Writing to his agent in 1935 the comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) proposed an essay about literary criticism that he planned to call Back to Whiskers. This piece is still worth rooting around to find.
His argument, Wodehouse declared, was that "the soppiness and over enthusiasm of modern literary criticism is due to the fact that critics are now clean shaven instead of wearing full-size whiskers." He pined for the "brave old days when authors and critics used to come to blows." Bring back, he cried, "the old foliage and acid reviews."
Wodehouse was among the best-paid and best-loved writers in the world during the 1930s, a British institution, and he could afford to have a sense of humour about critics. He had found that "jolly old Fame" suited him.
His deliriously funny novels about the foppish and "mentally negligible" aristocrat Bertie Wooster, the imperturbable valet Jeeves and an enormous Berkshire hog named the Empress of Blandings, among other characters, were best sellers. He'd written Broadway musicals with Jerome Kern. He was fresh from Hollywood, where he'd composed screenplays and palled around with Mary Pickford and Edward G. Robinson. Oxford University had awarded him an honorary doctorate.
But things turned for Wodehouse during World War II. Imprisoned by the German army, he recorded a series of radio broadcasts, intended to be funny and inspiring to those back home, that backfired badly. That his voice was on Nazi radio outraged his countrymen. He later admitted his "ghastly blunder," but it took many years for people to forgive him.
Nearly as bad for Wodehouse, the world had changed. In his excellent biography Wodehouse: A Life (2004) Robert McCrum noted: "As George Orwell pointed out, Wodehouse became associated in the public mind with the wealthy, idle, aristocratic nincompoops he often wrote about, and made an ideal whipping boy for the left."
This long, slow, painful shift in Wodehouse's fortunes and reputation provides much of the heft and drama in P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, a definitive new collection of his correspondence edited smartly by Sophie Ratcliffe, a young Oxford academic. Wodehouse was an assiduous letter writer, often composing several a day, and there are missives here to everyone from family and friends to people like Ira Gershwin, Evelyn Waugh, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and George Orwell.
Wodehouse was not, alas, a very good letter writer. He isn't reflective. He tends to ramble on numbly about his taxes, or his pets, or his daily schedule, or his fluctuating weight. The effortless humour that buoys his fiction ("Bicky rocked like a jelly in a high wind") is largely absent here. He's a bit of a wheeze.
I found myself cursing this book about halfway through its 602 pages; it felt like a concrete block tied to my ankle. My family cursed it too, because reading it I couldn't help pick up some of pre-World War I slang that Wodehouse adored and deployed. I found myself calling people "old bean" or "old fright." Things suddenly seemed "ripping." I announced my plans to "biff about in old clothes." Kill me, I said, if I can't stop. If you shake P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters hard enough, however, good things do fall out of it, like subway tokens from the pockets of a fuzzy old overcoat.
Wodehouse – it is pronounced Wood-house – was a self-made man, and he never took his success for granted. He wrote constantly, wherever he was, often as many as 4,000 words a day. About being a jobbing writer, he learned he had to stick up for himself. "One has to beg for one's money as if it were a loan," he said about the freelance life, "instead of being one's rightful earnings long overdue."
His portraits of the famous are sometimes terrific. H. G. Wells, at a lunch, "sat looking like a crushed rabbit." Wodehouse groaned at the enormous fireplace in Wells' house, with letters carved around it that spelled: Two Lovers Built This House. He later, mockingly, put a si