Caroline: Two writers, both masters of their craft. Very different on the surface, their work has far more in common than many assume. Neither were taken very seriously as “literary” artists, but they nevertheless shaped the popular understanding of both the novel and the short story in the twentieth century. They dominated the interwar period and are still intensely associated with it, despite having careers that spanned decades. Millions devoured their stories and the influence of their characters and ideas is still very present in works being published today. Both had to grapple with what it means to be a national treasure, and the high level of scrutiny such immense popularity brings.
Today we are going to explore the relationship between Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, or Agatha and Plum, to their friends.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
When it comes to Agatha Christie, I think I can presume a certain amount of knowledge among my listeners. But for P.G. Wodehouse, a more detailed introduction is required — not least because even those who think they know about him and his work may have only come across one or two of his more well-known creations. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, or Plum as he was known, is a writer I’ve been reading since my early teens, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of his extensive and varied literary output. Luckily, though, I’ve got help on that front.
Eliza: I am Eliza Easton. I have founded a think tank called Erskine Analysis, which works on creative industries and soft power and the future of the UK economy. But as a kind of odd hobby, I spend a lot of my time reading, writing, and talking about 1920s literature and especially PG Wodehouse. But, more recently, a bit about Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham and others from the golden age.
Caroline: Eliza has probably come the nearest to truly completing the Wodehouse canon of anyone I’ve ever met, and I can’t think of anyone better to introduce us to him and his work.
Eliza: P.G. Wodehouse is an extremely prolific British-born comic novelist, born in the tail end of the 19th century, nine years before Agatha Christie, around the same time as lots of the authors you talk about on this podcast. He’s probably best known, if they’ve heard of him, they might have heard of Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. There’s been several very famous adaptations on TV and actually on film of the Jeeves and Wooster stories.
But Wodehouse also wrote about lots of different worlds. So one of my favourite kind of worlds he wrote about was Blandings, with its extremely obese, prize-winning pig. And it’s often said in the small but vibrant Wodehouse community that if Wodehouse had died earlier, he would’ve been better known as a writer of musicals or actually film. People who are really into musicals might know the song “Bill” from Showboat, or they might know the musical Anything Goes. Wodehouse wrote the plot, or the book as you call it, to Anything Goes.
Caroline: Wodehouse was, in some ways, the epitome of the early twentieth century writer. He embraced the dominant form of the 19th century — the novel — and also mastered the short story. Indeed, he was prolific in both these forms. The precise count is somewhat disputed, but we can safely say he wrote at least 70 novels and over 200 short stories in his seventy plus year writing career. But as well as this more traditional literary output, he also explored emerging media, turning his hand to writing for the stage and screen as well. He was supremely versatile yet his work is always distinctive. And that, Eliza says, has a lot to do with his style — the style we casually refer to now as “Wodehousian” or “Wodehouse-esque” when we spot echoes of it in other work.
Eliza: T.S. Eliot once said that his love of Wodehouse was just this side of idolatry, and I’ll try not to be like T.S. Eliot and be able to give a more objective view. But obviously I’m a super fan as well as someone who kind of reads and writes a lot about Wodehouse, but in terms of his style, so there’s probably two things that I would say make Wodehouse distinctive. The first is that Wodehouse is a master of prose, and that’s not just me saying it as a super fan. I think if you spoke to most writers, he’s really a writer’s writer in lots of ways.
He’s very ingenious with how he uses prose. That’s literally in terms of the way his words are formed. A classic Wodehouse-ism would be a transferred epithet. So he says, like, I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on the teaspoon. He really plays with language to kind of convey what he means. But he also came up with his own words, some of which are in the dictionary.
My favourite Wodehouse quote is in The Code of the Woosters. He writes, ‘If not actually disgruntled, he was far from gruntled.’ And “gruntled” since that point has appeared in the dictionary. But he also came up with “zing” and “plonk”. Lots of onomatopoeia, and those two are in there.
Caroline: If you know anything about P.G. Wodehouse, you are probably aware of his ability to create characters that read more or less as upper class buffoons — Bertie Wooster, Bingo Little, Tuppy Glossop, and so on. Although that’s far from the extent of his range, that milieu is certainly a major part of his creations.
Eliza: I think the other thing that’s unique to him is the world he creates, which was pretty consistent from his early days of writing right to the point he died. And it’s a semi imaginary utopia version of the 1920s. The reason it’s utopia to some extent is because, although the First World War is referred to in passing, it’s very rarely referred to in the reality of how it would affected the world. But I always like to say that his world that he creates is more of a fantasy than an ideal. He creates this kind of playground of this 1920s world that then allows him to mess around with language and characters. It’s not an ideal.
Caroline: Wodehouse, like Christie, is often charged with popularising a nostalgic, idealised version of the interwar years that bore little or no resemblance to real life, and then continuing to present it in books for decades as if it hadn’t been entirely unrealistic in the first place — posh people going to country houses to get murdered and/or mess about with pigs and newts, essentially. We know this isn’t a fair assessment of Christie’s work, and according to Eliza, this is really a very partial and reductive way of viewing the world of Wodehouse too.
Eliza: In the Jeeves and Wooster books, there are lots of posh young men without jobs. That’s not because Wodehouse believed that posh young men shouldn’t have jobs in the books. It’s because they’re all far too hopeless to be able to hold down any job at all. If you get into Wodehouse, you realise that the 1920s sunlit world he creates is not full of perfect people. But it definitely takes a rose tinted view of what humanity can be.
Caroline: It’s also not accurate to say that Wodehouse only wrote about country houses and the members of the Drones Club. Considering that he was not writing crime fiction, his fiction contains a surprising amount of, well, crime.
Eliza: Nearly every Wodehouse story has either a policeman or some sort of criminal. To give you kind of an overview of how I think about crime in Wodehouse, there’s two types. So the first type I’m going to call the occasional criminals, and if you know sort of Bertie Wooster, or any of the characters in his ilk, these are often the occasional criminals. So they might either be doing some drunken hijinks. A classic example would be wading in Trafalgar Square fountain, or stealing a policeman’s hat as part of a dare, or through some sort of really complicated, long-winded misunderstanding, they might have to, for good moral reasons, commit some kind of crime. So these spasmodic delinquents, what happens to them? Well, they might get a fine, occasionally they go to prison. Prison is never really portrayed as a particularly scary thing. They’ll call it something like 14 days without the option. And, actually they’re always much more concerned about their relatives or their fiancés or friends finding out than they are about anything else in the opportunistic crime category.
Then the second category, these are criminal pros, so absolute professionals and some good examples that I love: there’s two called Soapy and Dolly Molloy. And to give you a sense of how much Wodehouse, what a soft spot he had for, you know, I say hardened criminals in quotation marks and you can’t see, but I think he called Soapy, who’d been spending some time in Holloway jail. He said, “It looked like she’d been spending the last few weeks at some bracing seashore resort like Skegness. And her husband, Soapy.” He said, Few more loving husbands than he had ever cracked rocks in Sing Sing.”
He has a real soft spot for these criminals, but the kinds of crimes they do are rarely worse than stealing a necklace, which probably has a huge sum of insurance on it turns out to be fake anyway because it’s been pawned off years before. So actually the outcomes of these crimes are really minimal. I think this gives a sense of Wodehouse’s joy of humanity rather than a particular approach to crime. Actually, his policemen are often less lovable, although there are some lovable ones.
Caroline: These aren’t murder mysteries by any stretch of the imagination, but crime is frequently present in Wodehouse’s books as a driving force in his comic plots. Which might go some way to explain why he was personally such a huge fan of Agatha Christie.
After the break: a friendship gets off to a rocky start.
Caroline: When it comes to Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse becoming friends, it was him who made the first move.
Eliza: I think Wodehouse was encouraged by his publisher to write to Christie as another very popular writer who he admired, but also he was told that she admired him and he then wrote to a friend and he was absolutely seething.
Because in effect, he got three lines back from Christie saying, “Thank you for writing, I am glad you enjoyed my books,” as if he’d written as just a fan. And so he felt mortified that he’d sent this long letter about how much he loved her, and he’d been completely dismissed. And actually it seems to have really affected him.
Caroline: Who wouldn’t feel a bit belittled by that? He thought he was writing to her as a colleague, and she treated him like she would any other stranger who sent a fan letter. Thankfully, after this rocky start, things got better between them.
Eliza: We know that their relationship in the 1960s really improved. And actually Hallowe’en Party, one of Christie’s books, is dedicated to Wodehouse. And she says, “I’m so glad he told me how much he loved my books”. So maybe there’d been a bird in her ear saying he didn’t take it the right way.
Caroline: From then on, they did develop the kind of fellowship that Wodehouse had been hoping for all along.
Eliza: They became pretty fast friends. If you get a letter of permission, you can go and read their letters to each other, which are in the British Library. And you can just see, not only do they talk about their mutual experience with critics, you know, Wodehouse obviously says to Christie I’m so sorry when she gets bad review and that you’re completely right to stick with it and don’t listen to these critics and you see them talk about those things.
But also they become such intimate friends that they talk about their health and how they’re doing. And you can imagine this is as they’re getting older, what their lives are like. And it’s really nice to see this relationship blooming and how much he absolutely loved Christie really for the last 20 years of his life. They were fast, fast friends.
Caroline: Even before he made contact, Wodehouse clearly felt that he and Christie would have a lot in common just based on his avid reading of her work.
Eliza: We do know from the letters he wrote to his friends what he loved about Christie. I think I could summarise it as readability and that might shock people, because readability is often an insult, but towards the end of his life, especially Wodehouse was incredibly well read. I don’t think you could find an author who was better read. He wasn’t a particularly sociable person, although, you know, he did do lots of sociable things.
But he was reading everything that came out, especially written by friends of his who were certainly writing more on the heavy literature side. But he absolutely loved Agatha Christie. He says that she’s the only author who is readable. That is how he describes her. And so I think that’s a good hint at what he liked about Christie.
Caroline: I think this is how a lot of us feel about Agatha Christie — that the woman who produced such clever yet comforting books must have been someone worth knowing. And what Wodehouse recognised immediately, which many others have missed over the last century, is the high degree of skill involved in being so utterly readable. Like Eliza says, in some kinds of criticism the accusation of being “easy” to read, watch or listen to is wielded as an insult, as if that makes the work in question crude in its simplicity. But as anyone who has read disappointing novels that claim the influence of Christie will know, the deftness with which she conceals the complex forces at work in her books is not easy to achieve. The fact that her books are extremely readable is a function of her great skill, not evidence of the lack of it, and I think the same could be said about Wodehouse too.
One point where Christie and Wodehouse differed, though, is on the question of plot. If you’ve had the opportunity to look at any of Christie’s notes, which have been edited and published by the expert John Curran, you will know that she frequently started a story with an idea for a plot, rearranging the different happenings until she had a structure upon which she could build the other elements. Wodehouse, meanwhile, found this to be the hardest part of all, finding it much easier to come up with characters, settings and dialogue.
Eliza: Wodehouse really struggled with plot. So many of his letters are him writing to people saying, do you have any ideas for a plot? I think that he would have really looked at Christie as a master of plot and that’s obviously so much of what she kind of offered. Her brand of detective novel was this really methodical consideration of plot. This absolute genius in being able to tie up sort of loose ends at the end and think back carefully about plot points. So if I had to guess, I would say that that is also something that Wodehouse didn’t believe he had himself and so he would have really enjoyed about Christie’s books.
Caroline: Although it’s easy now to couple Christie and Wodehouse in our minds as two highly successful and beloved twentieth century authors, their reputations actually diverged quite starkly in the years following the Second World War. Christie’s renown was already assured: by 1940 she had published such hits as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. Although there were still great things to come from her, her standing with both readers and the publishing industry was very high and has only become higher in the years since. Wodehouse, meanwhile, suffered a major knock to his public image as a result of the war.
It came about because of his living circumstances. When war broke out, he was residing in France, and when the Nazi occupation began, he was taken to an internment camp for male citizens of enemy countries who were under the age of 60. He spent 48 weeks in these camps. A few months before his sixtieth birthday he was released and taken by the Gestapo to Berlin, where his wife was allowed to join him in living at a hotel. During this time, he recorded five humorous talks about life in the internment camp, which were broadcast by the Nazis to American radio listeners. To many in the UK especially, this was seen as an unacceptable act of conspiracy with the Nazi regime, and it has been controversial ever since. Was he really a collaborator and a traitor to his country, or was it just the act of a well meaning if foolish writer out of his depth, geopolitically? Here’s Eliza to explain more.
Eliza: I think, if you are interested, it’s definitely worth going to listen to the broadcasts that he eventually made because I think perhaps to a modern listener, it’ll be surprising how controversial this was. But I’ll try to explain why it was so controversial. In essence, he was convinced by someone he knew who was German, who had been working with the Nazi party, although how much Wodehouse really understood that, I’m not sure. He was convinced to do these broadcasts where he talked about the things that had happened in the internment camp, which are these slightly comic stories. These were broadcast to the Americans where, you know, he had this loving public who was deeply concerned that he died, and he was convinced that they needed to be reassured that he wasn’t dead. Now, at that moment, it was mission critical in Britain to get America to enter the war. And so the way it was perceived was that although Wodehouse was not saying it was the lap of luxury in the prison, far, far from it, because he wasn’t describing it in horrific terms, it was seen as potentially damaging the British case to the Americans to enter the war. The public view of it was obviously this deep sense of hurt and betrayal that he would do anything that could be going against the war effort. And there are really awful letters that he was writing when he just feels completely confused about what happened and how these seemingly very innocent and silly stories of internment could have led to people were calling for him to be killed.
Caroline: Part of the reaction to Wodehouse’s broadcasts was informed by the fact that there was an actual Nazi collaborator, the American-born member of the British Union of Fascists William Joyce, doing propaganda broadcasts from Berlin throughout the war. Joyce, known by the nickname Lord Haw-Haw, adopted a jolly aristocratic persona that may well have been knowingly or unknowingly influenced by the characters that Wodehouse himself had created. It’s not hard to see how Wodehouse’s own broadcasts from Berlin became connected in people’s minds with this, even though Wodehouse himself had nothing whatsoever to do with Lord Haw-Haw. In fact, many of his Jeeves and Wooster books from the 1930s lampoon and ridicule fascist characters — especially in the form of Roderick Spode, an absurd Oswald Mosley-esque figure who runs an organisation known as the “brown shorts” . But the damage was done. After the war, Wodehouse went to America and settled there, feeling like he was no longer welcome in Britain. And the situation had literary consequences, too. He was treated differently to, say, Agatha Christie.
Eliza: He was very upset because his American publisher told him he wasn’t allowed to write about any delicious food in his book. This was after the war because it would be seen as going against rationing. But he would read these Christies where she could write whatever she wanted about all sorts of delicious lashings of whatever. Obviously given what happened in the war, he was just completely under the spotlight.
Caroline: Wodehouse’s reputation was eventually partially rehabilitated when the declassification of secret documents showed that he had never been a Nazi collaborator and, at worst, had been a bit too naive and trusting during his time in Berlin. In 1975, just a month before he died, he received the ultimate signal that the British establishment considered him to be one of them when he was given a knighthood. But by that point, he was in his nineties and had a whole life in America. It was too late for him to return to the UK and resurrect the status he had once enjoyed there.
Eliza: It is quite a sad story because I think it was incredibly painful to him that it had been misconstrued in the way it was. And also painful to the people in the public who never forgave him. And to this day, there are people who have that idea of him as a Nazi sympathiser.
Caroline: But although Wodehouse did not quite experience the ever-growing celebrity that Christie did in the latter decades of his career, I still think it is fascinating and highly worthwhile to read them alongside each other. Between her murder mysteries and his comic novels, a story emerges about what people really wanted to read in the twentieth century. Tightly plotted, cleverly written books with satisfying endings that weren’t above a little silliness now and then. Oh, and the odd murder didn’t do any harm, either.
This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/agathaandplum. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.