Uneasy Money: Wodehouse Letters Show How He Made Being Funny Big Business

The author.

The author.

From a biographical angle, it’s better to think of P.G. Wodehouse as more entertainment honcho than author. He was a member of the jet set before there were jets, and translated his shtick from one medium to another the way a sitcom producer today might branch out into movies. (Could Arrested Development have a more direct antecedent than Wodehouse?) He loved writing books, and did so compulsively, but he began his writing career at newspapers before moving on to serialized novels. He bounced between New York, England and Hollywood, offering his talent where it was required, whether for Cole Porter comedies or talkies. He ended his life on Long Island and was as American as he was British. All this is to say that the new collection of his correspondence, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (W.W. Norton, 640 pp., $35), is not only a valuable supplement to Robert McCrum’s 2004 biography, but a study of the burgeoning comedy industry.

The letters frequently circle Wodehouse’s business. It is his default topic: what he’s working on, how many words he’s written, what he’ll get for it. If money was rarely a concern for the characters in his books, the letters reveal that it was something of an obsession for him, especially early in life. Wodehouse was raised middle class. He dreamed of attending Oxford, but his parents claimed they couldn’t afford to send him there. For the future author of numerous stories set at school, or involving old school chums, it came as quite a blow. “Oh! money, money, thy name is money!” a sardonic 17-year-old Wodehouse wrote a friend at the time. Instead of Oxford, straight after Dulwich College he was forced to work at the London office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, writing on the side when he could. It was clear enough to young Wodehouse that you really can’t do what you want without money. “If only you were making a couple of thousand a year steady,” he wrote to his most frequent correspondent, the failed writer and Dulwich grad William Townend, in 1932, “I shouldn’t have a worry in the world.” Is it any wonder that, without money problems of any kind, his characters walk on air? Townend was bonded to him not only through writing advice but also through the checks that “Plum” would include in his letters.

In the way they detail his work, the letters can often read like the ledger he kept in the early years, “Money Received for Literary Work,” which chronicled his liberation from the bank. Though the book jacket advertises his famous correspondents—Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Arthur Conan Doyle—the truth is that he didn’t write to those people very often, and hardly knew them. He never professed to be an artist, and he loathed Henry James, the Bloomsbury Group and Hemingway. The best the book offers in the way of literary gossip is a glimpse at H.G. Wells’s embarrassing uxoriousness in a mocking note to Townend, which describes how Wells’s partner had the words TWO LOVERS BUILT THIS HOUSE carved in huge letters above their fireplace. Who could resist a detail like that? Wodehouse used it in The Code of the Woosters.

The letters are rarely funny, though, which is a bit surprising for a comedic master. But what can you expect from letters? Not the high-wire plots, nor the idiot characters. At best, Wodehouse was a wry correspondent. “Dear Bill, have you ever been hit by a car?” he wrote Townend in 1923, breaking some news. “If not, don’t. There’s nothing in it.” No one was more aware of how dry his letters were than Wodehouse himself. In 1953, he and Townend released a book of their correspondence, Performing Flea. In a letter about it, Wodehouse instructs his friend that intensive rewrites will be required. “If in a quickly written letter from—say—Hollywood, I just mention that Winston Churchill is there and I have met him,” he wrote in 1951, planning the volume, “in the book I can think up some amusing anecdote, describing how his trousers split up the back at the big party or something. See what I’m driving at?” Call it a desire to give them their money’s worth.

In the unadulterated letters, though, the prices Wodehouse achieved for his writing are sure to provoke some kind of reaction. By the late 1920s, still relatively early in his career, his serializations in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post would sell for five figures. Back then, $20,000 was roughly equal to a quarter of a million dollars today. Repeat this calculation several times a year and you understand why he ended up writing more than 90 books over the course of his life.

In 1930 he went to Hollywood for a year, earning $2,000 a week for doing virtually nothing. In what can only be interpreted as an attempt to burn the bridge to such unearned money, he told The Los Angeles Times how little he did during that year, marveling, “Isn’t it amazing? If it is only ‘names’ they want, it seems such an expensive way to get them, doesn’t it?” His observation to Townend in a later letter that the interview had made him a “pariah” reads like bragging.

He seemed to enjoy the transaction of it all. Perhaps some of America’s Protestant work ethic rubbed off on him. Some of his finest work, Thank You, Jeeves and Heavy Weather, for example, was written in the early 1930s, when American and British tax authorities, who had yet to really figure out how to tax someone who hopped countries as often as he did, threatened to take much of what he had. He wrote until the end of his life, recycling old plots even after the need for money was gone. When Playboy wanted him to contribute in 1967, just eight years before he died, he wrote to his wife, “Price $1500, so I hope I shall be able to work out something.” The money couldn’t have meant much to him; it was the old thrill of being in the game.

This transactional theme comes up many times in his own defense of his work with the Nazis. In 1940 he was captured in Le Touquet, France, where he lived part of the year to avoid the British quarantine on his beloved Pekingese dogs (his “Pekes”). He and his wife failed to realize the possibility of a German conquest, and he spent six months in an internment camp. Immediately after his release, he recorded a series of humorous anecdotes about camp life that were broadcast, via Nazi radio, to the U.S., which had yet to enter the war. Not many people heard them, but when you’re working for Goebbels, it’s a matter of intent. Until the day he died (essentially in exile) on Long Island, Wodehouse maintained that this had not been a quid pro quo, but Britons at the time branded him a traitor along the lines of Lord Hee-Haw.

It’s not difficult to see why he did this incredibly stupid thing. If the letters paint a picture of the man at all, they show him to be one who never wasted material, kept a stiff upper lip at all times and would have wanted to be a polite guest to his Berlin hosts. This is to say nothing of humor as a defense mechanism. In a Wodehousian twist, the Nazis also went out of their way to turn the question of whether or not to do the broadcasts from a high-stakes problem (you could be killed if you don’t) into a low-stakes, social one. The day of his release from prison, Wodehouse was sent to a hotel in Berlin and just happened to bump into two German friends he’d met in New York and California, who welcomed him to the Reich. He seemed to think this was all a coincidence, and began work on the broadcasts that day.

More difficult to determine than why he did the broadcasts is why he never seems to have expressed any real regret about them—at least, not in this, his most exhaustive collection of letters. To his closest friends, there was only self-defense and frustration that he couldn’t sell books immediately after the war. Just after V-E Day, he disagreed with a literary journalist who claimed he should admit his error candidly. “It seems to me that anything would be better than groveling. Surely if I do, people will rank me with all the Germans who now go about saying how much they disliked the Nazis. Won’t it seem that I am simply trying to curry favour? I would much rather be thought a Benedict Arnold than a Uriah Heep.” His attitude always followed the quoted headline on a postwar interview in the British magazine The Illustrated: “I’VE BEEN A SILLY ASS.” “I haven’t suggested it yet to any of my advisers,” he wrote to another friend after the war, “but I should have thought the best proof that I had no desire to have Germany triumph and ruin England was that my entire life savings are invested in British Government securities, in which such circs would inevitably have gone phut.”

It’s safe to say he didn’t get it. Later, in a letter that touches on the foundation of Israel, Wodehouse goes out of his way to point out how much he likes all the Jews he’s known. Ira Gershwin, for example. Irving Berlin. His agent.

History exonerated Wodehouse, and Orwell spoke up for him right away. But there’s something uneasy about his own relentless defensiveness, especially given how much the country-club set still adores his books. It breaks down, slightly, the bubble in which his fiction exists and must be consumed. A recent reissue of Blandings Castle (1935) features a blurb by Tony Blair saying how much he likes Wodehouse. What to make of that? All comic geniuses have to build their own tragic barriers, through drugs, say, or neurosis. For Wodehouse, the barrier was the work itself, and with this new book we learn just how thick that barrier was.

dduray@observer.com