" 'It seems to me, Jeeves, that the ceremony may be one fraught with considerable interest.'
'What, in your opinion, will the harvest be?'
'One finds it difficult to hazard a conjecture, sir.'
'You mean imagination boggles?'
I inspected my imagination. He was right. It boggled."
Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, the third son of Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929), a magistrate resident in the British colony of Hong Kong, and his wife, Eleanor (1861–1941), daughter of the Rev John Bathurst Deane. The Wodehouses, who traced their ancestry back to the 13th century, belonged to a collateral branch of the family of the earls of Kimberley. Eleanor Wodehouse was also of ancient aristocratic ancestry. She was visiting her sister in Guildford when Wodehouse was born there prematurely.
Mother and son sailed for Hong Kong, where for his first two years Wodehouse was raised by a Chinese amah (nurse), alongside his elder brothers Peveril (1877–1951) and Armine (1879–1936). When he was two, the brothers were brought to England, where they were placed under the care of an English nanny in a house adjoining that of Eleanor's father and mother. The boys' parents returned to Hong Kong and became virtual strangers to their sons. Such an arrangement was then normal for middle-class families based in the colonies. The lack of parental contact, and the harsh regime of some of those in loco parentis, left permanent emotional scars on many children from similar backgrounds, including the Writers Thackeray, Saki, Kipling and Walpole. Wodehouse was more fortunate; his nanny, Emma Roper, was strict but not unkind, and both with her and later at his different schools Wodehouse had a generally happy childhood. His recollection was that "it went like a breeze from start to finish, with everybody I met understanding me perfectly". The biographer Robert McCrum suggests that nonetheless Wodehouse's isolation from his parents left a psychological mark, causing him to avoid emotional engagement both in life and in his works. Another biographer, Frances Donaldson, writes, "Deprived so early, not merely of maternal love, but of home life and even a stable background, Wodehouse consoled himself from the youngest age in an imaginary world of his own."
In 1886 the brothers were sent to a dame-school in Croydon, where they spent three years. Peveril was then found to have a "weak chest"; sea air was prescribed, and the three boys were moved to Elizabeth College on the island of Guernsey. In 1891 Wodehouse went on to Malvern House Preparatory School in Kent, which concentrated on preparing its pupils for entry to the Royal Navy. His father had planned a naval career for him, but the boy's eyesight was found to be too poor for it. He was unimpressed by the school's narrow curriculum and zealous discipline; he later parodied it in his novels, with Bertie Wooster recalling his early years as a pupil at a "penitentiary ... with the outward guise of a prep school" called Malvern House.
Wodehouse's six years at Dulwich were among the happiest of his life: "To me the years between 1894 and 1900 were like heaven." In addition to his sporting achievements he was a good singer and enjoyed taking part in school concerts; his literary leanings found an outlet in editing the school magazine, The Alleynian. For the rest of his life he remained devoted to the school. The biographer Barry Phelps writes that Wodehouse "loved the college as much as he loved anything or anybody."
Wodehouse expected to follow Armine to the University of Oxford, but the family's finances took a turn for the worse at the crucial moment. Ernest Wodehouse had retired in 1895, and his pension was paid in rupees; fluctuation against the pound reduced its value in Britain. Wodehouse recalled, "The wolf was not actually whining at the door and there was always a little something in the kitty for the butcher and the grocer, but the finances would not run to anything in the nature of a splash". Instead of a university career, in September 1900 Wodehouse was engaged in a junior position in the London office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He was unsuited to it and found the work baffling and uncongenial. He later wrote a humourous account of his experiences at the bank, but at the time he longed for the end of each working day, when he could return to his rented lodgings in Chelsea and write. At first he concentrated, with some success, on serious articles about school Sports for Public School Magazine. In November 1900 his first comic piece, "Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings," was accepted by Tit-Bits. A new magazine for boys, The Captain, provided further well-paid opportunities, and during his two years at the bank, Wodehouse had eighty pieces published in a total of nine magazines.
In 1901, with the help of a former Dulwich master, william Beach Thomas, Wodehouse secured an appointment—at first temporary and later permanent—writing for The Globe's popular "By the Way" column. He held the post until 1909. At around the same time his first novel was published—a school story called The Pothunters, serialised incomplete in Public School Magazine in early 1902, and issued in full in hardback in September. He resigned from the bank that month to devote himself to writing full-time.
Between the publication of The Pothunters 1902 and that of Mike in 1909, Wodehouse wrote eight novels and co-wrote another two. The critic R.D.B. French writes that, of Wodehouse's work from this period, almost all that deserves to survive is the school fiction. Looking back in the 1950s Wodehouse viewed these as his apprentice years: "I was practically in swaddling clothes and it is extremely creditable to me that I was able to write at all."
Wodehouse's other new venture in 1904 was writing for the stage. Towards the end of the year the librettist Owen Hall invited him to contribute an additional lyric for a musical comedy Sergeant Brue. Wodehouse had loved theatre since his first visit, aged thirteen, when Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience had made him "drunk with ecstasy". His lyric for Hall, "Put Me in My Little Cell", was a Gilbertian number for a trio of comic crooks, with music by Frederick Rosse; it was well received and launched Wodehouse on a career as a theatre Writer that spanned three decades.
In early 1906 the actor-manager Seymour Hicks invited Wodehouse to become resident lyricist at the Aldwych Theatre, to add topical verses to newly imported or long-running shows. Hicks had already recruited the young Jerome Kern to write the music for such songs. The first Kern-Wodehouse collaboration, a comic number for The Beauty of Bath titled "Mr [Joseph] Chamberlain", was a show-stopper and was briefly the most popular song in London.
Wodehouse's early period as a Writer came to an end in 1908 with the serialisation of The Lost Lambs, published the following year in book form as the second half of the novel Mike. The work begins as a conventional school story, but Wodehouse introduces a new and strikingly original character, Psmith, whose creation both Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell regarded as a watershed in Wodehouse's development. Wodehouse said that he based Psmith on the hotelier and impresario Rupert D'Oyly Carte—"the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a silver plate with watercress around it". Wodehouse wrote in the 1970s that a cousin of his who had been at school with Carte told him of the latter's monocle, studied suavity, and stateliness of speech, all of which Wodehouse adopted for his new character. Psmith featured in three more novels: Psmith in the City (1910), a burlesque of banking; Psmith, Journalist (1915) set in New York; and Leave It to Psmith (1923), set at Blandings Castle.
In May 1909 Wodehouse made his second visit to New York, where he sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for a total of $500, a much higher fee than he had commanded previously. He resigned from The Globe and stayed in New York for nearly a year. He sold many more stories, but none of the American publications offered a permanent relationship and guaranteed income. Wodehouse returned to England in late 1910, rejoining The Globe and also contributing regularly to The Strand Magazine. Between then and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he revisited America frequently.
Wodehouse was in New York when the war began. Ineligible for military Service because of his poor eyesight, he remained in the US throughout the war, detached from the conflict in Europe and absorbed in his theatrical and literary concerns. In September 1914 he married Ethel May Wayman, née Newton (1885–1984), an English widow. The marriage proved happy and lifelong. Ethel's personality was in contrast with her husband's: he was shy and impractical; she was gregarious, decisive and well organised. In Sproat's phrase, she "took charge of Wodehouse's life and made certain that he had the peace and quiet he needed to write". There were no children of the marriage, but Wodehouse came to love Ethel's daughter Leonora (1905–1944) and legally adopted her.
There had been films of Wodehouse stories since 1915, when A Gentleman of Leisure was based on his 1910 novel of the same name. Further screen adaptations of his books were made between then and 1927, but it was not until 1929 that Wodehouse went to Hollywood where Bolton was working as a highly paid Writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Ethel was taken with both the financial and social aspects of Hollywood life, and she negotiated a contract with MGM on her husband's behalf under which he would be paid $2,000 a week. This large salary was particularly welcome because the couple had lost considerable sums in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
Most of Wodehouse's canon is set in an undated period around the 1920s and 1930s. The critic Anthony Lejeune describes the settings of Wodehouse's novels, such as the Drones Club and Blandings Castle, as "a fairyland". Although some critics thought Wodehouse's fiction was based on a world that had never existed, Wodehouse affirmed that "it did. It was going strong between the wars", although he agreed that his version was to some extent "a sort of artificial world of my own creation". The novels showed a largely unchanging world, regardless of when they were written, and only rarely—and mistakenly in McCrum's view—did Wodehouse allow modernity to intrude, as he did in the 1966 story "Bingo Bans the Bomb".
During the 1930s Wodehouse's theatrical work tailed off. He wrote or adapted four plays for the West End; Leave it to Psmith (1930), which he adapted in collaboration with Ian Hay, was the only one to have a long run. The reviewer in The Manchester Guardian praised the play, but commented: "It is Mr Wodehouse's own inimitable narrative comments and descriptions in his own person of the antics of his puppets that one misses. They cannot be got into a play and they are at least half the fun of the novels." In 1934 Wodehouse collaborated with Bolton on the book for Cole Porter's Anything Goes (Porter wrote his own lyrics), but at the last minute their version was almost entirely rewritten by others at the instigation of the Producer, who disliked the original script. Concentrating on writing novels and short stories, Wodehouse reached the peak of his productivity in this decade, averaging two books each year, and grossing an annual £100,000.
In 1934, Wodehouse moved to France for tax reasons; in 1940, he was taken prisoner at Le Touquet by the invading Germans and interned for nearly a year. After his release, he made six broadcasts from German radio in Berlin to the US, which had not yet entered the war. The talks were comic and apolitical, but his broadcasting over enemy radio prompted anger and strident controversy in Britain and a threat of prosecution. Wodehouse never returned to England. From 1947 until his death, he lived in the US, taking dual British-American citizenship in 1955. He was a prolific Writer throughout his life, publishing more than 90 books, 40 plays, 200 short stories, and other writings between 1902 and 1974. He died in 1975 at age 93 in Southampton, New York.
In 1936 Wodehouse created the last of his regular cast of principal characters, Lord Ickenham, otherwise known as Uncle Fred, who, in Usborne's words, "leads the dance in four novels and a short story ... a whirring dynamo of misrule". His other books from the decade include Right Ho, Jeeves, which Donaldson judged his best work, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, which the Writer Bernard Levin considered the best, and Blandings Castle, which contains "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend", which Rudyard Kipling thought "one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read".
Other leading literary figures who admired Wodehouse were A.E. Housman, Max Beerbohm and Hilaire Belloc; on the radio and in print Belloc called Wodehouse "the best Writer of our time: the best living Writer of English ... the head of my profession". Wodehouse regarded Belloc's plaudit as "a gag, to get a rise out of serious-minded authors whom he disliked". Wodehouse was never sure that his books had literary merit as well as popular appeal, and, Donaldson suggests, must have been overwhelmed when the University of Oxford conferred an honorary doctorate of letters on him in June 1939. His visit to England for the awarding ceremony was the last time he set foot in his native land.
Wodehouse's family and friends had not had any news of his location after the fall of France, but an article from an Associated Press reporter who had visited Tost in December 1940 led to pressure on the German authorities to release the Novelist. This included a petition from influential people in the US; Senator W. Warren Barbour presented it to the German ambassador. Although his captors refused to release him, Wodehouse was provided with a typewriter and, to pass the time, he wrote Money in the Bank. Throughout his time in Tost, he sent postcards to his US literary agent asking for $5 to be sent to various people in Canada, mentioning his name. These were the families of Canadian prisoners of war, and the news from Wodehouse was the first indication that their sons were alive and well. Wodehouse risked severe punishment for the communication, but managed to evade the German censor.
In 1941 the Concise Cambridge History of English Literature opined that Wodehouse had "a gift for highly original aptness of phrase that almost suggests a poet struggling for release among the wild extravagances of farce", while McCrum thinks that Wodehouse manages to combine "high farce with the inverted poetry of his mature comic style", particularly in The Code of the Woosters; the Novelist Anthony Powell believes Wodehouse to be a "comic poet". Robert A. Hall, Jr., in his study of Wodehouse's style and technique, describes the author as a master of prose, an opinion also shared by Levin, who considers Wodehouse "one of the finest and purest Writers of English prose". Hall identifies several techniques used by Wodehouse to achieve comic effect, including the creation of new words through adding or removing prefixes and suffixes, so when Pongo Twistleton removes the housemaid Elsie Bean from a cupboard, Wodehouse writes that the character "de-Beaned the cupboard". Wodehouse created new words by splitting others in two, thus Wodehouse divides "hobnobbing" when he writes: "To offer a housemaid a cigarette is not hobbing. Nor, when you light it for her, does that constitute nobbing."
While still detained by the French, Wodehouse was again mentioned in questions in the House of Commons in December 1944 when MPs wondered if the French authorities could repatriate him to stand trial. Eden stated that the "matter has been gone into, and, according to the advice given, there are no grounds upon which we could take action". Two months later George Orwell wrote the essay "In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse", where he stated that "it is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity". Orwell's rationale was that Wodehouse's "moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy, and according to the public-school code, treachery in time of war is the most unforgivable of all the sins", which was compounded by his "complete lack—so far as one can judge from his printed works—of political awareness".
On 15 January 1945 the French authorities released Wodehouse, but they did not inform him, until June 1946, that he would not face any official charges and was free to leave the country.
Having secured American visas in July 1946, the Wodehouses made preparations to return to New York. They were delayed by Ethel's insistence on acquiring suitable new clothes and by Wodehouse's wish to finish writing his current novel, The Mating Season, in the peace of the French countryside. In April 1947 they sailed to New York, where Wodehouse was relieved at the friendly reception he received from the large press contingent awaiting his arrival. Ethel secured a comfortable penthouse apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side, but Wodehouse was not at ease. The New York that he had known before the war was much changed. The magazines that had paid lavishly for his stories were in decline, and those that remained were not much interested in him. He was sounded out about writing for Broadway, but he was not at home in the post-war theatre; he had money problems, with large sums temporarily tied up in Britain, and for the first time in his career he had no ideas for a new novel. He did not complete one until 1951.
Although Ethel made a return visit to England in 1948 to shop and visit family and friends, Wodehouse never left America after his arrival in 1947. It was not until 1965 that the British government indicated privately that he could return without fear of legal proceedings, and by then he felt too old to make the journey. The biographers Benny Green and Robert McCrum both take the view that this exile benefited Wodehouse's writing, helping him to go on depicting an idealised England seen in his mind's eye, rather than as it actually was in the post-war decades.
Wodehouse remained unsettled until he and Ethel left New York City for suburban Long Island. Bolton and his wife lived in the prosperous hamlet of Remsenburg, part of the Southampton resort area of Long Island, 77 miles (124 km) east of Manhattan. Wodehouse stayed with them frequently, and in 1952 he and Ethel bought a house nearby. They lived at Remsenburg for the rest of their lives. Between 1952 and 1975 he published more than twenty novels, as well as two collections of short stories, a heavily edited collection of his letters, a volume of memoirs, and a selection of his magazine articles. He continued to hanker after a revival of his theatrical career. A 1959 off-Broadway revival of the 1917 Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern Leave It to Jane was a surprise hit, running for 928 performances, but his few post-war stage works, some in collaboration with Bolton, made little impression.
In 1955, Wodehouse became an American citizen, though he remained a British subject, and was therefore still eligible for UK state honours. He was considered for the award of a knighthood three times from 1967, but the honour was twice blocked by British officials. In 1974 the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, intervened to secure a knighthood (KBE) for Wodehouse, which was announced in January 1975, in the same New Year Honours list in which Charlie Chaplin became Sir Charles. The Times commented that Wodehouse's honour signalled "official forgiveness for his wartime indiscretion. ... It is late, but not too late, to take the sting out of that unhappy incident."
The boy was baptised at the Church of St Nicolas, Guildford, and was named after his godfather, Pelham von Donop. Wodehouse wrote in 1957, "If you ask me to tell you frankly if I like the name Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, I must confess that I do not. ... I was named after a godfather, and not a thing to show for it but a small silver mug which I lost in 1897." The first name was rapidly elided to "Plum", the name by which Wodehouse became known to family and friends.
Wodehouse's early career as a lyricist and Playwright was profitable, and his work with Bolton, according to The Guardian, "was one of the most successful in the history of musical comedy". At the outbreak of the Second World War he was earning £40,000 a year from his work, which had broadened to include novels and short stories. Following the furore ensuing from the wartime broadcasts, he suffered a downturn in his popularity and book sales; The Saturday Evening Post stopped publishing his short stories, a stance they reversed in 1965, although his popularity—and the sales figures—slowly recovered over time.
The proposed nominations of Wodehouse for a knighthood in 1967 and 1971 were blocked for fear that such an award would "revive the controversy of his wartime behaviour and give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which the embassy was doing its best to eradicate". When Wodehouse was awarded the knighthood, only four years later, the Journalist Dennis Barker wrote in The Guardian that the Writer was "the solitary surviving English literary comic genius". After his death six weeks later, the Journalist Michael Davie, writing in the same paper, observed that "Many people regarded ... [Wodehouse] as he regarded Beachcomber, as 'one, if not more than one, of England's greatest men' ", while in the view of the obituarist for The Times Wodehouse "was a comic genius recognized in his lifetime as a classic and an old master of farce".
Before starting a book Wodehouse would write up to four hundred pages of notes bringing together an outline of the plot; he acknowledged that "It's the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out." He always completed the plot before working on specific character actions. For a novel the note-writing process could take up to two years, and he would usually have two or more novels in preparation simultaneously. After he had completed his notes, he would draw up a fuller scenario of about thirty thousand words, which ensured plot holes were avoided, and allowed for the dialogue to begin to develop. When interviewed in 1975 he revealed that "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." He preferred working between 4 and 7 pm—but never after dinner—and would work seven days a week. In his younger years, he would write around two to three thousand words a day, although he slowed as he aged, so that in his nineties he would produce a thousand. The reduced speed in writing slowed his production of books: when younger he would produce a novel in about three months, while Bachelors Anonymous, published in 1973, took around six months.
The American literary analyst Robert F. Kiernan, defining "camp" as "excessive stylization of whatever kind", brackets Wodehouse as "a master of the camp novel", along with Thomas Love Peacock, Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, E. F. Benson and Ivy Compton-Burnett. The literary critic and Writer Cyril Connolly calls Wodehouse a "politicians' author"—one who does "not like art to be exacting and difficult". Two former British prime ministers, H. H. Asquith and Tony Blair, are on record as Wodehouse aficionados, and the latter became a patron of the Wodehouse Society. Seán O'Casey, a successful Playwright of the 1920s, thought little of Wodehouse: he commented in 1941 that it was damaging to England's dignity that the public or "the academic government of Oxford, dead from the chin up" considered Wodehouse an important figure in English literature. His jibe that Wodehouse was "English literature's performing flea" provided his target with the title of his collected letters, published in 1953.
Since Wodehouse's death there have been numerous adaptations and dramatisations of his work on television and film, and, as of 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 1,750 quotations from Wodehouse, illustrating terms from crispish to zippiness. McCrum, writing in 2004, observes, "Wodehouse is more popular today than on the day he died", and "his comic vision has an absolutely secure place in the English literary imagination." Voorhees, while acknowledging that Wodehouse's antecedents in literature range from Ben Jonson to Oscar Wilde, writes: