It’s the birthday of the English novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse (1881) (books by this author), who once wrote of a character, “She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.” Wodehouse was best known for creating the characters of wealthy but featherbrained Bertie Wooster of Blandings Castle and his supercilious valet, Jeeves. They appeared in more than 10 novels and 30 stories.
Wodehouse (pronounced Wood-house) was born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. His father was a magistrate in Hong Kong who could trace the family’s ancestry back to the 13th century. Wodehouse was known as “Plum” within his family and lived his first two years in Hong Kong. When he and his brother were returned to England, they were promptly deposited with relatives or at boarding schools for the next 15 years. Plum needed sea air for his weak chest and missed his parents, though he refused to dwell on his loneliness as a child. About his childhood, he joked, “It went by like a breeze from start to finish, with everyone understanding me perfectly.”
Wodehouse was 12 when he finally landed at Dulwich College (1899) with his brother, where he thrived, despite receiving a report that read, “He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humor; he draws over his books and examination papers in the most distressing way and writes foolish rhymes in other people’s books.” Wodehouse boxed and played cricket and rugby. There wasn’t money for university when he graduated, so he took a junior position at the London office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, which he found confusing and tedious. He started writing what were known as “school articles” for Public School Magazine (1898), which was a journal for young boys. He wrote a comic piece called “Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings” for a magazine called Tit-Bits (1900), and it was so popular that he quit the bank and began writing full time and never stopped for the rest of his life.
After his first novel, The Pot-Hunters (1902), was published, he wrote eight more novels in the next seven years. He also wrote the lyrics for musicals, including Leave it to Jane (1917) and Oh, Boy! (1917) and, at one point, had five musicals running on Broadway at once. Wodehouse had sailed for America in 1904, calling it “a land of romance.” He earned $2,000 a week writing screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of them were never made, but it didn’t matter to him. Wodehouse’s stories and novels about Bertie Wooster and his unctuous valet, Jeeves, were incredibly popular, beginning with the first, Extricating Young Gussie (1915), and lasting until the 1970s.
Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves formula included plenty of plots, schemes, kidnappings, a pig named Empress Blandings, and lots of puns and wordplay. Americans were besotted with words like “pipped,” “bally,” “what ho!” and “toddle.” Wodehouse was a prolific writer, often writing 4,000 words a day. He began each novel by writing over 400 pages of notes, including an outline and plot. Often, he didn’t know the names of characters until he was well inside a story, so he simply referred to them as “hero” or “heroine” until he became inspired. He wrote seven days a week from 4 to 7 p.m., but never after dinner. He said, “For a humorous novel, you’ve got to have a scenario, and you’ve got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in … splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.”
The character of Jeeves has proved so popular that it’s now in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning a “person of utmost responsibility” and serves as the inspiration for Yahoo’s Ask Jeeves search engine. Jeeves taught millions of Americans the difference between a butler and a valet: a butler serves the house; a valet serves the person. Once, when confronted with a bear, Bertie Wooster asked Jeeves what he should do and Jeeves replied, “I fancy it might be judicious if you were to make an exit, sir.”
P.G. Wodehouse died at 93 (1975) in his house on Long Island, a month after receiving a British knighthood. He was sitting in a chair, surrounded by the typescript for a new Blandings Castle novel.