June 04, 2007

Letter reveals Wodehouse's pain at being branded a collaborator

The emergence of a previously unpublished letter has given a fresh insight into the pain that was felt by PG Wodehouse at his depiction as a wartime traitor.

The reputation of Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, was hugely tarnished by a series of ill-advised broadcasts from Nazi Germany following his capture during the Second World War. Amid the subsequent furore, the much-loved author was compared in Parliament to the notorious Nazi propagandist, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw.

Following an investigation, Wodehouse was cleared of any wrongdoing but chose to live out the rest of his days in self-imposed exile in America.

The letter, written to his publisher, David Grimsdick in 1953, gives fascinating access to Wodehouse's thoughts on the affair as he battled to salvage his career in the post-war years. Clearly, the legacy of the broadcast continued to occupy his mind more than a decade later.

Abandoning his usual humorous style, the author lambasts the security services, branding his MI5 interrogator a "priceless ass".

With the occasional hand-written addition in the margin the text also responds to Grimsdick's idea that the scripts of the Berlin broadcasts be published in book form to help redeem his character. He writes: "I certainly agree that we ought to print the broadcasts exactly as they were spoken."

After war broke out in 1939, Wodehouse, who had no interest in world affairs, failed to realise the seriousness of the conflict and remained at his seaside home in France. As the Germans swept into northern town of Le Touquet, less than a year later, he was shipped off to a civilian internment camp in Upper Silesia, now in Poland.

At the time he quipped: "If this is Upper Silesia, one must wonder what Lower Silesia must be like?"

While at the camp, he entertained his fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. Then, after being moved to Berlin a few months short of his 60th birthday, he was asked by German agents to use those dialogues as a basis for the series of radio broadcasts. But wartime England was in no mood for light-hearted banter and the five shows led to accusations of Nazi collaboration.

The journalist William Connor, Cassandra on the Daily Mirror, was commissioned to denounce him both in print and a primetime radio address. Gauging the furious public reaction libraries began banning his work from their shelves and politicians were quick to denounce him. In the House of Commons, Quintin Hogg, who later became Lord Hailsham, demanded he should be punished as a traitor and shot. His most bitter detractor was A A Milne a former classmate and friend.

Milne's attacks on Wodehouse led the author to later comment: "Nobody could be more anxious than myself ... that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck."

After the liberation of Paris, Wodehouse was interrogated by officers from MI5 who found no sign of treasonable conduct and cleared him of any wrongdoing. In a letter to the Home Secretary in September 1944, Wodehouse admitted he had been "criminally foolish" but said the broadcasts were "purely comic" and designed to show a group of captured Englishmen keeping up spirits. But he failed to shake off the stigma of traitor and he spent the rest of his life in Long Island, America.

The letter, whose sale price has been set at £1,600 by Nigel Williams Rare Books for this week's Antiquarian Book Fare at Olympia West London, had been held in a private collection in America.

It touchingly reveals a close friendship he formed with a fellow PoW named Herbert Haskins. He opens the letter with instructions to send a copy of each of his books to the man's address in Birmingham.

He comments: "He...was such a pal of mine in camp."

Robert McCrum, author of Wodehouse: A Life, hailed the letter as an important find: "First it shows his obsession with the issue of the broadcast and his time in the camp. Second, he refers to his MI5 interrogator as an ass, which is unusual because he normally never gives anything away and is usually diplomatic and insouciant. Third it's a letter without laughs and shows he's micro-managing the spin of his post-war life.

"Ten years on, he was still fighting a rearguard action against his detractors. I think he was really hurt by the row over the broadcasts, though of course being Wodehouse, the quintessential Englishman, he would never let on."

Wodehouse was made a Knight of the British Empire shortly before his death in 1975 at the age of 93. It is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. In a BBC interview, he said that he had no ambitions left now that he had been knighted and there was a waxwork of him in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

Despite the furore he remained one of country's most popular and prolific authors producing more than 90 books, hundreds of short stories, plays and musicals.


No comments: