Literary history

PG Wodehouse shrugs off wartime controversy to take his place among the greats

For many critics and fervent patriots, Wodehouse had appeared to have collaborated with the Nazis.

The British Library’s recent announcement that it has acquired the PG Wodehouse archive is a belated recognition of one of the most beloved – and influential – of all comic writers in the English language. Wodehouse’s work will form part of the library’s substantial 20th-century holdings, alongside other “greats” of British literature, such as Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter and JG Ballard.

Wodehouse (1881-1975), the creator of the Jeeves & Wooster stories, has a loyal and ever-expanding fan base – but his popularity has always been tainted by his infamous “Berlin Broadcasts” made during World War II. For many critics and fervent patriots, these broadcasts suggested that Wodehouse had collaborated with the Nazis.

An innocent abroad

When the war broke out in September 1939, Wodehouse and his wife Ethel lived in Le Touquet, within convenient distance of both Cherbourg, for the cross-channel ferries, and Paris. Rather than immediately returning to England, the Wodehouses decided to stay put – and this decision was to prove fateful. When the Blitzkrieg started and the Nazis invaded France, Wodehouse’s escape route was cut off.

On July 21, 1940, a new decree announced that all English males in occupied France under the age of 60 were to be immediately interned. Wodehouse was first sent to a prison close to Lille and from there to internment camps in Liège and Huy (Belgium). Finally he was sent to Tost in Upper Silesia where he remained until June 1941.

PG Wodehouse with his adopted daughter, Leonora, in 1930. Screenland, August 1930
PG Wodehouse with his adopted daughter, Leonora, in 1930. Screenland, August 1930

While at Tost, Wodehouse tried to continue with his usual work routine, aided by the liberal-minded camp commandant, Lagerführer Buchelt, who ensured that Wodehouse had a quiet place to write. Alerted by the petitions of several of his American friends to secure his release, the Berlin-based American journalist, Angus Thuermer, managed to secure a chaperoned interview with Wodehouse in the presence of Buchelt. According to Wodehouse’s biographer, Robert McCrum, he acted as he always did with the press:

Courteously, openly, and without much thought for the consequences, imagining that any publicity would simply reassure his numerous readers that he was, despite the war, alive and well and in good spirits.

The interview with Thuermer, published in The New York Times in late December, 1940 also paved the way for an article by Wodehouse for the Sunday Evening Post, which ran under the headline: “My War with Germany”, in which he described his life in the internment camp with his accustomed – but in this case, tragically ill-judged – lightheartedness and humour.

There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloon and helps you to keep up with your reading. The chief trouble is that it means you are away from home for a long time. When I join my wife I had better take along a letter of introduction to be on the safe side.

Propaganda pawn

As a direct response to the interview with Thuermer, Wodehouse’s American friends started campaigning even harder for his release and it was this political agitation that attracted the notice of leading Nazis in Berlin who only then became aware of the propaganda potential of their prisoner. The political manoeuvres that followed in Berlin, especially between the Ministry of Propaganda, led by Josef Goebbels, and the Foreign Office, under Joachim von Ribbentrop, are too complex to be set out in detail here, but they resulted in five light-hearted broadcasts about his internment in Germany.

What Wodehouse underestimated, though, was the immense propaganda value of war-time radio; for him, writing articles and making humorous broadcasts about his life as an internee simply meant doing what he had always done: writing and entertaining. In the words of George Orwell, one of the few outspoken defenders of Wodehouse after the war:

His main idea … was to keep in touch with his public and – the comedian’s ruling passion – to get a laugh.

His broadcasts were entirely free of any political commentary or partisanship. Nevertheless, the Nazis used his broadcasts for their own political means, primarily in a brazen attempt to show themselves as treating foreign prisoners humanely – and as a gesture to stop the US from joining the war. In Britain, they earned Wodehouse the label of being a traitor to the war effort and – worst of all – of being a Nazi sympathiser, a label that stuck to him for the rest of his life.

What had led to Wodehouse’s ill-judged participation in interviews and broadcasts was his own political naivety, the fact that he had been isolated from friends and advisors for months preceding the broadcasts and his craving for a return to his “normal” quiet routine as a writer. These are not excuses for a decision that could, at best, be labelled as rash, at worst as plain stupid. Yet it is symptomatic of a certain generation and class of Britons who had no interest in politics and gladly detached themselves from the real world.

For Wodehouse, the idea of a political dictator was something to be laughed at, to be ridiculed. Think of his depiction of the fascist leader, Sir Roderick Spode, in his 1938 novel, The Code of the Woosters. Spode is a fatuous blowhard, somebody who agitates and who potentially manages to unite some people under his banner for a short time – but who is, ultimately, shown up as inept and bumbling and who quickly disappears from public life.

Jeeves and Wooster: inimitable Belgravia double act. Amazon
Jeeves and Wooster: inimitable Belgravia double act. Amazon

In the mid 1950s, Wodehouse’s fellow writer Nancy Mitford, a stout socialist for most of her life, condemned her own politically naïve attitude towards fascism in the inter-war years with the words: “We were young & high-spirited then & didn’t know about Buchenwald.” In both Mitford’s and Wodehouse’s cases, it was probably more a question of “choosing” to ignore what went on in the world – and Wodehouse certainly paid the price for his poor judgement.

Although an official report into his alleged collaboration with the Nazis, submitted in liberated Paris on September 28 1944, exonerated Wodehouse, it also condemned him as a political naïve – “susceptible to any form of flattery”. Feeling a political and social outcast in post-war Britain, Wodehouse settled in the US. Towards the end of his life, there were some official gestures towards forgiveness, especially the 1973 knighthood for services to literature, which Wodehouse himself considered as the Establishment’s “way of saying, that’s that”. He died on Valentine’s Day 1975.

Plum joins the greats

The British Library’s acquisition of Wodehouse’s archive, including his war-time papers, is an important step towards the recognition of PG Wodehouse as a great of 20th-century British literature – not just as a comic writer but as an accomplished artist who enriched English culture through a host of immortal characters.

Blandings: a country house idyll that has translated effortlessly to screen. Amazon
Blandings: a country house idyll that has translated effortlessly to screen. Amazon

From Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, steeped in Belgravia high life, to Lord Emsworth and his pig the Empress of Blandings, to Wodehouse’s effortless cast of wisecracking roués, formidable maiden aunts, lovelorn debutantes and clueless suitors, he lovingly celebrated and satirised a uniquely English way of life which had already disappeared forever.

In the words of Kathryn Johnson, the curator of the British Library: “People are coming to acknowledge that he was a truly great English stylist.” Having his private papers, especially his wartime ones, in the public domain will mean that the circumstances of the Berlin broadcasts can be examined and assessed more critically and more openly. But it is also an acknowledgement that, controversy aside, Wodehouse is one of English literature’s immortals.

Christine Berberich, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Portsmouth.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.