July 13, 2003

P.G. Wodehouse In His Own Words, by Barry Day and Tony Ring

This is by way of being a sort-of kind-of biography of P.G. Wodehouse, relying mostly on Wodehouse' letters and (woefully few) writings about himself, as well as his attitudes as expressed in his novels and short stories. Quoting Wodehouse as much as it does, it is indeed a funny and easily-read book. As a biography, it's only so-so, especially as (as the book itself points out) you can't necessarily trust what Wodehouse says about himself.

I did learn a few interesting things, though. For most of Wodehouse' childhood, his mother and father were living in the Far East, while he himself was shuttled from, significantly, Aunt to Aunt. He had almost no contact with his mother from the time he was about two years old until he was in his teens. (They were not close.)

And then, after he left school he spent two years working at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghae Bank. (The book spells it "Shanghai", but this is an error.) (Yes, I know, the City of Shanghai is usually spelled "Shanghai". In the name of the bank, it's "Shanghae".) He claims never to have understood what he was supposed to be doing there, and was finally sacked for writing the beginnings of a story in a brand new ledger. This was Defacing A Ledger, and was very bad.

After that, he became a full-time writer, and eventually moved permanently to the United States, where with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern he helped to invent the modern musical comedy. Before Wodehouse, the songs in musical comedy frequently had little to do with the story being told, but were selected for their perceived chance to become a hit. After Wodehouse, it was expected that the songs served the story. His efforts as a lyricist are virtually forgotten these days, but among many other songs he wrote the lyrics for "Bill" from Showboat. He also wrote a number of plays, which so far as I can tell are entirely forgotten.

Wodehouse spent a total of eighteen months working in Hollywood as a writer. His first stint consisted of two consecutive six month contracts for Warner Brothers. He got paid a ridiculous amount--$2000 a week in 1929 dollars--for doing virtually nothing. The studio hired well-known writers, but didn't ask them to write anything. Weird. He spent another six months in Hollywood some few years later, with similar results.

And while all this was going on, he was writing, constantly. For which I'm heartily grateful.

Posted by Will Duquette at July 13, 2003 03:06 PM