I discovered the works of PG Wodehouse or Plum as he is always called, about five years or so ago. Not sure why he had passed me by for so long, but I read one of the Jeeves books and found myself weeping with laughter while reading it. I was delighted of course to find out that there were about 90 more to come and they are keeping me going nicely.
I picked up this biography in Hay on Wye earlier this year and it has been waiting for my attention for a few months and, as ever, a book awaits its time and last week I read it. I am rather wishing now that I had not. Should the fact that you find you are not so fond of a writer/composer/artist as you thought cast a shadow over one's enjoyment of the person's output? It is a difficult question and, as a fan of Wagner who is surely one of the most repulsive people who ever lived, I should be able to divorce character from matter and take no notice.
And yet, after reading Frances Donaldson's excellent book I find that I am feeling slightly uncomfortable about Plum. There was correspondence in one of the papers recently about his controversial war time broadcasts to the US from Germany during the Second World War, and opinion was divided between those who thought he was a traitor and those who thought he was a bumbling, amiable buffoon who did not know what he was doing. Both these viewpoints were most strongly argued and that is why I decided to read this biography and see what I thought.
The author's father knew Plum pretty well and she had also met him so was biased in his favour - no harm in that, all biographers take a stance but she did not allow her fondness for him to stand in the way of facts, though when it came to these broadcasts she defended him stoutly. It is rather tragic that these have cast such a dark light over his reputation and in a recent television programme he was defended by the likes of Stephen Fry and Terry Wogan who adopted his most vague, Irish whimsical attitude to try to persuade us of Plum's utter naivety when he made these broadcasts.
We are told over and over again how unworldly Plum was, how he lived in a world of his own, how his wife and stepdaughter looked after him, organised everything and shielded him from life's realities. He comes across as vague, kindly and bumbling but this does not really sit well with his intellect and wit - after all he did a huge amount of work in the US, collaborating with Kern and other luminaries and you don't survive that unless you have a bit of common sense.
At the start of WWII Plum and his wife were living in France and when the Germans invaded were interned. He wrote a Camp Diary which was quoted extensively and he made it sound like a Jolly Lark with lots of schoolboy fun. I don't suppose it was for a minute, but he continued to write all the time he was there with a typewriter he hired, so not too many restrictions were placed upon him it seemed. He was released just before his 60th birthday as internees of that age were not allowed and shortly after this he was asked if he would broadcast to the US about his experiences etc. He was delighted to do so and agreed - unfortunately, it appeared to the UK and the US that he had had been given his freedom in order to broadcast propaganda for the Germans.
I won't go into detail about all this because the book sets the facts out and all the pros and cons, but the fall out of this rather idiotic behaviour remained with Plum for the rest of his life and he never returned to the UK. He said that he had never dreamed that these talks would cause such a furore and, indeed, if you read the transciprits they are funny and witty and say nothing of any great political moment at all. When reading Plum's letters and comments and interviews about htis affair, and it dragged on for some considerable time, I began to get rather irritated at this plea of But I didn't mean any of This I thought it would be Amusing and this brought to mind a Dickens character, who I also used to find irritating, Harold Skimpole from Bleak House. He is a friend of Mr Jarndyce, doesn't work, lives off his friends, and often refers to himself as "a child" and claims not to understand the complexities of human relationships and society - but understands them all too well. Adopting this persona relieves him of all responsibility. I found he kept popping into my mind while reading this biography and he would not go away.
One forgives favourite authors/artistes/composers a lot because of our love for their work. I have mentioned Wagner and he really is a prime case; in a review of Michael Slater's biography of Charles Dickens last year, I mentioned how badly Dickens had behaved to his wife and yet we found it hard to remain angry with the creator of David Copperfield, Scrooge, Miss Havisham et al because we know and love so many of his characters (Little Nell being an exception IMHO). This does not make his behaviour acceptable at all but, as I have forgiven Dickens and still love him, I am trying to adopt the same attitude towards P G Wodehouse. Finding it a little bit difficult at the moment but am currently reading one of his Blandings books and falling about laughing, so I am sure it will come in time.
His writing is just so superlative, the flow, the wit, the felicity of every single phrase and sentence is a joy so I am determined not to let my slight uneasiness get in the way of my enjoyment of Jeeves, Wooster, the Aunts, PSmith and all his other wonderful characters. Rather difficult to remain cross with someone who writes like this:
"He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consomme, and the dinner gong due any moment" Carry on Jeeves (1925)
"We stayed at Cannes for about two months, and except for the fact that Aunt Dahlia lost her shirt at baccarat and Angela nearly got inhaled by a shark while aquaplaning, a pleasant time was had by all" Right Ho Jeeves (1934)
"I'm not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare, or if not, it's some equally brainy bird - who says that it's always when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping" Carry on Jeeves (1925)
See what I mean?
But I rather wish I had not read this book.....