by Dave Dentel
Anyone who has read P.G. Wodehouse, or watched any of the copious film and television adaptions of his works, knows that the British wit is not just hilarious—he’s delightfully frivolous.
Though his stories and novels do represent some of the best humor writing of a certain era, it’s a stretch to say that they aspire to literary aims such as critiquing society or forwarding any sort of political agenda. For the most part, Wodehouse wrote with one overarching goal in mind—to give his readers a good laugh.
You can imagine how much it dismayed me, then, to learn that for a time Wodehouse’s reputation was tainted by a very serious allegation. This master of upper-class English mirth was actually accused of turning traitor by collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.
And to be honest, on the surface at least, the evidence supporting this indictment seems fairly damaging.
Fortunately, investigators such as Iain Sproat have done much to erase the black mark against Wodehouse. Sproat’s book, Wodehouse at War, does a good job examining the facts and showing that the British humorist never intended to betray his country or aid the enemy. In truth, the writer was merely being faithful to his chosen profession—taking the opportunity to share with his public how he was faring and to crack a good joke.
The incident that sparked the controversy is not in dispute. In the summer of 1941, about a year after being arrested by German forces in France, Wodehouse made a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin.
These light-hearted talks neither praised German aims nor denigrated the war efforts of Wodehouse’s native Britain. Given that they fell short of complete defiance when for almost a year the British Empire had stood alone against the Nazi menace, it’s easy to see why Wodehouse’s countrymen might consider the broadcasts an affront.
Then there is the matter of Wodehouse’s incarceration. After he made the broadcasts, Wodehouse was not returned to an internment camp, but was reunited with his wife and permitted to live with Germans who had connections to his Hollywood days, then in a Berlin hotel, and finally in Paris.
Sproat, however, points out many mitigating facts about Wodehouse’s sojourn in occupied Europe.
To begin with, it seems Wodehouse was not necessarily released from internment as a reward for his broadcasts, but because of his age. Also, just about everywhere he and his wife resided, they had to pay for their keep.
Reaching Out to Readers
As for the broadcasts themselves, Sproat’s argument that Wodehouse viewed them as a way to communicate with his American fans seems plausible.
Until December 1941 America was still neutral. While interred in Upper Silesia, Wodehouse had been allowed to complete a novel for the American market, had been interviewed for the American press, and had received mail from American well-wishers. It seems reasonable that Wodehouse would view doing radio talks aimed at the same audience as a similarly innocent pursuit.
Reasonable, except for the fact the Germans were already exploiting British turncoats for radio propaganda in the guise of personalities such as Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally.
Wodehouse eventually admitted he was foolish to have made the broadcasts. It’s a pity that some readers of his works were also fooled into thinking he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Indeed, the closest thing I’ve seen to political commentary in Wodehouse’s writing is the way he sketches one of his most famous buffoons—Roderick Spode. This nemesis of the longsuffering Bertie Wooster is initially depicted as an amateur dictator whose followers emulate the fascists of the continent by adopting distinctive paramilitary garb—in this case, black shorts. (Or as Bertie describes Spode, “a frightful ass … swanking about in black footer bags.”)
Spode’s will to power, and to impose his vision of discipline and order upon the British Isles, is imperiled by a dire secret. Unknown to his minions, in his professional life he is a purveyor of fine women’s undergarments. At any rate, Spode eventually abandons his dictatorial pretensions in order to become a British peer.
That Wodehouse would have created a fascist only to ridicule him should have assured readers that, in the battle of democracy against despotism, the writer stood firmly with the good guys.
By the same token, Wodehouse should have been more circumspect before employing his talents in the service of his nation’s enemy.
One of the Good Guys
Fortunately, Sproat’s book does us all a service in clearing Wodehouse of the worst accusations against him, and letting fans of that consummate humorist know we can enjoy his hilarity in good conscience.
And speaking of hilarity, we can also thank Sproat for including the text of Wodehouse’s Berlin broadcasts, some of which feature the author at the top of his form.
Consider this tidbit, in which Wodehouse describes the fragrance produced by him and his fellow internees during a stretch where practicing hygiene was catch-as-catch-can:
“The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment.”
LOL. Thank you, Mr. Wodehouse.