Who was P G Wodehouse? (The name, by the way, is pronounced 'Woodhouse').
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse ("Plum" to his family and friends) is widely regarded as the master of the English comic novel.
He was born, the third of four sons, on 15 October 1881 at Guildford in Surrey. His father, an English civil servant, was a judge in the British colony of Hong Kong and Wodehouse had an unsettled childhood, spending much of his time in the care of a succession of aunts, an experience which he later put to good use in his writings.
In 1894 Wodehouse became a full-time boarder at Dulwich College, a public (that is to say, fee-paying and therefore private!) school. Wodehouse was an active member of the school, playing rugby and cricket for the school first teams and contributing to the school magazine; he later described his time at Dulwich as "idyllic" and used the locality, loosely disguised under the pseudonym "Valley Fields", as a setting in several of his books.
Wodehouse left Dulwich College in 1900, narrowly missing another future novelist of great distinction, Raymond Chandler, who arrived at the school a few months later. Prevented from going up to university because his father could not afford the expense, Wodehouse wanted to write for a living, but his father preferred a more secure occupation. Father won (pro tem, as one of Wodehouse's own characters might have put it) and Wodehouse joined the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He continued to write, however, and, over the next couple of years, sold a number of stories and articles to The Captain and Public School Magazine and also contributed to The Globe newspaper. In September 1902, Punch magazine published the first of a great many contributions that were to span a period of more than sixty years, and a few days later his first book, The Pothunters, was published; with his income from writing now exceeding what he was being paid by the bank, Wodehouse resigned his job at the end of the month.
In 1903, Wodehouse joined the staff of The Globe, working on the "By the Way" column, of which he became editor after a little less than a year. In 1904, he also contributed his first lyric to a theatrical production and made his first visit to the United States. At the same time he continued to publish novels and short stories which, like The Pothunters, were set in public schools and aimed at a schoolboy readership.
Although Wodehouse's first novel for adults, Love Among the Chickens, was published in England in 1906, he continued to work for The Globe and also as a theatre lyricist and, over the next few years, also produced further school stories. But when, in 1909, he visited the USA for the second time, he was sufficiently encouraged by the sale of short stories to Cosmopolitan and Colliers magazines that he resigned from The Globe. For the rest of his life, he was to survive (and very comfortably, too) on his writing. From this time, also, he abandoned the school story in favour of comic novels and stories aimed at a broader audience.
In 1914, at a party in New York, Wodehouse met a twice-widowed young English woman, Ethel Rowley, and within two months had married her. Wodehouse acquired not just a wife but a step-daughter, Leonora, whom he soon adopted. The marriage lasted for over sixty years, being ended only by Wodehouse's death, in February 1975, at the age of 93. Ethel survived her husband by almost ten years, dying in October 1984, aged 99 years.
Until the outbreak of World War II, the Wodehouses had a succession of homes, in London, New York, Hollywood and France, while Wodehouse pursued his careers as author, theatrical lyricist and, briefly, Hollywood screenwriter. This last provided him with material for some of his funniest novels and short stories.
In 1934, to avoid onerous double taxation on his British and American earnings, the Wodehouses settled in Le Touquet, on the French coast, where, in May 1940, Wodehouse was taken into custody by the advancing German army. He spent a year in internment camps in France, Belgium and Upper Silesia (now part of Poland), before being released and taken to Berlin in June 1941, just a few months before his sixtieth birthday. While in Berlin, he agreed to record a series of five light-hearted radio talks describing his life as an internee. Wodehouse seems to have believed that the talks would be broadcast only to the United States, which at that time was still a neutral country and where he had many friends who were concerned about his welfare. Unfortunately for him, however, the talks were also heard in Britain, where the government, seeking to bolster public opinion against Hitler's regime, orchestrated a public outcry against the 'traitor' Wodehouse and there were demands for him to be prosecuted if he returned to Britain.
When the war ended, Wodehouse, whom the Nazis had allowed to return to Paris, was interrogated by MI5, who concluded that he had no case to answer. But the British government refused to exonerate him, an attitude that was maintained by successive governments until well after his death. Rather than risk prosecution, therefore, the Wodehouses sold their property in France and moved permanently to the United States, where Wodehouse took US citizenship in 1955. The furore over his wartime activities was temporarily silenced when he was awarded an honorary knighthood in the Queen's New Year honours list on 1 January 1975, just six weeks before he died, but has recently been re-ignited by Britain's tabloid press, following the release of government papers relating to the affair.
Although Wodehouse never set foot in England after 1939, when he paid two visits, first to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and later to watch a cricket match at his old school, Dulwich, he continued to set many of his novels in an idealised version of the England of his youth. The last book published in his lifetime, Aunts Aren't Gentleman, featured possibly his most famous characters, Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, and when he died, on 14 February 1975, he left unfinished another novel set in England and subsequently published as Sunset at Blandings.