Wodehouse Redeemed

Today’s Observer has a story by Robert McCrum attributing to an acquisition of the British Library the final act by the British Government in its redemption of the reputation of P G Wodehouse:

…The Observer can now reveal that [Wodehouse’s] lifetime of literary work has reached a remarkable climax. On Thursday, the British Library will announce that the Wodehouse archive is about to join its 20th-century holdings, a collection that includes the papers of Arthur Conan Doyle, Evelyn Waugh, Mervyn Peake, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, Ted Hughes, Beryl Bainbridge, JG Ballard and Angela Carter.

This rare and brilliant archive not only casts fascinating new light on Wodehouse’s comic genius, and painstaking daily revisions of his famously carefree prose, it also holds the key to the controversy that has tormented the writer’s posthumous reputation, the “Berlin broadcasts”. Yet, unlike many authors, he made no attempt to protect this collection, which is all the more authentic for being free of authorial intervention and contrivance.

After his death on Valentine’s Day 1975, many of Wodehouse’s papers found their way to Dulwich College, his former school. Several other manuscripts were already in private hands. Everything else was steadily accumulated and catalogued by the PGW estate, under the direction of Wodehouse scholar Kristin Thompson, and stored in the attic of a farmhouse on the edge of the Sussex Downs.

The article does not reveal, however, the details of what remains of the Wodehouse archive that is in private hands or where it resides (aside, perhaps, from Dulwich College) or how it compares to what the BL is acquiring. In Waugh’s case the BL’s holdings, to which the new acquisition is compared, consist primarily of Waugh’s correspondence files. These are mostly letters from his friends and business associates, such as his agents. The small but important portion of Waugh’s own writings that make up this file is primarily his letters to his wife and other family members. Most of his archive of manuscripts, diaries, drafts, books, etc. is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and a smaller portion, at the Huntington Library near Pasadena, California. A few of Waugh’s manuscripts are held elsewhere (such as the Brotherton Library at Leeds University and the Loyola-Notre Dame Library in Baltimore) but the holdings of the BL are by no means the chief repository of the Waugh archives. That may also be the case with the Wodehouse archive; the Observer describes in detail only one part–the diary Wodehouse kept while detained by the German Government during WWII. It would be interesting to know the whereabouts and extent of the remainder.

UPDATE (28 November 2016): Articles similar to the above have appeared in the Times and the Daily Mail. Posted below, please see the comment of Kristin Thompson, former archivist of the Wodehouse Archive in which she explains that it is, indeed, a major and extensive archive, including manuscripts of novels, correspondence, and other items of importance in addition to the wartime diaries cited in the Observer article. It includes copies of Evelyn Waugh’s letters to Wodehouse. With its acquisition of these letters, the BL will hold both sides of this correspondence, since its Evelyn Waugh Papers already include 19 pages of correspondence from Wodehouse to Waugh written between 1941-69.

 

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3 Responses to Wodehouse Redeemed

  1. Kristin Thompson says:

    As the archivist of the P. G. Wodehouse Estate Archive from 1985 to the point at which the collection was turned over to the British Library, I can assure you that the material is vast. A great number of letters to and from PGW from throughout his career are included, as well as his notes on projects from the 1910s to his death, multiple drafts of several of his late novels, business records, diaries, a record of the sales of his writings from the beginning of the 20th Century, and much more. There are letters and manuscripts from PGW in the Harry Ransom Center and other archives, but they are small in number in comparison with the Estate’s holdings. The Estate kept track of theatrical playbills, scholarly publications, and other PGW-related documents for decades after his death, and these are included in the collection. There are letters and manuscripts from private collections, such as that of James Heineman, that remain in private hands, but again, these are relatively small in comparison with the Archive. I would estimate that the “extent of the remainder” in such collections does not nearly add up to what the British Library has just acquired. A complete set of Evelyn Waugh’s letters to PGW are among the material donated.

    • Jeffrey Manley says:

      Many thanks for this helpful background information especially regarding the letters from Waugh to Wodehouse. Jeff

  2. Mark Pinkerton says:

    I’m not a great Wodehouse fan; but a major admirer of both EW and George Orwell.

    Interesting, though, that these two so different individuals were both admirers of PGW.

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