As soon as I heard about this book, I knew that I wanted to not just read it, but to own it, so that I could savor it whenever I wished. I haven’t regretted investing in this hefty tome (especially since I got it used, hardcover, for only $5!), even though it has taken me months to wade through it.
While, on the whole, I’m not someone who enjoys delving into the personal lives of individuals whose art I enjoy, there are some exceptions to the rule. Agatha Christie’s autobiography was an absolute delight, with a fascinating glimpse into the age in which she lived. More recently, John Cleese’s rambling about his early years and the various events that led up to the formation of the Pythons was fun and engaging. A Life in Letters was a different sort of autobiography, because it isn’t exactly an autobiography as such. Instead, it was a biography with large batches of letters in between.
In her introduction, Ratcliffe explains that while Wodehouse’s writing often seems conventional and frivolous,
beneath the mostly male upper-crust there is some radical table-turning. Butlers bail their masters out, passion wins over reason, and girls, invariably, know more than boys. The letters reveal the roots of this reversal. Wodehouse was a self-made man who married a chorus-girl, spent time with Hollywood music stars, and endured Nazi imprisonment and journalistic accusations of treason.
Ratcliffe’s admiration for Wodehouse is obvious throughout her introduction and the biographical sections she writes. She explains that she has attempted to find balance throughout her choices in which correspondence to include. With the cooperation from the Wodehouse estate to include “freedom to publish any and every part of any Wodehouse letter,” she must have had a very hefty task in editing for this volume. At 542 pages (plus endnotes), she has definitely included many, many letters. She says,
Letters have been chosen for inclusion on the basis of their individual merit – either in terms of the information that they offer about Wodehouse’s life, the evolution of his style, or times in which he lived. Cuts within individual letters have also been essential, but passages have only been removed if they are irrelevant to the main thrust of the letter, or to Wodehouse’s biographical or artistic narrative. I have made a particular point of leaving the letters that Wodehouse sent during the war years as complete as space will allow.
As regards those “war years” letters, I admit that I had only a vague notion of some trouble Wodehouse had during that time. I am not sure if it is my position as an American reader, or as a somewhat younger fan of his, but before I read this book I really had no notion of the extent of persecution Wodehouse suffered because of the infamous German broadcasts. Ratcliffe makes no secret of the fact that she believes Wodehouse to be completely innocent of anything so dire as treason, and believes that Wodehouse’s letters, circumstances, and letters speak for themselves. In some ways, I think that one of the purposes of this volume was to place that situation in the perspective of Wodehouse’s entire life.
The book is divided into sections by date. Each chapter begins with Ratcliffe’s biographical notes as to what was going on with Wodehouse’s life at the time. These sections were just as interesting to me as the letters, as I really didn’t know much about his life going into this book. After that, there is a collection of letters from the dates indicated. Some of the letters also have editorial introductions, which actually brings me to my only complain about this book – the formatting of those introductions. Throughout the letter section, there would be letter, letter footnotes, heavy dark line to indicate letter break, next letter. But if a letter warranted an introduction, that introduction was placed between the footnotes and the dark line – so it always felt to me that the introduction actually belonged to the letter before it… funny how the brain works at times, and I can’t really explain why this aggravated me throughout all 500-odd pages, but it did!
The letters themselves are delightful. There is something quite personal about correspondence, and it is obvious that Wodehouse cares a great deal of his circle of friends.
The war letters were quite interesting. Wodehouse’s genuine distress over the broadcasts, and the world’s reception of them, is so very sad to read. It is hard enough to feel judged by the relatively small circle of people normal people know – I cannot imagine the pressure of an entire world full of people treating you with such negatively and, frequently, outright hatred. And to feel that there is no real defense that you can make – that every word you say only makes it worse…! And saddest of all, that he never was able to go back to England! Outcast from his home…
He wanted to write a book about his time in the internment camp, an attempt to help the public see his perspective and to understand how the broadcasts came to be made, but it was a difficult book to write. In a letter to one of his best friends, William Townend, he writes,
My trouble has been to get the right tone … comedy will keep creeping in at the most solemn moments. I wrote this yesterday – ‘The global howl which went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I had experienced since the time of my boyhood when I broke the curate’s umbrella and my aunts started writing letters to one another about it. ‘
But despite all the pressure, Wodehouse still stayed strong to his own personal beliefs. I loved when he was being pressed to declare his hatred for the Nazis and the Germans, and his response was, “I do not hate in the plural.” Such strong words; I love them.
Throughout the letters, Wodehouse’s strong sense of humor is evident. He is a master of taking his frustrations and difficulties and turning them into opportunities for self-depreciating humor:
A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered ‘dangereux’ to the safety of the Republic. Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming and shouting, ‘Save yourself, boys! Here comes Wodehouse!’, but now all is well and me and them are just like that. I am glad of this, because I have always considered them one of the nicest Republics I have ever met, my great trouble being that I simply can’t master the language. My instructor at the Berlitz was strong on pencils. She would keep saying, ‘Un crayon. Le crayon est jaune. Le crayon est bleu’ and so on till I really got good on pencils. But in actual conversation I found that it didn’t carry me very far. I was sunk unless I could work the talk round to pencils, and nobody seemed really interested in them.
One of the best parts of reading books like this is to find out little snippets of commonality. For instance, if I had to choose one character from all Wodehouse’s writing who is my favorite, it would be Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle. I can’t really explain my fondness for him, but I really do love that fellow very much – I have a great deal of empathy for his love of quiet, country life (and pigs) and fear of formal gatherings and crowds. So it was rather a delight to find
I love [Jeeves] and all I ask is for a constant supply of ‘Jeeves’ ideas. Actually, I prefer my Blandings Castle stories to the Jeeves stories, but I have a very good time writing the latter. I think Lord Emsworth is my favourite character. But Jeeves runs him very close.
Another personal opinion of mine was bolstered as well – my least-favorite Jeeves book is most definitely The Return of Jeeves, published also as Ring for Jeeves. This because it is Jeeves – but no Bertie! Wodehouse says,
I was very relieved that you liked Ring for Jeeves. But I think I made a bloomer in using Jeeves without Bertie. It’s really Bertie whom people like.
Much of Wodehouse’s correspondence is fun because it deals with his own opinions on other people’s literature. In one letter he is writing about various poetry he has been reading.
Why will people collect ALL a poet’s work into a volume instead of burying the bad stuff? It’s a nasty jar, after reading ‘The Nightingale’, to come on the following little effort of Keats: –
There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He kept little fishes
In washing tubs three
Of the might
Of the maid
Of his Granny-good –
He often would
Get up early…
I can see Keats shoving that one away in a drawer and saying to himself ‘Thank God no one will ever see that baby!’. And then along comes some damned fool and publishes it.
Another thing about Wodehouse’s life that was a delight to read was his genuine love and affection for his wife. They married after only knowing each other a few weeks, and remained married for sixty years. Throughout his letters, Wodehouse never has a negative word about his wife, and his letters to her are warm and touching. His letters to her always begin with something like, “My darling angel Bunny whom I love so dear,” and frequently mention how lonely and empty the house is without her. The letter he wrote to her on their 59th anniversary says,
Another anniversary! Isn’t it wonderful to think that we have been married for 59 years and still love each other as much as ever except when I spill my tobacco on the floor, which I’ll never do again!
At the end of the day, this was a fantastic book. There is so much information about Wodehouse as an individual, about his writing, about the history through which he lived, and more. Ratcliffe’s biographical sections are very well done, providing the reader with plenty of background information and context. I most definitely recommend this volume to those who love Wodehouse’s writings. Despite the length of time it took me to read it, this book was genuinely engaging, and is one that I anticipate referencing whenever I read any Wodehouse books going forward.