I recently watched the British comedy series Jeeves and Wooster for the third time since its release in the early 1990s. While viewers are never in danger of being exposed to an idea, the series is particularly artful in its use of language, using vocabulary that would stump too many SAT takers and a subtle sarcasm and dry wit that are hilarious. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie offer perfect renditions of P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable characters.
There was, however, a nagging companion to my enjoyment of the shows. I found myself haunted, even as I laughed, by the burdensome knowledge of P.G. Wodehouse’s radio broadcasts for the Nazis.
As you will recall, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse and his wife moved from Great Britain to Le Touquet, France evidently to avoid taxes on his writing. The Germans entered Le Touquet on May 22, 1940. Two months later all male enemies under 60 were interned. Wodehouse was 58. After being moved several times, the prisoners were sent to Tost in Upper Silesia.
On June 21, 1941, members of the Gestapo visited Wodehouse, gave him ten minutes to pack, and took him to the fancy Hotel Adlon in Berlin. While staying at the hotel, Wodehouse agreed to make five radio broadcasts to the United States (which had not yet then entered the war) for German radio. The broadcasts were Wodehouse’s “humorous” accounts of being an internee. He even, very gently, mocked the German captors. He did not, that is, voice any support for the Nazis, mock or attack the Allies, or talk about much else other than his own existence.
The recordings were later broadcast in Great Britain. The British were shocked. Some libraries removed Wodehouse’s works. Politicians denounced him as a traitor. He did have his defenders, including Sax Rohmer (creator of the Fu Manchu series) and the famous mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. The Department of War in the United States saw the interviews as perfect anti-Nazi propaganda. Later, in early 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” in which he argued that at worst Wodehouse was only guilty of stupidity. Orwell thought Wodehouse’s moral development remained that of child in school. When MI5 representatives later examined the case, they concluded that Wodehouse had not consciously provided assistance to the enemy. There were, therefore, insufficient grounds on which to prosecute him. However, there was a meeting in 1946 in which an MI5 officer met with the director of public prosecutions. The director noted that if Wodehouse ever returned to the country he should be prosecuted. Wodehouse never did return. He spent the remainder of his life in the United States.
Wodehouse himself blamed prison life for sapping his intellect. He claimed never to think politically and that he simply wanted to let all his fans know that he was still alive. He also claimed the broadcasts were to thank other prisoners for their support.
And so, for people like me who find that the broadcasts dilute the pleasure with which Wodehouse may be read or viewed, the question is a simple one. Was P.G. Wodehouse so naïve that he didn’t understand the nature of the Nazi manipulation?
I was thinking of all this as I watched each Jeeves and Wooster episode. Not having the generosity of spirit to forgive people who cooperated in any fashion with the Nazis, I felt I had neither the desire nor the right to forget those broadcasts.
But I did think of another way of looking at the broadcasts, a way I very much wish Wodehouse himself had offered.
I thought of Ozymandias, the great sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is mostly thought of as a reproach to those who ruthlessly seek power. But in the context of my Wodehouse problem, I more closely considered the hero of the poem, the sculptor who made those “two vast…legs of stone.” The “traveler from an antique land” describes the scene:
“Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.”
I thought of that sculptor ordered to make the statue. The sculptor’s heroism lay in being “the hand that mocked” Ozymandias’ cruelty. “Mocked” here has two meanings. The first meaning is the original sense of the word to imitate reality. Indeed, we still use terms like “mock-up”. The sculptor captured the tyrant’s cruelty perfectly. This no doubt pleased Ozymandias. It wouldn’t do to have those who saw the statue think of the ruler as kind or sympathetic and therefore soft. No, the ruler wanted his fierce cruelty, his unforgiving nature, his automatic thirst for revenge if wronged to come through. But the sculptor was more subtle than the ruler. The sculptor also used the statue to mock the ruler in the sense of ridiculing him.
I wish this is what Wodehouse would have understood himself as doing, creating a radio show as the Nazis wanted but in doing so making clear to listeners that he was using the program to mock the very people on whose broadcast he spoke.
As it is, I do think Wodehouse was genuinely naïve and don’t think he was a collaborator. It is this belief that allows me to read his work and watch the shows based on them. But it is Wodehouse’s very naiveté rather than a political wit sufficient to mock the Nazis that prevents me from a full enjoyment of the work.