Wodehouse misremembered

9780333687420Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom

In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. Happily for me, Bloom also chooses some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie) to illustrate his points.

Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature, once the lower classes were no longer illiterate. He exposes ‘literary fiction’ as little more than snobbery, suggesting that serious literature is made purposefully unfathomable and dire to ensure it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite.

As Bloom says:

No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.

It was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in snobbery adds to the pleasure of snubbing pretentious ‘must read lists’, in favour of just reading what I enjoy. And for the same reasons, I now feel guilty for having looked down on romance fiction and ‘chick-lit’. Bloom shows (whether he intended to or not) that disparaging these genres is effectively  disparaging working and middle-class women. I have vowed to do this no longer.

As you can see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting upon, but there was a fly in the ointment. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a precis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does great disservice to the author – and is no credit to Bloom either.

There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released*. Apologies to long-time readers and fans for reviving the matter again here, but I think it’s worth reiterating once more: repeated researchers and biographers have found, as did MI5, that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.

Wodehouse was living in France at the outbreak of WWII, and spent part of the war in a German prison camp. After his release, he was approached by a former Hollywood acquaintance to record some humorous broadcasts to America.   There was nothing pro-German in the content of the broadcasts, which gently mocked the Nazis in the same comic style for which Wodehouse is so admired. The broadcasts were also in keeping with a British tradition for humour in the face of adversity, exemplified during the previous war by The Wipers Times (which was well received in Britain).

Few people in Britain heard the broadcasts. The denunciation of Wodehouse that followed was an orchestrated response, led by The Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (pen name ‘Cassandra’). The British public, who hadn’t heard the broadcasts for themselves, accepted ‘Cassandra’ at his word. Wodehouse’s error was in broadcasting humour from Germany at such a time. His supporters, like Orwell, have suggested Wodehouse was politically naive. He was certainly not a Nazi. Before the war, Wodehouse famously lampooned influential British fascist Oswald Mosley, in the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938). Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts’:

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?”

Wodehouse’s anti-fascist credentials stand up to scrutiny far better than the newspaper responsible for denouncing him. The Daily Mirror had actively supported Mosely’s Blackshirts under Lord Rothermere, who counted Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. The paper was presumably disinclined to write columns of scathing bile about itself, and the Wodehouse story must have seemed like a gift.

When Wodehouse made the broadcasts, he had just been released from a long period of internment where he had been isolated from the events of the war. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. Wodehouse intended no harm in broadcasting, and was no harm was caused – apart from the lasting damage to his own reputation.

Under such circumstances it has been easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved when we encounter examples which perpetuate mistaken beliefs that Wodehouse was in any way connected with Nazis or their ideology. It was disappointing to find in Bloom’s otherwise excellent book.

Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important that we continue to put the record straight.

*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.


14 thoughts on “Wodehouse misremembered

  1. Thanks for trying to set the record straight. It is hard to imagine an author making such a bloomer as to not know the real story behind Plum’s admittedly foolish broadcasts.


  2. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Here is an excellent piece putting the record straight in respect of P G Wodehouse’s often misunderstood actions during the last World War. In the minds and heart of his fans, he would always be remembered for the sunlit valleys and sparkling lakes of wisdom, humor and wit he has left behind for us to roam about in and explore to our heart’s content.


  3. ‘Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again’

    I detest intellectual laziness when presenting an argument – particularly by people who should know better.

    ‘some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie)’

    Wodehouse – obviously; Buchan – definitely (I’ve never met another Buchan fan, ‘Huzza!’ as Bertie would say); Christie – yes; Fraser – sorry, not with you on that one. Disliked my only attempt, found it all a bit dingy.

    A Canadian colleague recommended ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox some years ago now. He said it had really helped him get to grips with the subtleties of living here. I thought it really funny, it takes all our unconscious mannerisms and snobberies and lays them out in order. It’s written in a very accessible style but rather A B C, which a lot of reviewers have taken exception to. Apparently its been updated, but the one I had was the 2004 edition. I’m sure you could get an old, cheap copy on Amazon.

    I laughed at my own unconscious snobbery which was revealed when you said you were Australian – I’d assumed from your writing style you were English. Oh dear.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We really are kindred souls. I have yet to meet another Buchan fan., although I can see why he wouldn’t appeal to modem readers .

      I think I shall have to reread some GM Fraser’s Flashman books because whenever I come to explain why I love them, I find myself faltering, and feeling guilty. Flashman is an utterly appalling character. But there is a style and humour about the writing, and the historical detail is pretty gripping.

      I’m Australian — I cannot deny it. But moved to the UK a couple of years ago. I grew up on a diet of British writers (Blyton, Christie, Austen, GB Shaw were favourites) so I suppose I’ve picked up some of the rhythm and language usage of those writers.


  4. I don’t think highbrow and lowbrow were really class distinctions. They apply more to intellectual rather than class levels. Novels in general were seen as pretty lowbrow in the early 19th century for instance, inferior to poetry, which was more refined. But the upper classes borrowed novels from the circulating libraries and read them avidly. And Dickens for instance had a wide readership among all classes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For all of us middlebrow readers, Kate MacDonald’s blog is worth following. Sound on Wodehouse and on Buchan. I’m afraid, though, the Wodehouse wartime myth will not go away. Just the other day I had a conversation about it. This is quite common when people learn I’m a fan. My friends like to needle me with it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Kate can be found on WordPress like the rest of us. Her address is https://katemacdonald.net/ You might remember she was one of those academics who contributed to Middlebrow Wodehouse, the book a few of us got a little agitated about a few months ago. I never collected Buchan but I read all that I could find when I was a teenager.


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