multiple dangerous situations by mid-story. An outstanding example of this is The Code of the Woosters where most of the chapters have an essential plot point reversed in the last sentence, catapulting the characters forward into greater diplomatic disasters. A key figure in most Wodehouse stories is a "fixer" whose genius soars above the incompetent blather and crude bluster of most of the other characters, Jeeves being the best known example. Other characters in this vein are Lord Ickenham ("Uncle Fred") and Galahad Threepwood, who perform much the same role in the Blandings Castle stories—though never both at the same time—and Psmith, who does the same thing in the stories that bear his name.

Engagements are a common theme in Wodehouse stories. A man may be unable to become engaged to the woman he loves due to some impediment. Just as often, he becomes unwillingly, or even accidentally, engaged to a woman he does not love and needs to find some back-door way out other than breaking it off directly (which goes against a gentleman's code of honour). A case in point is Freddie in Something Fresh, where his engagement to Miss Peters apparently broke off after she eloped with George Emerson. A very sad situation of a girl choosing a spirited man instead of her dim witted fiancé was cleverly made light-hearted by showing how Freddie could not care less, as he was more interested in meeting the revered writer of detective stories, Ashe Marson, and so on.

Assumed identities and resulting confusion are particularly common in the Blandings books.

Gambling often plays a large role in Wodehouse plots, typically with someone manipulating the outcome of the wager.

Another subject which features strongly in Wodehouse's plots is alcohol, and many plots revolve around the tipsiness of a major character. In The Mating Season, he enumerated what many people consider as the definitive list of hangovers: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. Furthermore, he makes several references to a drink called the "May Queen", described by Uncle Fred as "any good dry champagne, to which is added liqueur brandy, armagnac, kümmel, yellow liqueur, and old stout, to taste", which inspires several characters to acts of daring, such as proposing to their true loves.

Writings

Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing 96 books in his remarkable seventy-three year long career (1902 to 1975). His works include novels, collections of short stories, and musical comedies. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by "series":

  • The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed "the Blandings Castle Saga" by Wodehouse), about the upper-class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle. Includes the eccentric Lord Emsworth, obsessed by his prize-winning pig, the "Empress of Blandings", and at one point by his equally prize-winning pumpkin ("Blandings' Hope", but, mockingly, "Percy" to Emsworth's unappreciative second son Freddie Threepwood).
  • The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London's idle rich. Drones Club stories always involve unnamed club members known as "Eggs", "Beans" and "Crumpets" (after the habit of addressing each other as "old egg", "old bean" or "old crumpet"); in each story, a well-informed Crumpet will endeavour to tell an Egg or Bean of the latest exploits of another Drones Club member, most frequently Freddie Widgeon or Bingo Little. Also featured are a cast of recurrent bit players such as Club millionaire Oofy Prosser.
  • The Golf and Oldest Member stories. They are built around one of Wodehouse's passions, the sport of golf, which all characters involved consider the only important pursuit in life. The Oldest Member of the golf course clubhouse tells most of them, usually to someone who has somewhere else to be.
  • The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called "the Jeeves stories", or "Jeeves and Wooster", they are Wodehouse's most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre-World War II English slang in use.
  • The Mr Mulliner stories, narrated by a genial pub raconteur who can take any topic of conversation and turn it into an involved, implausible story about a member of his family. Most of Mr. Mulliner's stories involve one or another of his innumerable nephews. His sometimes unwilling listeners are always identified solely by their drinks, e.g., a "Hot Scotch and Lemon" or a "Double Whisky and Splash".
  • The School stories, which launched Wodehouse's career with their comparative realism. They are often located at the fictional public schools of St. Austin's or Wrykyn.
  • The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner. The final Psmith story, Leave it to Psmith, overlaps the Blandings stories in that Psmith works for Lord Emsworth, lives for a time at Blandings Castle, and becomes a friend of Freddie Threepwood. Psmith first appeared in the school novel Mike.
  • The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, always looking to enlarge his income through the reluctant assistance of his friend in his schemes.
  • The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham. Whenever he can escape his wife's chaperonage, he likes to spread what he calls "sweetness and light" and others are likely to call chaos. His escapades, always involving impersonations of some sort, are usually told from the viewpoint of his nephew and reluctant companion Reginald "Pongo" Twistleton. Several times he performs his "art" at Blandings Castle.


Almost all of these series overlap: Psmith appears in a "School" story and a Blandings novel; Bertie Wooster is a member of the Drones Club; Uncle Fred and Pongo Twistleton appear in both the Blandings Saga and the Drones club stories; Bingo Little is a regular character in the Jeeves Stories and the Drones Club stories, etc.

Adaptations

Considering the extent of his success, there have been comparatively few adaptations of Wodehouse's works. He was reluctant to allow others to adapt the Jeeves stories:

"One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip". But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves' deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book." (from Wodehouse's introduction to the compilation The World of Jeeves, 1967)


Doing his own adaptations for film did not attract him either. He had been retained by MGM in 1930 but little used: "They paid me $2,000 a week.... Yet apparently they had the greatest difficulty in finding anything for me to do.". He returned to MGM in 1937 to work on the screenplay of Rosalie, but even though he was now being paid $2,500 a week and living luxuriously in Hollywood, he said "I'm not enjoying life much just now. I don't like doing pictures."

However, he formed a warm working relationship with Ian Hay, who adapted A Damsel in Distress as a stage play in 1928, with Hay, Wodehouse and A. A. Milne all investing in the production. Wodehouse and Hay holidayed together in Scotland, finding "a lot of interests in common". Wodehouse went on to help dramatise Hay's story Baa Baa Black Sheep in 1929, and in 1930 they co-wrote the stage version of Leave it to Psmith.

Wodehouse wrote the screenplay for the musical film A Damsel in Distress released in 1937, starring Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. A 1962 film adaptation of The Girl On The Boat starred Norman Wisdom, Millicent Martin and Richard Briers.

Both the Blandings and Jeeves stories have been adapted as BBC television series: the Jeeves series has been adapted for television twice, once in the 1960s (for the BBC), with the title World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster, and Dennis Price as Jeeves—and again in the 1990s (by Granada Television for ITV), with the title Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. David Niven and Arthur Treacher also starred as Bertie and Jeeves, respectively, in a short 1930s film that was a very loose adaptation of Thank You, Jeeves, and Treacher played Jeeves without Bertie in an original sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves.

In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical, originally titled Jeeves. In 1996, it was rewritten as the more successful By Jeeves, which made it to Broadway, and a performance recorded as a video film, also shown on TV.

A version of Heavy Weather was filmed by the BBC in 1995 starring Peter O'Toole as Lord Emsworth and Richard Briers, again, as Lord Emsworth's brother, Galahad Threepwood.

Piccadilly Jim was first filmed in 1936, starring Robert Montgomery. In 2004, Julian Fellowes wrote another screen adaptation which starred Sam Rockwell. This version was not successful.

There was also a series of BBC adaptations of various short works, mostly from the Mulliner series, under the title of Wodehouse Playhouse starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, which aired starting in 1975. The first series was introduced by Wodehouse himself, aged 93.

Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud, and its sequel Arthur II: On the Rocks, were also an adaptation of the characters of Bertie and Jeeves, although not officially acknowledged, and many of the lines and incidents from the movie, including the main plot involving an engagement, were directly influenced by Wodehouse's characters.

Wodehouse's involvement with film and television from around the world is chronicled in Brian Taves, P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires, and Adaptations (McFarland, 2006).

Czech author Zdeněk Jirotka based his Saturnin novel largely on the character of Jeeves.

Major characters

Major characters of primary importance


Wodehouse's work contains a number of recurring protagonists, narrators and principal characters, including:



Major characters of secondary importance


Certain of Wodehouse's less central characters are particularly well-known, despite being less critical elements of his works as a whole.



Notes

References



External links

Wodehouse societies


Wodehouse info


About Wodehouse


Public domain works online




Other links



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