Magazine article The Spectator

The Work of P.G. Wodehouse Is Immortal, but He Was Guilty of a Moral Lapse

Magazine article The Spectator

The Work of P.G. Wodehouse Is Immortal, but He Was Guilty of a Moral Lapse

Article excerpt

The debate about P.G. Wodehouse's wartime radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany has been raging for more than 60 years. It is re-ignited by Robert McCrum's admirable new biography of the great writer. Most reviewers have taken the line that 'Plum's' talks were inconsequential. Though sympathetic to his subject, Mr McCrum is a little sterner. 'His behaviour,' he writes of Wodehouse, 'was incredibly stupid, but it was not treacherous.'

What business is it of a media column to re-enter these difficult waters? My excuse is that Wodehouse was almost destroyed by a journalist, and he has over the years been defended and largely rehabilitated by writers who were also journalists. His reputation has been settled by the fourth estate. The man who tried to ruin him was William Connor, 'Cassandra' of the Daily Mirror, who much later became Wodehouse's friend. Connor's main assault came not in the columns of his newspaper but in an address on the BBC which was disowned by the governors, and criticised in 133 out of 166 letters or telephone calls to the Corporation. Connor's attack was extreme, but it is useless to pretend that Wodehouse's broadcasts - though largely innocuous and nowhere displaying the slightest pro-Nazi sympathies - did not arouse passions in the breasts of reasonable people. Harold Nicolson, clearly no extremist, wrote in his diary: 'I do not want to see Wodehouse shot on Tower Hill. But I resent the theory that "poor old Wodehouse is so innocent that he is not responsible". A man who has shown such ingenuity and resource in evading British and American income tax cannot be classed as impractical.'

The second journalist to be involved in this affair was Malcolm Muggeridge, who was sent as a British officer to interview Wodehouse in Paris after its liberation. Arriving as a sceptic, Muggeridge was soon enchanted, and became a lifelong defender of the writer. Then, in the spring of 1945, George Orwell published his famous essay on Wodehouse. It was a defence with a sting, since Orwell describes Wodehouse as a 'comedian' stuck in a pre-1914 public-school time warp, and he certainly does not bestow the accolade of greatness. In March 1946 Orwell was sent to Paris by the Observer, where he met the comic anachronism in person. Wodehouse's own observations were amusingly sharp. Orwell struck him as One of those warped birds who have never recovered from an unhappy childhood and a miserable school life'.

Orwell's essay was certainly influential, but the tide was decisively turned by another writerjournalist, Evelyn Waugh. Whereas Orwell had admitted impropriety, but excused it on the grounds that Wodehouse could not be expected to know any better, Waugh's famous 1961 radio broadcast marking the writer's 80th birthday did not concede any fault at all. He addressed himself to Wodehouse thus: 'You tell me that you have met and conceived a great liking for a man who 20 years ago did you so grave an injury [William Connor]. Will you please extend your forgiveness to everyone who ever spoke or thought ill of you?' Waugh set the tone for many more journalistic knights in shining armour, not least his son Auberon (who opened up a front against Duff Cooper, the government minister who had egged on Connor), my friend and colleague Francis Wheen, and even the esteemed editor of this magazine.

The charge of treachery against Wodehouse is not supported by any facts. Mr McCrum - another journalist, by the way is adamant that the writer never accepted a single mark from the German authorities, and paid his own way once he was released from prison in Germany. …

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