Wodehouse’s ‘Prisoner of War’

In late 1914 and 1915 P.G.Wodehouse was in America and doing well. He had recently married, and was beginning what had the potential to be a successful career as a journalist, while making a name for himself as a writer of short stories.
He sold each of his stories twice – in America and in Britain, where a Wodehouse story appeared almost every month in the Strand, the most prestigious of British fiction magazines.
In February 1915, the Strand printed a story called The Prisoner of War, set in the wartime England from which Wodehouse had absented himself. It’s a fairly standard story, much like the light romances collected in The Man Upstairs (1914), but it shows Wodehouse out of tune with the mood in his own country in 1915.
The story begins with Mrs Porter, a puritanical American feminist in England at the start of the War. The illustration shows her in very mannish clothes, and she begins the story by dismissing her odd-job man
for unseemly behaviour. (At the outbreak of hostilities, he deserted his work, went in for extreme patriotic singing at the local pub, and was later heard offering to fight the Kaiser single-handed.) Mrs Porter
disapproves of this: ‘I have no objection to England going to war, but I will not have my odd-job man singing patriotic songs in the garden at midnight’.
Living with Mrs Porter is her daughter, separated from her (American) husband, a pampered and selfish man, we are told, who was ‘inclined to consider that the universe should run with his personal comfort as its
guiding principle’. His mother-in-law had taken charge of the situation, and carried the wife off to England.
Unexpectedly, Hailey, that selfish husband arrives at the door, bedraggled and penniless. He had been in France when War began, and managed to escape, but with nothing. He is not begging from his in-laws, but wants them to tell him the address of a Professor he knows, who would lend him money to get back to America.
Mrs Porter says she cannot give the address, and will not give money to one so undeserving. Instead she employs him as odd-job man to replace the patriot.
The pampered Hailey now has to work for his living, and tackle the problems of real life (like giving Mrs Porter’s Irish terrier a bath). This, and the proximity of the wife who still loves him, changes him for the better, and he becomes more self-reliant. By the time he meets the Professor, he has the initiative to book himself a passage home on a tramp steamer smelling of pigs. His wife, who has fallen in love with him, asks to come with him.
Mrs Porter ends the story gratified that her scheme has made a man of Hailey.
The theme of the softy made manly is a common one in literature of the time, and there are many wartime examples, like W.J.Locke’s The Rough Road, in which effeminate Marmaduke is painfully turned into a soldier.
Wodehouse’s story seems oddly out of touch with the mood of the time in England, though. The War is used merely as a plot device, an occasion for the sacking of the odd-job man and the impoverishment of Hailey. Mrs Porter’s scepticism about the war effort is not countered anywhere in the story. And when Hailey becomes a man, he proves the fact by sailing away from the war zone, not towards it.
There are no signs that the story was a success. Wodehouse did not reprint it in a collection, and did not return to wartime themes in his fiction (apart from a brief mention in Indiscretions of Archie). Maybe he got some negative feedback from the Strand. Or maybe the use of a foreign (and politically divisive) war in light fiction was not popular in America – it is possible that he had difficulty selling the story there. It did not appear in an American publication until February 1916, in the Illustrated Sunday Magazine (a less prestigious publication than Cosmopolitan, which had accepted many of his previous stories, and probably one that paid less well).
Rather than present a wartime England in his stories (because, being away, he could have only hazy ideas of what wartime England was like) Wodehouse kept on writing about an imagined land that is forever Edwardian. For which we may be truly grateful.


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