P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe, is, predictably, an absorbing joy.
I’m especially interested in Wodehouse’s attitude to the Great War (which I’ve briefly written about before) and so turned first to the 1914-1918 section. During these years, of course, Wodehouse was in New York, inventing the American musical in collaboration with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern.
The most intriguing reference is in 1919 letter to Bill Townend (one that was not included in Performing Flea, where Townend sais he possessed no pre-1920 letters).
First he comments on complaints that one of Townend’s stories has been dismissed by an editor as ‘gloomy’.
I suppose, as a matter of fact that it was humanly impossible to go through the war as you did and not come out feeling that things were a bit off. I have been seeing something of a chap called Hamilton Gibbs, brother of Philip Gibbs and author of The Grey Wave (I think it’s called Gun Fodder over here. A corking book. Do get it.), and he says it’s the hardest thing in the world for him to write a story that’s cheerful.
(By the way, I definitely endorse PGW’s recommendation of The Grey Wave.)
Wodehouse goes on to mention his own position, maybe overdoing the facetiousness:
I’ll buck you up when I get home. That’s to say if I’m not arrested and shoved in chokey for not helping to slug Honble Kaiser. How does the law stand in that respect? I registered in the draft over here – age sixty-three, sole support of wife and nine children, totally blind, and all the rest of it, but ought I to have done anything as regards registering in England? I thought not, as I was out of the country when the war started, and anyway wouldn’t have been a dam bit of good, as my only pair of spectacles would have bust in the first charge.
In the event nobody seems to have been interested in arresting Wodehouse for draft-dodging, and the early twenties were the years in which his success in England transformed form moderate to immense.
His detatched attitude to the Great War is quite consistent with his general view of politics as the domain of self-aggrandising buffoons, but it was, of course, this kind of detatchment that would land him in trouble during the Second World War.