Yours Ever, Plum
Buckley, Christopher, Newsweek
Byline: Christopher Buckley
The letters--and life--of P.G. Wodehouse.
I visited Christopher Hitchens in the hospital just after he'd been given a diagnosis of mortal illness. By his bed I noticed a dog-eared Jeeves and Wooster paperback. Christopher esteemed P.G. Wodehouse above all other writers as "The Master," a title originally bestowed on Wodehouse by another master of English prose, Evelyn Waugh.
Christopher looked at the novel. His face clouded. "I worried about bringing it," he said, "because I thought, what if it doesn't work?" The prospect of a Jeeves novel failing to work its magic was the only time in our 30-year friendship that I saw him register something close to genuine alarm. The last time I saw Hitch, three days before he died, in another hospital, after an 18-month battle with cancer, he had on his lap an early English edition of this very book, Sophie Ratcliffe's P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.
Ratcliffe, a tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, has given us a monumental, exemplary book, excellent in every regard and indispensable to a three-dimensional understanding of one of English literature's great figures. Many of the letters are published here for the first time. It is a worthy companion to Robert McCrum's splendid 2004 biography.
It was said of Edward Gibbon, author of A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that he lived out his sex life in his footnotes. The footnotes here are often eye-poppingly fun. We learn, among much else, that Wodehouse was descended from Anne Boleyn's sister, Lady Mary, as in The Other Boleyn Girl. (He was also related to Cardinal Newman.) And that a previous recipient of the Twain medal Wodehouse is about to get went to--Benito Mussolini. (Who knew Il Duce was such a wag?) In another, we hear that in 1941 the Queen Mother ordered 18 books for little Princess Elizabeth, the present queen, all of them by Wodehouse.
Letters are a kind of a BACKSTAGE ALL ACCESS pass. We get the man--or woman--with hair down and no makeup. They often provide the ultimate in dish. One mourns the almost certain extinction of the genre. Future collections of emails and text messages of the great and famous aren't likely to be quite this satisfying.
Let's stipulate, too, that the bitchier the personality (Waugh or Gore Vidal Truman Capote, etc.) the deeper the dish. Alas, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse--his lifelong nickname was Plum or Plummie--was one of nature's most gentle specimens: humble, self-deprecating, shy of publicity, considerate to a fault, generous, devoted to his family and friends, forgiving and deplorably lacking in bile--qualities that ought make for pretty damn dull letter reading. To be sure, some of these pages are more scintillating than others, but there's plenty of ginger and plenty of dish, and a lot of it is--no surprise--hilariously observed.
And golly, what a life! In terms of American history, Wodehouse was born in 1881, the year of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and died (on Valentine's Day) in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended. Rather a lot went on in between.
He became world famous by his 30s, both as a novelist and Broadway lyricist. He collaborated with, among others, Guy Bolton, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter. As a young, hustling writer in New York, he banged out copy for The Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and Collier's. His signature butler, Jeeves, made his debut in The Saturday Evening Post in 1915 in a short story titled "Extricating Young Gussie." Jeeves's name was borrowed from a Warwickshire cricket player.
The late 1920s found him in Hollywood ("This place is loathsome") drowning, stingless, in MGM honey, while doing hack work on a silly Marion Davies vehicle. His descriptions of reptilian studio fauna make for delicious reading. He mostly ignored them and beavered away at his own stuff, producing a novel and nine short stories.
His error was being candid in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he declared that over the past year, he'd been paid "$104,000 for loafing. …