The following report was prepared by Waugh Society member Milena Borden:
P G Wodehouse: The Man and His Work introduces the Wodehouse archive acquired by the British Library in 2016 on a loan from his step-grandson Sir Edward Cazalet. This includes personal letters, manuscripts and first editions and is displayed in four glass stands in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It underlines Wodehouse’s many successes as a novelist, screenwriter, diarist and a playwright.
At the heart of the Introduction, which defines him as a masterful humorist and an exquisite English language prose writer, is a quote from Evelyn Waugh: ‘In a life experiencing both personal sadness and joy, Wodehouse …has made a world for us to live in an and delight in.’ Wodehouse’s talent is further illustrated with glimpses into his glamorous Hollywood style of life in New York and the staging of his Broadway and West End musicals between the wars. Central place is also given to his most famous characters: Ukridge, Lord Elmsworth and Psmith.
The third stand displays the “Wodehouse Controversy”, which refers to his internment by the Germans during the Second World War (1940 – 41). There is an original page of his ‘camp diary’ and a typescript of one of his five “Berlin broadcasts”. There is also a letter from 1947 he wrote to Waugh thanking him “for his support and solidarity during the controversy”. The viewers are presented with a brief account of this episode in which Waugh became involved after the war. It is well documented in the Wodehouse Archive under a file “Cassandra and the Berlin Broadcast”.
At the outbreak of the war Wodehouse was living in Le Toquet when the Germans invaded France and interned him as an alien male. He then became a civilian prisoner of war in Upper Silesia. In 1940 the German Foreign Office used him, unknown to him, to write and record five humorous broadcasts about his time in prison, initially to be transmitted only to the USA. The Ministry of Propaganda under Goebbels hijacked them and also transmitted them to the UK. The affair in context and the transcripts of the broadcasts, which were made public in the 1950s, can be found at the P.G. Wodehouse Society’s website.
On 15 July 1941 the journalist William Connor, who wrote under the nom de guerre Cassandra for the Daily Mirror, extracted a commission by the then Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, to broadcast from the BBC Home Service and the BBC North American Transmission an attack on Wodehouse as a national traitor. Although the BBC objected to this, Cooper ordered the BBC to go ahead with it, to the outrage of many. In this broadcast Wodehouse was described as being ‘on his knees’ to Dr. Goebbels and enjoying himself in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin while ‘fifty thousand of our countrymen are enslaved in Germany.’
Twenty years later, on the occasion of Wodehouse’s seventieth birthday, Waugh launched a counter attack in defense of Wodehouse on the BBC Home Service (15 July 1961) and also published it in the Sunday Times the next day under the title “An Act of Homage and Reparation to P. G. Wodehouse” (EAR, p. 561). His broadcast is preserved at the British Library Sound Archives with a short extract from it available to the public.
Waugh fiercely criticized the wartime involvement of politics in the media and lambasted Cassandra as an ill-informed journalist who not only wrongly accused Wodehouse but also pointed to the Bulgarian communist (Georgi) Dimitroff in contrast to Wodehouse as a paragon of heroism, who the British public was supposed to admire. Dimitroff was wrongly accused, imprisoned, tried and released by the Nazis over the Reichstag fire in 1933 one month after Hitler came to power. He consequently became a symbol of the triumph of international communism and after the war grew to be the first Stalinist prime minister of Bulgaria (1946-49). Under his leadership, the People’s Courts tried 11,000 people and executed 1,046, including many writers and journalists. This was considered to be the most severe post-war retribution in any ex-Axis country.
Interestingly enough, William Connor-Cassandra and Wodehouse became friendly to each other when they met in New York many years after the controversy. Connor was knighted in 1966 and died the next year age 57. Wodehouse himself was also knighted in 1975, six weeks before he died at the age of 93. In 1980, he was fully exonerated in a government report.
The last item in the exhibition is Waugh’s handwritten letter on light blue paper from Piers Court, dated 29 December 1954, in which he addressed Wodehouse as “Dr. Wodehouse” referring to his Oxford degree. This is accompanied by the curator’s note: “Wodehouse’s library contained all of Waugh’s novels one of which was inscribed by Waugh ‘to the head of my profession’ and was one of Wodehouse’s most treasured possessions.”
Many thanks to Milena for sending this report. The exhibition runs until 24 February. See details here.