P. G. Wodehouse

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir P. G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse in 1904 (aged 23).
Born October 15 1881(1881-10-15)
Guildford, Surrey, UK
Died February 14 1975 (aged 93)
Southampton, NY, United States
Pen name Henry William-Jones
P Brooke-Haven
Pelham Grenville
Melrose Grainger
J Walker Williams
C P West
Occupation novelist, playwright, lyricist
Nationality British
United States (1955, aged 74)
Writing period 1902–1975
Genres comedy, romantic comedy

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (October 15, 1881 – February 14, 1975) (IPA: /ˈwʊdhaʊs/) was a comic writer who enjoyed enormous popular success during a career of more than 70 years and continues to be widely read over 30 years after his death. Despite the political and social upheavals that occurred during his life, much of which was spent in France and the United States, Wodehouse's main canvas remained that of prewar English upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful writing career. An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by modern writers such as Douglas Adams, Salman Rushdie and Terry Pratchett. Sean O'Casey famously called him "English literature's performing flea," a description that Wodehouse used as the title of a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend.

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 (1934) and frequently collaborated with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), wrote the lyrics for the Gershwin - Romberg musical Rosalie (1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). Wodehouse's work takes a playful view of the class distinctions in British society. His most famous character, Jeeves, is a comic character—a butler who has more common sense of life knowledge than his employer. Wodehouse makes fun of class distinctions, showing their artificial nature.

Early life

Wodehouse, called "Plum"[1] by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane) while she was visiting Guildford. His father Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929) was a British judge in Hong Kong. The Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's great-grandfather Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse, was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop after whom he was named.[2]

When he was just 3 years old, Wodehouse was brought back to England and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely 6 months in total. [3] 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.

Wodehouse 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 in London (now known as HSBC) 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 up writing as a full-time profession. He was a journalismjournalist with The Globe (a defunct English newspaper) for some years before moving to New York, where he worked for a time as theater critic of The New Yorker, collaborated with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on several musical comedies, and began publishing short stories and novels. In the 1930s, he had two brief stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he claimed he was greatly over-paid. Many of his novels were also serialized in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.

Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman in 1914, gaining a stepdaughter, Leonora. He had no biological children, perhaps owing to having contracted mumps as a young man.

Life in France

Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he shared his time between England and the United States. In 1934, he took up legal residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the U.S. 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 interred by them for a year, first in Belgium, then at Tost (now Toszek) in Upper Silesia (now in Poland). He is recorded as saying, "If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…"

While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. After his release from internment, a few months short of his 60th birthday, he used these dialogues as a basis for a series of radio broadcasts made of his own free will, but many assumed that they were made under German persuasion. Wartime England was in no mood for light-hearted banter, however, and the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaboration with the Nazis 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 parodies of some of Milne's children's poetry. Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell.[4] An investigation by the British security service MI5 concluded that Wodehouse was naive and foolish but not a traitor.[5]

The criticism led Wodehouse and his wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from Leonora, who died during Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became an American citizen in 1955 and never returned to his homeland, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, Long Island.

Later life

He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) shortly before his death at the age of 93. It is widely believed that the honor was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. 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 Wax Museum. His doctor advised him not to travel to London to be knighted, and his wife later received the award on his behalf from the British consul. [6]

Writing style

Wodehouse took a modest attitude to his own works. In Over Seventy (1957) he wrote:

"I go in for what is known in the trade as 'light writing' and those who do that—humorists they are sometimes called—are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at."

Literary tastes and influence

In the same article, Wodehouse names some contemporary humorists whom he held in high regard. These include Frank Sullivan, A. P. Herbert, and Alex Atkinson. Two essays in Tales of St. Austin’s satirize modern literary criticism; “The Tom Brown Question” is a parody of Homeric Analysts, and “Notes” criticizes both classical and English critics, with an ironic exception for those explicating the meaning of Browning. In “Work,” Wodehouse calls the claim that “Virgil is hard” a “a shallow falsehood,” but notes that “Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon.” Shakespeare and Tennyson were also obvious influences; their works were the only books Wodehouse brought with him in his internment.[7] Wodehouse also seems to have enjoyed the traditional English thriller; in the 1960s he gave important praise for the debut novels of Gavin Lyall[8] and George MacDonald Fraser.[9] In later life, he read mysteries by Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout, and unfailingly watched the soap opera The Edge of Night.[10]


Wodehouse's 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 pigs (Lord Emsworth), newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle), or socks (Archibald Mulliner). His "mentally negligible" good-natured characters invariably make their lot worse by their half-witted schemes to improve a bad situation.

Wodehouse's aristocrats, however, embody many of the comic attributes that characterize buffoons. In many cases the classic eccentricities of Wodehouse's upper class 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 cleverer 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 (though despised) 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. An outstanding example of this is The Code of the Woosters where most of the chapters have an essential plot point reversed in the last sentence, catapulting the characters forward into greater diplomatic disasters.

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). A case in point is Freddie in Something Fresh, where his engagement to Miss Peters apparently broke off after she eloped with George Emerson. A very sad situation of a girl choosing a spirited man instead of her dim witted fiancé was cleverly made light hearted by showing how Freddie could not care less, as he was more interested in meeting the revered writer of detective stories, Ashe Marson, and so on.

Assumed identities and resulting confusion are particularly common in the Blandings books.

Gambling often plays a large role in Wodehouse plots, typically with someone manipulating the outcome of the wager.

Another subject which features strongly in Wodehouse's plots is alcohol, and many plots revolve around the tipsiness of a major character. It is clear that Wodehouse himself was fond of a tipple, and he enumerated what many people consider as the definitive list of hangovers: the Broken Compass, the Sewing Machine, the Comet, the Atomic, the Cement Mixer and the Gremlin Boogie. Furthermore, he makes several references to a drink called the "May Queen,"[11] described by Uncle Fred as "any good dry champagne, to which is added liqueur brandy, armagnac, kummel, yellow chartreuse, and old stout, to taste," which inspires several characters to acts of daring, such as proposing to their true loves.


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." These include::

  • The Blandings Castle stories (later dubbed "the Blandings Castle Saga" by Wodehouse[12], about the upper-class inhabitants of the fictional rural Blandings Castle. Includes the eccentric Lord Emsworth, obsessed by his prize-winning pig, the "Empress of Blandings," and at one point by his equally prize-winning pumpkin ("Blandings' Hope," but, mockingly, "Percy" to Emsworth's unappreciative second son Freddie Threepwood).
  • The Drones Club stories, about the mishaps of certain members of a raucous social club for London's idle rich. Born in the Jeeves stories, it became its own informal series of short stories, mostly featuring club members Freddie Widgeon or Bingo Little, plus a cast of recurrent bit players such as Club millionaire Oofy Prosser.
  • The Golf and Oldest Member stories. They are built around one of Wodehouse's passions, the sport of golf, which all characters involved consider the only important pursuit in life. The Oldest Member of the golf course clubhouse tells most of them.
  • The Jeeves and Wooster stories, narrated by the wealthy, scatterbrained Bertie Wooster. A number of stories and novels that recount the improbable and unfortunate situations in which he and his friends find themselves and the manner in which his ingenious valet Jeeves is always able to extricate them. Collectively called "the Jeeves stories," or "Jeeves and Wooster," they are Wodehouse's most famous. The Jeeves stories are a valuable compendium of pre-World War II English slang in use, perhaps most closely mirrored in American literature, although at a different social level, by the work of Damon Runyon.
  • The Mr Mulliner stories, about a long-winded pub raconteur who tells outrageous stories about his family, all surnamed Mulliner. His sometimes unwilling listeners are always identified solely by their drinks, e.g., a "Hot Scotch and Lemon" or a "Double Whisky and Splash."
  • The Psmith stories, about an ingenious jack-of-all-trades with a charming, exaggeratedly refined manner. The final Psmith story, Leave it to Psmith, overlaps the Blandings stories in that Psmith works for Lord Emsworth, lives for a time at Blandings Castle, and becomes a friend of Freddie Threepwood.
  • The School stories, which launched Wodehouse's career with their comparative realism. They are often located at the fictional public schools of St. Austin's or Wrykyn.
  • The Ukridge stories, about the charming but unprincipled Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, always looking to enlarge his income through the reluctant assistance of his friend in his schemes.
  • The Uncle Fred stories, about the eccentric Earl of Ickenham. Whenever he can escape his wife's chaperonage, he likes to spread what he calls "sweetness and light" and others are likely to call chaos. His escapades, always involving impersonations of some sort, are usually told from the viewpoint of his nephew and reluctant companion Reginald "Pongo" Twistleton. Several times he performs his "art" at Blandings Castle.

Major characters

Wodehouse's work contains a number of recurring protagonists, narrators and principal characters, including:

  • Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves; his Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha
  • Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and his large family
  • Mr Mulliner, irrepressible pub raconteur of family stories
  • The Oldest Member, irrepressible nineteenth hole raconteur of golf stories
  • Psmith, monocled dandy and socialist
  • Ukridge, irrepressible entrepreneur and cheerful opportunist
  • Uncle Fred, spreading "sweetness and light" through impersonation


Wodehouse's work was highly original, with few imitators. In 2000, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize was established and named in honor of PG Wodehouse and awards an annual prize for the finest example in the UK of comic writing. Dorothy Parker would follow him as theater critic at Vanity Fair magazine. Some of his works have been adapted into other media.


Considering the extent of his success, there have been comparatively few adaptations of Wodehouse's works, in part because he was reluctant:

"One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip." But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book." (from Wodehouse's introduction to the compilation The World of Jeeves. 1967)

Adaptations include: A Damsel in Distress was adapted in the 1937 film starring Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine. A 1962 film adaptation of The Girl On The Boat starred Norman Wisdom, Millicent Martin and Richard Briers.

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 short 1930s film that was a very loose adaptation of Thank You, Jeeves, and Treacher played Jeeves without Bertie in an original sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves.

In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical, originally titled Jeeves. In 1996, it was rewritten as the more successful By Jeeves, which made it to Broadway, and a performance recorded as a video film, also shown on TV.

A version of Heavy Weather was filmed by the BBC in 1995 starring Peter O'Toole as Lord Emsworth and Richard Briers, again, as Lord Emsworth's brother, Galahad Threepwood.

Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud, and its sequel Arthur II: On the Rocks, were also an adaptation of the characters of Bertie and Jeeves, although not officially acknowledged, and many of the lines and incidents from the movie, including the main plot involving an engagement, were directly influenced by Wodehouse's characters.

Wodehouse's involvement with film and television from around the world is chronicled in Brian Taves, P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires, and Adaptations [13]


  1. Try saying "Pelham" fast
  2. David A. Jasen. PG Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master. (Music Sales Group, ISBN 0825672759), 14
  3. Robert McCrum. 2004. Wodehouse: A Life. (London; New York:: Viking), 14-15
  4. article by Orwell. drones.com.Retrieved May 29, 2008.
  5. Adrian Weale (1994) 2002, Renegades: Hitler's Englishmen, revised ed. (New York: Random House, ISBN 0712667644).
  6. McCrum, 414
  7. McCrum 276.
  8. Gavin Lyall | Obituaries | guardian.co.uk Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  9. “Farewell to Flashman: The singular creation of George MacDonald Fraser, 1925-2008” by Christopher Hitchens.
  10. McCrum 405.
  11. or more fully: "Tomorrow'll be of all the year the maddest, merriest day, for I'm to be the Queen of the May, mother, the Queen of the May"
  12. P. G. Wodehouse. 1969. "Preface" Something Fresh.
  13. Brian Taves. P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations. (McFarland & Co., 2006).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, Lee. 1993. Bolton & Wodehouse & Kern: The Men Who Made Musical Comedy. James H. Heineman Incorporated. ISBN 0870081454
  • Day, Barry. 2004. The Complete Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 08108499418
  • Jasen, David A. PG Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master. Music Sales Group, ISBN 0825672759
  • McCrum, Robert. 2004. Wodehouse: A Life. London; New York:: Viking. ISBN 0670896926
  • Usborne, Richard. 2003. Plum Sauce: A P. G. Wodehouse Companion. New York: The Overlook Press. 137–207 ISBN 1585674419
  • Taves, Brian. P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. ISBN 0786422882
  • Weale, Adrian. 1994. Renegades: Hitler's Englishmen. ISBN 0297814885

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.

Wodehouse societies
Public domain online works


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