Flaubert once observed that a writer’s existence ought to be boring, to allow his or her work to be exciting. Well, the life of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse contained few exciting moments, permitting his prose to attain polished perfection. (The exception was, of course, his infamous radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany and the accusations that dogged him thereafter.)
Robert McCrum’s highly readable biography charts the defining moments: Wodehouse’s reserved relationship with his parents; his stint at Hongkong and Shanghai Bank; his early writing and breakthroughs; his devoted though less-than-passionate relationship with his wife; his collaborations on Broadway; his stint in Hollywood; and last years in Long Island. In dwelling on Wodehouse’s time with the Germans during World War II, the biographer reiterates posterity’s verdict: the good-natured Wodehouse was duped and misguided, but in no way a Nazi collaborator or apologist.
McCrum also teases out the inspirations for and origins of some of the writer’s most endearing characters. What comes though at every turn is the hard work Wodehouse put into his writing, his doggedness to get plots and prose just right.
When Wodehouse received the news of his stepdaughter’s death he said, “I thought she was immortal”. Fortunately for the rest of us, Psmith, Wooster, Jeeves, Emsworth and the rest will always endure.