Book Review: PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

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P. G. Wodehouse:
A Life in Letters
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe (Hutchinson, £30, *25)

In this new collection, Sophie Ratcliffe has unearthed P. G. Wodehouse’s response to a publisher of a private letter of his: ‘Do you realise, you revolting little object… only a confirmed cad and a bounder would do such a thing, but I suppose your answer is that you are a confirmed cad and bounder. You say in your column I am angry with you. Not at all. When I am annoyed by a cockroach, I step on it and demolish it. But I am not angry with it.’

Undaunted, Dr Ratcliffe has compiled the third, and most extensive, published collection of Wodehouse’s letters. The second, Yours, Plum, edited by a family friend and his biographer, Frances Donaldson, came out in 1990, 15 years after Wode-house’s death.

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The first, Performing Flea, published in 1953, was a compendium of letters to one of his closest friends that Wodehouse edited and rewrote heavily before publication (as did the lawyers, who deleted the line ‘lawyers really are the damnedest fools’). Dr Ratcliffe also includes Wodehouse’s waspish response to a reviewer of Performing Flea: ‘You certainly made a pretty bloody fool of yourself… I’ll give you a tip which will be useful to you. Always read some of the book before you review it. It makes a tremendous difference, and you can always find someone to help you with the difficult words.’

But in the main, they are amiable missives to friends and admirers, about his dogs, the weather, his writing ‘my Art’ and modern literature, particularly its financial side. This was always a keen interest of the former banker, albeit one that rather stopped at the income end of things. Taxmen ‘behaved like bandits. They fined me 25% for not making a return, and 75% for making a false return. Now how anyone can make a false return without making a return at all is a thing that seems to me to need explaining’.

Wodehouse wrote quickly and easily; what concerned him was thinking of plots. So he adapted ideas he came across in others’ fiction or had already used in his own. ‘I have started another novel [Hot Water] and it is coming out fine. The only trouble is it really is a sort of carbon copy of Leave It To Psmith. I hope people won’t notice it.’ He even once adapted one of his novels into a play and then turned the subsequent script back into another novel.

Although he was constantly on the hunt for material, his letters contain few anecdotes and little curiosity on what goes on around him. Of working for MGM, he writes: ‘The maddening thing about this place is that I haven’t been able to get a single story out of it yet. I suppose there are plots to be found in Hollywood, but I can’t find them.’

Dr Ratcliffe, who provides brisk, incisive notes and introductions, could have called her book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and not-so Young Man. The great adapter himself might have appreciated that.

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