Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse KBE (October 15, 1881 – February 14, 1975) (pronounced WOOD-house) was an English comic writer who enjoyed enormous popular success for more than seventy years. Wodehouse was an acknowledged master of English prose admired both by contemporaries like Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by modern writers like Salman Rushdie and Terry Pratchett. Sean O'Casey famously called him "English literature's performing flea", a derogatory description that Wodehouse cherished and adopted as the title of his autobiography. The Times has hailed him as a 'comic genius recognized in his lifetime as a classic and an old master of farce'.
Best-known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a talented playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of fifteen plays and of 250 lyrics for some thirty musical comedies. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes and frequently collaborated with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Show Boat.
Wodehouse, called "Plum" by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse whilst she was visiting Guildford. He attended boarding school, where he saw his parents only once every six or seven years. Feeling abandoned, 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.
He was educated at Dulwich College, where the library is now named after him, but his anticipated progression to university was stymied by family financial problems. Subsequently he worked for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC) in London for two years, though he was never interested in banking as a career. He wrote part-time while working in the bank, eventually proving successful enough to take it up as a full-time profession. He was a journalist with The Globe (a defunct English newspaper) for several years before eventually going to Hollywood, where he earned enormous amounts as a screenwriter. Many of his novels were also serialized in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid large amounts of money. He married Ethel Wayman in 1914, gaining a stepdaughter, Leonora.
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1924 on he lived largely in France and the United States. 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 England, apparently failing to recognize the seriousness of the conflict. He was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and interned by them for a year, first in Belgium, then at Tost in Upper Silesia (now in Poland). (He is recorded as saying "If this is Upper Silesia, one must wonder what Lower Silesia must be like..."). While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues, which, after being released from internment a few months short of his 60th birthday, he used as the basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America (but not England) he was persuaded by the Germans to make from Berlin. Wartime England was in no mood for light-hearted banter, however, and the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaboration and even treason. Some libraries banned his books. Foremost among his critics was A. A. Milne, author of the "Winnie the Pooh" books; Wodehouse got some revenge by creating a ridiculous character named "Timothy Bobbin," who starred in hilarious parodies of some of Milne's children's poetry. Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell (see links below).
The criticism led Wodehouse to move permanently to New York with his wife, Ethel. Apart from Leonora, who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became an American citizen in 1955, and almost never returned to his homeland, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, Long Island.
He was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) shortly 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, although the Queen Mother was so anxious for Wodehouse to be knighted that she offered to perform the service herself. 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.
Wodehouse's comedic style excels in several areas.
Many consider Wodehouse as second only to Charles Dickens in fecundity of character invention. His characters however were not always popular with the establishment, notably the foppish foolishness of Bertie Wooster. Papers released by the Public Record Office have disclosed that when P. G. Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for a Companion 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 newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle) or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted (if that) schemes to improve a bad situation.
Wodehouse's aristocrats, however, embody many of the comic attributes that characterize buffoons created by a genius. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upperclass give rise to plot complications.
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. 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 come-uppance 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 smarter 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 Baxter, secretary to the befogged Lord Emsworth.
Although his plots are on the surface formulaic, Wodehouse's genius lies in the tangled 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 that seems impossible to recover from, 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.
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 honor).
Gambling often plays a large role in Wodehouse plots, typically with someone manipulating the outcome of the wager.
Wodehouse is above all a master of English comedic phrasing. His descriptions of persons are as rich as anything in Shakespeare, particularly when issued as insults from one character to another. Yet no matter how effusive the insults, Wodehouse somehow manages to convey a sunny quality that never comes across as truly mean-spirited.
Wodehouse was a prolific author, writing ninety-six books in a career spanning from 1902 to 1975. His works include novels, collections of short stories, and a musical comedy. Many characters and locations appear repeatedly throughout his short stories and novels, leading readers to classify his work by "series".
Both the Blandings and Jeeves stories have been adapted as BBC television series: the Jeeves series has been adapted 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 few films made in the 1930s.
A version of Heavy Weather was filmed by the BBC in 1995 starring Peter O'Toole as Lord Emsworth.
In 2004, Julian Fellowes wrote a screen adaptation of Piccadilly Jim which starred Sam Rockwell. The film 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 P.G. himself, which was extraordinary considering he was 93 at the time and died the year the TV series started.
For a more extensive list of characters, see List of P. G. Wodehouse characters.
Wodehouse's work contains a number of recurring protagonists, narrators and major characters, including:
Certain among Wodehouse's minor characters are particularly well-known, despite playing incidental parts in his works.