In a writing career lasting more than 70 years, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse wrote 100 books, 15 plays and 250 lyrics for more than 30 musical comedies. Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, in 1881. His mother Elizabeth was married to Henry Wodehouse, then a British magistrate based in Hong Kong. Wodehouse (always known as Plum, his childish attempt to pronounce his own name) attended a number of schools before settling very happily at Dulwich College in 1894.
He did well in sport, sang in concerts and edited the school magazine but was prevented from going on to Oxford because of a dip in family finances and instead joined the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He stayed for only two years before his writing career took off.
From 1902 to 1909 he wrote eight novels and co-wrote another two, and in 1904 made his first lucrative trip to New York. Between 1908 and 1915 he created Psmith (a monacled Old Etonian dandy), Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves, and launched the Blandings Castle stories with pig-loving Lord Emsworth. He spent the First World War in New York where he had many song successes on Broadway and where he married Ethel Wayman, a widow with a daughter, in 1914; the couple had no children of their own.
He continued to move freely between New York and London, wrote on average two books a year, earned £100,000 annually and settled for tax reasons in Le Touquet in northern France, where he was eventually interned by the Germans in 1940. He was released just before his 60th birthday in 1941 and was naively trapped into writing five humorous talks, broadcast to the US by German radio, about his time as internee.
Wodehouse was denounced as a traitor. “Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn’t,” he wrote later. “I suppose prison life saps the intellect.” George Orwell wrote that Wodehouse could not be convicted of anything worse than stupidity. The controversy continued until 1947, when Wodehouse and Ethel sailed for New York; he never returned to Britain and lived on Long Island for the rest of his life. His wartime mistake was officially forgiven when he was given a knighthood in January 1975, a month before he died at the age of 93.