P. G. Wodehouse Biography
Sir Pelham Grenville (P. G.) Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) was a British humorist whose life spanned nearly a century. Best known for his novels featuring Bertie and Jeeves, Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse) also wrote short stories, plays, poems, and articles. His writings are still widely enjoyed and have been adapted to stage and screen. Learn more about his life from the mini-bio and documentary below.
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was an English humorist whose body of work includes novels, short stories, plays, humorous verses, poems, song lyrics, and magazine articles. He enjoyed enormous popular success during a career that lasted more than seventy years, and his many writings continue to be widely read. A quintessential Englishman, born during the Victorian era and living his early youth in Edwardian London, he also resided in France and the United States for extended periods during his long life. His writing reflects this rich background, with stories set in England, France, and the United States, particularly, New York City and Hollywood.
An acknowledged master of English prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by recent writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry .
Perhaps best known today for the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), wrote the lyrics for the hit song “Bill” in Kern’s Show Boat (1927), wrote lyrics to Sigmund Romberg’s music for the Gershwin – Romberg musical Rosalie (1928) and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). He is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Wodehouse spent the last decades of his life in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1955, after a controversy arose relating to five radio broadcasts he made from Germany during World War II. He had been imprisoned by the Germans in a civil internment camp for a year, and speculation regarding his motives led to allegations that the broadcasts were the result of collaboration and treason. Some libraries banned his books. An MI5 investigation cleared him of any such crimes, but he never returned to England.
Wodehouse, called “Plum” (abbreviating “Pelham”) by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor Wodehouse (née Deane; daughter of John Bathurst Deane) in Guildford, while she was visiting from Hong Kong. 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 The 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.
When he was three years old, Wodehouse was brought back to Britain and placed in the care of a nanny. He attended various boarding schools and, according to one biographer, between the ages of three and 15 years, saw his parents for barely six months in total.
He enjoyed attending Dulwich College, where he was successful both as a scholar and a sportsman: he was a member of the Classics VIth Form (traditionally, the preserve of the brightest pupils) and a school prefect; he edited the college magazine, The Alleynian, sang and acted leading roles in musical and theatrical productions and gained his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and rugby football First XV; he also represented the school at boxing (until barred by poor eyesight) and his house at athletics. The library at Dulwich is now named after him.
Armine Wodehouse had won a classics scholarship to Oxford University (where he gained a first class degree), and Pelham expected to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but a fall in the value of the Indian rupee (in which currency his father’s pension was paid) forced the abandonment of the plan for a university education for the family’s third son. His father found him a position with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC), where, after two years’ training in London, he would have been posted to an overseas branch. (For a fictional, but somewhat autobiographical, account of some of his experiences in the bank, see Psmith in the City). Wodehouse found himself unsuited to banking as a career and saw his true vocation was writing. He wrote part-time while working in the bank, and in 1902 began writing for The Globe (a then-popular London evening paper), taking over the comic, “By the Way” column from a friend who had resigned. Wodehouse also contributed items to Punch, Vanity Fair (1903–1906), Daily Express (1904) and The World: A Journal for Men and Women (1906–07). During this same period, he wrote stories for schoolboys’ magazines (The Captain and Public School Magazine) that were compiled to form his first published novels and four playlets with his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Around this time Wodehouse also played for the Authors XI cricket team.
During 1909, Wodehouse stayed in Greenwich Village in New York and sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier’s for a total of $500 – much more than he had ever earned before.  He then resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York, where he became a regular contributor (under a variety of pseudonyms) to the newly founded American Vanity Fair (1913). However, the magazine had only just started and might have had to, in Wodehouse’s words, “suddenly call it a day.” His years of hard work were shortly to be rewarded, however – “the wolf was still outside the door but sticking around and licking its lips in a meaning manner, when suddenly everything changed – The Saturday Evening Post bought and serialised Something New” in 1915.
He used his knowledge of Greenwich Village in various short stories set in the area, including a series of short stories about Bertie Wooster, who resides in and enjoys the bohemian life style of the Washington Square area while avoiding his Aunt Agatha. Some of his early novels, including A Gentleman of Leisure, Piccadilly Jim, The Little Warrior, and Psmith, Journalist, also have New York settings.
Around this time Wodehouse also began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on (eventually eighteen) musical comedies, including the innovative Princess Theatre musicals. Wodehouse’s contribution to musical theatre was summed up by composer Richard Rogers as follows, “Before Larry Hart, only P.G. Wodehouse had made any assault on the intelligence of the song-listening public.” He composed a total of thirty-three musicals; in 1917, five of his shows ran simultaneously on Broadway! During the 1917 season, Wodehouse and Bolton had “about a dozen companies out on the road”; his theatre work was, at that time his “big source of income.” Many of his novels were also serialized in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.
In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman (d. 1984) and gained a stepdaughter named Leonora. He had no biological children.
Although Wodehouse and his novels are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 until 1947, when he moved permanently to the United States, he split his time among Britain, France and the U. S. In 1934, he took up residence in France, to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and the U.S. His letters and writings reflect little interest 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 Britain, apparently failing, as did may others similarly situated, to recognize the imminence of the German invasion and French capitulation. It is also said that his wife couldn’t bear to leave their dog, Wonder. He was classified as an “enemy alien” according to the Geneva Convention, and the German military authorities in occupied France interned him, along with other male foreign nationals. He was interned first in Belgium, then at Tost in Upper Silesia (formerly part of Germany, now Toszek in Poland), of which he is recorded having said, “If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like…”
While at Tost, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty monologues. He was released from internment a few months before his 60th birthday when, under the Geneva Convention, he should have been released anyway; the early release led to allegations that he had made a deal with the Nazi authorities. He then drafted several humorous talks, based on his life at Tost, as the basis for a series of radio broadcasts aimed at America, which was not then at war with Germany. After his release from internment, he lived for a time at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, before moving to Paris, which was still under German occupation. Wodehouse believed he would be admired for having “kept a stiff upper lip” during his internment, but he misjudged the mood in wartime Britain, where reports about the broadcasts led to many accusations of collaborationism with the Germans and even treason. Some libraries banned his books.
Another critic was the playwright Sean O’Casey who, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph in July 1941, wrote: “If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget for ever the pitiful antics of English Literature’s performing flea”. Wodehouse deflected the insult by giving the title Performing Flea to a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend. Among Wodehouse’s defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell.
An investigation led by Major Cussen of the British security service MI5 concluded that Wodehouse was naïve and foolish, but definitely not a traitor. Documents declassified in the 1980s appeared to show that while he was living in Paris, his living expenses were paid by the Nazis, but papers released by the British Public Record Office in 1999 showed that this had been accounted for by MI5 investigators when they established Wodehouse’s innocence. By their account, the money was Wodehouse’s legitimate earnings, including an advance from his Spanish publisher, which because of the war had to be channeled through the German Central Bank.
For security reasons, the results of Major Cussen’s investigation were not published during Wodehouse’s lifetime. Wodehouse felt that the unwillingness to publish the document prevented his full rehabilitation.
The criticism led Wodehouse and his American-born wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from his stepdaughter Leonora, who died during Wodehouse’s internment in Germany, they had no children. He became a United States citizen in 1955, spending the remainder of his life in Remsenburg, New York, never to revisit his homeland.
Wodehouse continued to write novels and to follow an exercise regime into his nineties. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1975 New Year Honours; it is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. His doctor advised him not to travel to London for the investiture and his wife later accepted the knighthood on his behalf from the British consul. In early February 1975, he entered Southampton Hospital, where he died of a heart attack on 14 February 1975 at age 93. His last novel, Sunset at Blandings, was unfinished at his death and was published posthumously in 1977.
In a BBC interview shortly before his death, Wodehouse said that he had no ambitions left, as he had been knighted and created as a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s.
This P. G. Wodehouse biography has been adapted from the P.G. Wodehouse entry on Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is a good starting place for research, remember that you need to draw material from primary sources for any scholarly work. The citations for this article may provide you with a starting point for further research.
You can read an entertaining Wodehouse interview (from when he was in his nineties) at The Paris Review website.
1989 BBC documentary on P. G. Wodehouse
To learn more about this author, check out David Jasen’s biography P.G. Wodehouse: Portrait of a Master. Jasen knew Wodehouse for many years, and his research is extensive.