The archive of PG Wodehouse – famed English author of country house comedy and the creator of butler Jeeves – will be available in the British Library alongside other English greats from tomorrow.
It is quite the reversal for a man who after the Second World War found his writings banned from all British libraries. Some Wodehouse enthusiasts have taken it as a prompt to excuse him of any wartime wrongdoing – but we must not lose the truth of his interaction with the Third Reich in a rush of uncritical eulogy.
Living in France when it fell to the Germans, he was captured and interned at a series of prisons, then used by the Nazi propaganda division to make radio broadcasts to the U.S. detailing his supposedly fair treatment in captivity.
Wonderful news about PG Wodehouse https://t.co/Tv5nazqIsK
— Erik Hogstrom (@erik1966lutig) November 27, 2016
Because he kept some semblance of his old spirit despite the ordeal, the BBC and then-Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden suspected he’d served no time at all.
He was accused of “treachery” and never returned to the UK, moving to America instead.
Despite his impervious popularity today, there has always been a taint on the work, itself consistently innocuous.
41 years after the writer’s death, Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum has led a charge in the Observer, later reported by the rest of the media, for Wodehouse’s “redemption”.
A prison diary has been discovered among his papers which, we are told, can “lay to rest any lingering suspicions about his conduct during the dark years of 1940-46”.
As to what’s written in the diary – he doesn’t say. Nor does he say anything, really, about Wodehouse’s actual “conduct”.
#quote Never apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them. P G Wodehouse
— John Welford (@welfordwrites) November 27, 2016
Reading the article one gets a portrait of a venerable author – pictured chatting to friend Winston Churchill – who had been put under duress and unfairly demonised.
It reeks of whitewashing, as if the media feels Wodehouse needs to be made completely palatable in order to justify any sort of positivity about the British Library acquisition. I’m not saying his reputation shouldn’t be redeemed. But let’s consider him seriously.
In 2011, MI5 released files that revealed Wodehouse had been paid by the Germans to make radio broadcasts after his release from prison. He originally denied this, claiming he was there under duress.
He and his wife were put up at Nazi expense in a Berlin hotel suite, and afterwards in Paris. Wodehouse seemed unaware that, under the Geneva Convention, they were unable to keep him imprisoned after age 60. He had been personally recommended to Nazi intelligence by English traitor John Amery.
Wodehouse Redeemed: https://t.co/ni3YZPb0AE.
— Evelyn Waugh Society (@EvelynWaughSoc) November 27, 2016
The transcripts of the so-called Berlin Broadcasts, are darkly humorous: “It has been in many ways quite an agreeable experience,” he said.
“There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading.” It is hard to infer much from his general ironic tone.
All that sticks out is the cast of kindly Germans: the sergeant – “a genial soul” – who captured him, then let him buy cigarettes and wine on the way to prison; the kommandant who finds out Wodehouse is being mistreated and becomes outraged at the French prison staff (their fault, apparently).
Wodehouse whitewashes his Nazi prison guards just as the latest gush of praise does to Wodehouse.
The Carry On, Jeeves author later regretted the broadcasts. He called them “a loony thing to do”, and, in a letter to the Foreign Office, an “inexcusable blunder”.
Even after the MI5 deemed him guilty only being naive and “unwise”, the director of public prosecutions Sir Theobald Mathew said he should be arrested if he came back to England.
He never returned to the country he depicted, satirised and eulogised.
Though anyone who thinks PGW's reputation needs "redemption" is a class-A cretin.
— alexmassie (@alexmassie) November 27, 2016
These flaws make Wodehouse a fascinating figure. Indeed, living writers should be queuing up to dramatise the dilemma in which he found himself.
Perhaps, bewildered and Stockholmed, he agreed to a series of broadcasts that would bar him from ever coming home. Or, after prison hardships, he thought he’d live in luxury and get his enemies to foot the bill. A subtle master of English register, he’d make propaganda into a joke literally at their expense.
Wodehouse’s writings deserve to be hallowed alongside those of Virginia Woolf and Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh. But the facts shouldn’t be whitewashed or hidden.
The notion that the media has to make his past more palatable for the public to justify this, or that a writer has to be spotless to be read, is ridiculous.
We are able to admit odious figures are good writers and worth preserving: Ezra Pound; Knut Hamsun; Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Wodehouse’s wrongs don’t approach theirs.
It’s a writer’s job to present us with complex moral problems. They have a right to be remembered as complex moral problems themselves.