Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Plum to his friends, was born in 1881 in Guilford, England. After graduating from Dulwich College, Wodehouse was unable to attend university owing to a turn in the family finances. Instead he was forced to take a job at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. It was a job for which he was very ill suited. So he turned to writing. In his lifetime, he wrote over 90 books, numerous short stories, several plays and musicals, the lyrics to dozens of songs, and even a few film scripts. He was hailed by his fellow writers as a true master of his craft, and his fans hold him to be the greatest comic writer of the 20th Century. Still, his history is not without its dark side.
In the late 1930s, Wodehouse and his wife were living in the town of Le Touquet, France. They were still there when the town was captured by the German army in 1940. Wodehouse was sent to a series of internment camps, but was released on June 21, 1941. He then made five broadcasts from Berlin to America over the Nazi radio. When the British public heard of this, they were outraged. Without even hearing the broadcasts, many people called Wodehouse a traitor, a quisling, another “Lord Haw-Haw,” and a Nazi sympathizer. Even today, many people in Britain and elsewhere still believe Wodehouse betrayed his country, but is it true? Could the kind-hearted creator of Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves really be a traitor?
The charges made against Wodehouse in his lifetime are as follows: he and his wife stayed in Le Touquet and did not attempt to escape; they entertained Germans in their home in Le Touquet and later in hotels in Berlin and Paris; Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathizer; he had collaborated with his German captors while interned; he was released from his internment on the promise of doing Nazi propaganda; he had broadcast the aforementioned propaganda; and he was put up in luxurious hotels by the German throughout the remainder of the war (War 9). In 1999 new charges were laid in various newspapers that he had been paid a monthly salary by the Germans equivalent in modern currency to $5,600 (“Wodehouse Paid”).
The charge of the Wodehouses having stayed in Le Touquet and not having attempted to escape is not entirely true. The Wodehouses did remain in Le Touquet, but so did many others (War 40). The Wodehouses’ reasons for staying were threefold. To begin with, they had made arrangements with the British Vice-Consul in Boulogne to give them advance warning if it should be necessary to flee, but they were not given such notice due to an underestimation of the rate of the German advance. Also, there were very strict laws regarding the transportation of animals at the time, and the Wodehouses did not want their Pekinese, Wonder, to have to go through the required six month quarantine. Finally, they, like many others who remained, believed fleeing would show a cowardly lack of faith in the ability of the British troops to hold back the Germans (Society par. 5). It is also important to remember that the Wodehouses did make two escape attempts just before the German occupation, but they were foiled by car troubles on both occasions(Cuessin 150).
The second charge of having entertained Germans is completely false, and stems in large part from a misinterpretation of one of Wodehouse’s broadcasts. In his first broadcast, Wodehouse said, “there was scarcely an evening when two or three of them [the Germans] did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards” (108). This of course led people to believe Wodehouse had invited them in and was at the party with them. In fact, Wodehouse’s bathroom was commandeered by German Labor Corps workers (War 43), and the reference to a party was just a joke. Other than this, there is no record of the Wodehouses having any Germans inside his house.
The charge that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathizer is also false. Just before his capture, Wodehouse burned some anti-German writings at his wife’s insistence. If these had not been destroyed, definite evidence would exist that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathizer (War 43-4). As it stands, none of Wodehouse’s writings directly show he was not pro-Nazi, except possibly his short story “Buried Treasure,” in which he makes some facetious comments about Hitler’s moustache(545). Still, there is strong evidence he was anti-fascist. In his book The Code of the Woosters, he wrote a very prominent anti-fascist passage. In it, Bertie Wooster is telling off the would-be fascist Roderick Spode:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is, ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher? (111-2; ch. 7)
The charge of having collaborated with the Germans while interned is, perhaps, the hardest to disprove. Major E. P. Cussen, who investigated the matter for MI5, listed various rumors about Wodehouse from some of his fellow internees at Tost. They largely amounted to allegations that he had offered his services to the Germans and that he had edited a pro-German paper called The Camp. Wodehouse replied that he had not offered his services to the Germans, and he did not edit any paper for the Germans, but The Camp did contain a parody of his works, written by someone who signed himself P. G. Roadhouse, which probably accounted for that particular misunderstanding (152). Also, Wodehouse did condense one of his previously published short stories for a newspaper of irreproachable British patriotism produced by the prisoners in the internment camp at Tost called the Tost Times (War 46).
The charge that Wodehouse was released on the promise of doing Nazi propaganda is ludicrous. It was standard practice at the time for the Germans to release prisoners at the age of 60, and Wodehouse was released shortly before his 60th birthday (Plum 90). He was released a few months early because the German Foreign Office believed doing so would pacify the Americans, who had been demanding his release, and thereby delay America’s entry into World War Two (War 62-5). In any case, Wodehouse did not broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda. No one who heard the broadcasts or read their transcripts could find any trace of pro-Nazi sentiment in them. In fact, the American forces later used the broadcasts as examples of anti-Nazi propaganda (“Persecution”). Wodehouse was later asked to make further broadcasts, which would have been propaganda, but he angrily refused (War 67-8).
The final charge made during Wodehouse’s lifetime of his having lived a life of luxury paid for by the Germans is also untrue. The Wodehouses did stay in the luxurious Hotel Adlon, because they were forced to do so, but they paid for it by themselves (War 72-3). The money came from a variety of sources: the sale of Mrs. Wodehouse’s jewelry, loans from friends, the sale of the movie rights from one of Wodehouse’s novels to a Berlin film company, and from the sale of a short story to a French newspaper. (“Innocence” 15). During this time, they were forced to live simply and frugally owing to a lack of funds. (War 72-3).
The more recent charge, of Wodehouse having been paid by the Germans, is susceptible to ready explanation. Wodehouse was given 580,00 French franks in October of 1943, which was in fact part of Wodehouse’s own money, which the Germans had been holding. In September of 1944, they were given an additional 560,000 franks, which was the rest of their money held by the Germans. Finally, in June, July, and August of 1944, Wodehouse was given a grad total of 300,000 franks, which were royalties from his Spanish publisher that had to be paid through the Germans (“Innocence” 15).
Though all the charges against Wodehouse can be dismissed, three questions still remain. If Wodehouse was no Nazi sympathizer, why did he make the broadcasts? If the broadcasts were so innocuous, what caused the uproar in Britain? And, if he was innocent, why did neither he, nor the British government make any serious attempt to establish his innocence? These questions though more complicated, are also answerable.
As to why Wodehouse made the broadcasts, Ian Hay, a fellow writer and friend of Wodehouse, wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph Wodehouse “is an easy-going and kindly man, cut off from public opinion here … and he probably broadcast because he saw no harm in the idea” (qtd. In War 16). Wodehouse’s American fans had sent him numerous letters and food parcels, and he had wanted to thank them and to know he was all right. While interred, he was not allowed to write to anyone other than family, and this seemed to him to be a good way to get word to his fans (Society paras. 10, 14). Wodehouse had no way of knowing what kind of trouble the broadcasts would bring him; he had spent the last year in an internment camp, and had no way of knowing of the German atrocities, or current British public sentiment (War 50).
However, not all of the British anti-Wodehouse sentiment was caused by the Berlin broadcasts; some of it was caused by an interview Wodehouse gave to Henry W. Flannery, a correspondent for CBS (War 55). In it, Wodehouse said, “I’m living here at the Adlon – have a suite on the third floor, a very nice one, too – and I come and go as I please.” He also said, “I’m wondering whether the kind of people and the kind of England, I write about will live after the war – whether England wins or not, I mean” (qtd. in War 56). These statements made it look as if, among other things, Wodehouse was living in freedom and luxury in the enemy capital, and as if he doubted the ability of Britain to win the war (War 56). In reality, the entire text of the interview had been written by Flannery, and owing to his trusting nature, Wodehouse read exactly what Flannery had written (War 58). Flannery of course, had written the script with the intention of discrediting Wodehouse, because Flannery was vehemently anti-Nazi, and believed Wodehouse to be “half-dupe and half-traitor” (War 57). Flannery later wrote a book entitled Assignment to Berlin in which he openly accused Wodehouse of having bought his freedom by making the broadcasts. The book itself has since been discredited, and Wodehouse himself once wrote there is “not a word of truth in it” (Plum 92).
This was not the first time Wodehouse’s trusting nature had led him to make incautious statements, which led to trouble. In 1931, Wodehouse had a contract in Hollywood. After it expired, he gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he said how nice it was he had been paid $2000 a week, but it was a shame they hadn’t been able to use any of the stuff he had written. This caused the bankers who owned Hollywood to push for reform in the film industry. It also very nearly resulted in Wodehouse getting blacklisted from Hollywood (Plum 128-9).
A good part of the furor actually raised by the Berlin broadcasts was no doubt caused by the BBC. At that time, the BBC had an unsurpassed reputation for broadcasting the truth (War 12). However, on July 15, 1941 the BBC broadcast a Postscript to its news broadcast by one William Connor, a newspaper columnist who wrote for the Daily Mirror under the pseudonym of “Cassandra.” This broadcast was forced on the BBC by the Duff Cooper’s Ministry of Information, Britain’s department of propaganda. Still, as it was carried by the BBC, it was given the same credibility as any of their factual broadcasts would have been given (War 33). In it, Connor called Wodehouse a rich playboy who had remained in Le Touquet to gamble, and was throwing a cocktail party when the Germans arrested him. Connor also claimed Wodehouse had bought his freedom by making the broadcasts, and compared him to Judas (War 12-13). Despite the BBC’s innocence in the “Cassandra” broadcast, they added further fire to the attacks against Wodehouse by banning all his works, including his song lyrics, from broadcast (War 34).
In his essay “In Defense of P. G. Wodehouse,” George Orwell attributed some of the outcry to an ideological conflict. At that time, there were strong left-wing sentiments among the British populace at that time. The upper classes had been to some degree discredited by pre-War appeasement polices. This caused many people to feel that the rich were treacherous, and Wodehouse was a rich man. While he was rich, as a writer he was not politically powerful, so he made an ideal target for those with left-wing sentiment (354). This theory seems to be born out by a letter written to the London Times by Connor:
The readers of the Daily Mirror are not yours, but as a sample of general public opinion they are far more reliable than any mass readership index to which The Times may lay claim. By pure reasons of circulation they come from a representative slice of the community which outnumbers your readership by 10 to 1. The people who approve of what I said about P. G. Wodehouse are pre-eminently among the vast masses of fighting men, factory workers, miners, and the ordinary common people who are carrying the burden of this war. (qtd. in War 27)
It is interesting to note that Connor eventually became convinced of Wodehouse’s innocence, and was the only one of his detractors to apologize after the war (War 36). Wodehouse was cleared by the French government (Plum 106-6), and Major Cussen, while investigating the case for the British government, found no evidence of guilt (War 45). So, why did the British government never publicly clear Wodehouse’s name, and why was Major Cussen’s file kept secret until 1980? Wodehouse felt it was probable the British government remained silent because if it admitted it was wrong, it would open itself to a lawsuit (Plum 107).
In his book Wodehouse at War, Ian Sproat came up with two different reasons for the British government’s continuing silence. Sproat at first had trouble getting a look at Major Cussen’s report. He began to suspect the report contained another name, which the government wished to keep secret. Sproat was unable to get a look at the documents until he suggested the other name be blanked out. When he finally obtained the report, he found that the name of another internee who had been released at the same time as Wodehouse was the only thing missing. Sproat was unsure as to whether this was an attempt to cover up the treachery of this unknown individual, or just incompetence (103-4). Sproat also believed the information might have been kept secret because departments of the British government tend to stick together, and none of them wished to release any information they felt could potentially make another department look bad (104).
Although the British government remained silent, Wodehouse did make a few minor attempts to clear his own name. While still living in Germany, Wodehouse made three attempts to get the German government to allow him to return home to explain his actions, but was refused because the German Ministry of Propaganda felt his remaining in Germany made good propaganda (War 70). Afterwards, he made a few small attempts to clear his name by giving interviews, writing letters to friendly publications, and allowing a friend to publish some of his letters on the subject, but this was not enough (War 82-91).
The reason Wodehouse made no further attempts to clear himself is probably because Wodehouse was advised by Cussen and his publishers to remain silent on the matter (War 92). These events were very unpleasant for Wodehouse. He disliked getting himself involved in unpleasant situations, and he knew that trying to clear his name would only cause more unpleasantness (War 96).
With no one pushing Wodehouse to prove his innocence, it is not surprising he made no great attempt to clear himself. It required the careful prodding of his friends or his wife to get Wodehouse to undertake an unpleasant task. This is rather well demonstrated by the incidents surrounding the song “Bill.” Wodehouse had originally written the song’s lyrics in 1917 for the musical Oh, Lady, but they were subsequently cut from the show. Later Jerry Kern, who had written the musical score for the song, asked Wodehouse for permission to use the song in the musical Show Boat, and Wodehouse said yes. Oscar Hammerstein, who did the lyrics for the rest of the songs in Show Boat, changed “about three words,” claimed part ownership, and got half the royalties for twenty years. Wodehouse himself never pressed the matter. Guy Bolton, Wodehouse’s friend and the writer of the book for Oh, Lady, had been given half of Wodehouse’s royalties for the lyrics in exchange for half the royalties from the book. Bolton made a fuss, which caused Hammerstein to relinquish all rights to the song and give them $5,000 in back payments (Plum 204-5).
A careful study of the facts shows P. G. Wodehouse was not a traitor. He did not broadcast propaganda for the Nazis. He was in no way sympathetic to the ideologies of Nazism or fascism. He was just an amiable and overly trusting man who was deceived into making several incautious statements. These statements were then blown out of all proportion by war-time paranoia and the human need to find a scapegoat in times of crisis. The incident caused such ill feeling that Wodehouse never set foot in England again. Still, though he was never expressly cleared by the British government, there is one fact which shows they eventually came to believe his innocence; in 1975, just before his death, he was knighted. It is highly doubtful that the British government would give the honor of knighthood to anyone it seriously believed to be a traitor.
Though many people in Britain and elsewhere still believe his guilt, the works of P. G. Wodehouse are still enjoyed by thousands of readers worldwide, including the British Queen Mother. There are societies celebrating his works in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, the Netherlands, Russia, and other countries as well. Many of his books are still in print even 25 years after his death. Many of the great writers of the 20th Century, such as Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Sax Rohmer, and George Orwell, have enjoyed and been influenced by his works. His Jeeves and Wooster saga is considered by some to be the 20th century English literature’s central achievement. Despite his follies, Wodehouse was, and still is, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
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---. “Buried Treasure.” The World of Mr. Mulliner. New York: Taplinger, 1972
---. Code of the Woosters. New York: Vintage, 1975. 545-59.
---. Yours Plum: The Letters of P. G. Wodehouse. Ed. Frances Donaldson. New York: