Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE, (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English humorist whose body of work includes novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics and numerous pieces of journalism. He enjoyed enormous popular success during a career that lasted more than seventy years, and his many 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 a pre- and post-World War I 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 recent writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Douglas Adams, J. K. Rowling, and John Le Carré.
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, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), 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). He is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wodehouse spent the last decades of his life in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1955, because of controversy that arose after he made five radio broadcasts from Germany during World War II, where he had been interned by the Germans for a year. Speculation after the broadcasts led to allegations of collaboration and treason. Some libraries banned his books. Although an MI5 investigation later cleared him of any such crimes, he never returned to England.
Wodehouse, called “Plum” (abbreviating “Pelham”) by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane; daughter of John Bathurst Deane) at 1 Vale Place, Epsom Road, Guildford, while she was visiting from Hong Kong. He was baptised at St. Nicolas’ Church, Guildford. His aunt Mary Deane was the author of the novel Mr. Zinzan of Bath; or, Seen in an Old Mirror. 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 The 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 Britain 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, from an early age, filled much of his unscheduled time by writing relentlessly. He spent quite a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another, and the numerous aunts provided him with ample characteristics for some of his most vivid literary creations, including 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, which he attended between 1886 and 1889, together with his two older brothers – Richard, the youngest of the four Wodehouse brothers, was much younger and became somewhat noteworthy as a cricketer in Asia. In 1889, the eldest brother, Peveril, was diagnosed as having a weak chest and the three brothers were sent to Elizabeth College, Guernsey (where they appear on the census for 1891), 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, Kent, 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 College, where his elder brother Armine was already a pupil.
He enjoyed attending Dulwich College, where he was successful both as a scholar and a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest pupils) 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 University (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 (now known as HSBC), 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”. Some of his experiences in the bank were recounted in Psmith in the City. He wrote part-time while working in the bank and in 1902 became a journalist with The Globe (a long-defunct London evening paper), taking over the comic column from a friend who had resigned. Thereafter, Wodehouse contributed items to Punch, Vanity Fair (1903-1906), Daily Express (1904) and The World: A Journal for Men and Women (1906-07). He also wrote stories for schoolboys’ 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. Around this time Wodehouse also played for the Authors XI cricket team.
In 1907, Wodehouse contributed the lyrics to two songs to the Seymour Hicks musical comedy The Gay Gordons. One of the other lyricists on the show was his fellow Globe newspaperman C.H. Bovill. The two would later collaborate on the 1914 revue Nuts and Wine and a series of six short stories collected as A Man of Means in 1913-14.
During 1909, Wodehouse stayed in Greenwich Village 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 American 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, including the innovative Princess Theatre musicals.
In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman (d.1984) and gained a stepdaughter named Leonora. He had no biological children.
During the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he controversially 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.
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he split his time between Britain 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 Touquet, France, instead of returning to Britain, apparently failing to recognise the seriousness of the conflict. It is also said that his wife couldn’t bear to leave their dog, Wonder. Subsequently the German military authorities in occupied France interned him (along with several other Englishmen in the same position) as an “enemy alien” according to the Geneva Convention. He was interned first in Belgium, then at Tost in Upper Silesia (formerly Germany, now Toszek in Poland), of which he is recorded having said, “If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like.”
While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty monologues. He was released from internment a few months before his 60th birthday when, under the Geneva Convention, he should have been released anyway; the early release led to allegations that he had made a deal with the Nazi authorities. He then drafted several humorous talks, based on his life at Tost, as the basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America, which was not then at war with Germany. After his release from internment, he lived for a time at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, before moving to Paris, which was still under German occupation. When the text of his talks was published in the UK many years later, several short sentences were suppressed (probably by Wodehouse himself) which showed him being relatively civil to the German military when they arrived at Le Touquet. Wodehouse believed he would be admired for having “kept a stiff upper lip” during his internment, but he misjudged the mood in wartime Britain, where reports about the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaborationism with the Germans and even treason.
Wodehouse continued to write novels and to follow an exercise regime into his nineties. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1975 New Year Honours; it is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. His doctor advised him not to travel to London for the investiture and his wife later accepted the knighthood on his behalf from the British consul. Toward the end of January 1975, he developed pemphigus, a persistent skin rash, brought on by the strain of extra work, answering fan mail and recording the introductions to the Wodehouse Playhouse TV series. In early February, he entered Southampton Hospital, where he died of a heart attack on 14 February 1975 at age 93. His last novel, Sunset at Blandings, was unfinished at his death and was published posthumously in 1977.
In a BBC interview shortly before his death, Wodehouse said that he had no ambitions left, as he had been knighted and created as a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s.
In 1988 a blue plaque was installed on the house in Mayfair in London where Wodehouse lived, No. 17 Dunraven Street.
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.
P.G. Wodehouse – The Man With Two Left Feet And Other Stories (read by Frederick Davidson)
P.G. Wodehouse – My Man Jeeves (read by Martin Jarvis)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Inimitable Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Carry On, Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Very Good, Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Thank You, Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Right Ho, Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Code Of The Woosters (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Jeeves In The Morning (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Jeeves And Mating Season (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Ring For Jeeves (read by Nigel Lambert)
P.G. Wodehouse – Jeeves And The Feudal Spirit (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – A Few Quick Ones (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P G. Wodehouse – Jeeves In The Offing (read by Ian Carmichael)
P.G. Wodehouse – Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Much Obliged, Jeeves (read by Dinsdale Landen)
P.G. Wodehouse – Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Something Fresh (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Leave It To Psmith (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings Castle (read by James Saxon)
P.G. Wodehouse – Summer Lightning (read by Martin Jarvis)
P.G. Wodehouse – Heavy Weather (read by Jeremy Sinden)
P.G. Wodehouse – Lord Emsworth And Others (read by Nigel Lambert)
P.G. Wodehouse – Uncle Fred In The Springtime (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Full Moon (read by Jeremy Sinden)
P.G. Wodehouse – Pigs Have Wings (read by Jeremy Sinden)
P.G. Wodehouse – Service With A Smile (read by Martin Jarvis)
P.G. Wodehouse – Galahad At Blandings (read by Jeremy Sinden)
P.G. Wodehouse – A Pelican At Blandings (read by Nigel Lambert)
P.G. Wodehouse – Psmith In The City (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Psmith Journalist (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Meet Mr. Mulliner (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Mr. Mulliner Speaking (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Mulliner Nights (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Young Men In Spats (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Uncle Dynamite (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Cocktail Time (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Eggs, Beans And Crumpets (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Love Among The Chickens (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – A Gentleman Of Leisure (read by Frederick Davidson)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Little Nugget (read by Frederick Davidson)
P.G. Wodehouse – Uneasy Money (read by Simon Vance)
P.G. Wodehouse – Piccadilly Jim (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – A Damsel In Distress (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Indiscretions Of Archie (read by Frederick Davidson)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Clicking Of Cuthbert (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Adventures Of Sally (read by Frederick Davidson)
P.G. Wodehouse – Ukridge (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Heart Of A Goof (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Small Bachelor (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Money For Nothing (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Big Money (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Doctor Sally (read by Paul Shelley)
P.G. Wodehouse – Hot Water (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Luck Of The Bodkins (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Laughing Gas (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Summer Moonshine (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – Pearls, Girls And Monty Bodkin (read by Jonathan Cecil)
P.G. Wodehouse – The Wacky World Of P.G. Wodehouse (read by Simon Cadell, Ian Carmichael, Michael Hordern and Richard Briers)
P.G. Wodehouse – Frozen Assets (read by Simon Vance)
P.G. Wodehouse – Money In The Bank (read by Simon Vance)
P.G. Wodehouse – Something New (read by B.J. Harrison)