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P. G. Wodehouse

October 15, 1881, witnessed the birth of English novelist and humorist, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.  Born in Guildford, England, Plum, as he came to be called, was one of the most popular writers of the first half of the twentieth century.  His father worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and his mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, leaving Wodehouse to be raised by a series of aunts.  His books are filled with evil and terrifying relatives, and he once wrote, "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts.  At the core they are all alike.  Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof."

From as far back as he could remember, Wodehouse was destined to become a writer.  He published his first poem as a young child, and he was constantly churning out stories.  His first contribution to a magazine for which he was paid was an article
called "Some Aspects of Game Captaincy," which he wrote while he was a student.  It won a prize of half a guinea and was published in The Public School Magazine
in February 1900. 

"From my earliest years," he said, "I had always wanted to be a writer.  I started turning out the stuff at the age of five.  (What I was doing before that, I don't remember.  Just loafing, I suppose.)"  While in high school, Wodehouse's father went bankrupt; so, Wodehouse found a job as a bank clerk and started publishing humorous stories and poetry on the side.  He said, "[My] total inability to grasp what was going on [at the bank] made me something of a legend." 

At 21, he started writing his "By the Way" column in the old Globe.  He also regularly contributed freelance stories to the Captain magazine for boys.  It's there that his famous character, Psmith, made his first appearance. 

In 1904, Wodehouse traveled to America to cover a boxing match.  He fell in love with the former British colony and returned to the states in 1909.  Within days of his arrival, he learned that he had sold two stories to Untold Wealth; so, he resigned from the Globe by telegram and stayed in New York for several months.

Wodehouse was fascinated by the Big Apple, by the ways of the street gangs, the political corruption in City Hall, and the extensive bribery in the police force.  He put his observations to work in two novels representing political and social commentary: Psmith, Journalist and A Gentleman of Leisure.  He said of New York, "Being there was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying."

On September 30, 1914, after returning to New York, Wodehouse married Ethel Newton, a widow whom he had met there eight weeks earlier.  She had a daughter, Leonora, whom Plum was to adore and eventually adopt.  The ceremony took place at The Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street, just off Madison Square. 

When the First World War broke out, Wodehouse tried to enlist but was rejected for military call-up due to poor eyesight.  He spent most of the war in the United States and tried again to join the army at an allied forces recruitment centre.  Again he was rejected, so he returned to writing, this time turning out stories and articles for the prestigious monthly journal, Vanity Fair, where he contributed as many as five pieces in a single issue.  He used different pseudonyms for different types of writing, including J. Plum, Pelham Grenville, Melrose Granger, P. Brooke-Haven, J. Walker Williams, C. P. West, and, on occasion, his real name. 

Wodehouse's novel, Something New (1915), published in the U.K. as Something Fresh, represented the author's breakaway success.  It was serialized in the U.S. by the Saturday Evening Post, the most prestigious weekly journal in the country.  His next 27 novels were all serialized in the U.S. (and most of them in the U.K., as well) before book publication.  Half of them appeared in the Post.  His pay for these serials gradually increased from $3,500 to $40,000 over a 25-year period.

Following his successful novel, Wodehouse once again turned to writing about an elitist England populated by polite but brain-dead aristocrats.  The upper crust were constantly getting into trouble and turning to the working class to help them out.  His work was wildly popular in the years leading up to the decline of the British Empire.  The first story in which his most beloved character, Jeeves, appeared was Extricating Young Gussie.  In it, Jeeves, a servant who would go on to save his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all sorts of domestic disasters and absurd situations, had but two lines, and Bertie didn't yet have a surname. 

Published in the Saturday Evening Post on the heels of Something New, Gussie was wildly popular and was included in the short story collection The Man With Two Left Feet.  Wodehouse's book, My Man Jeeves, featuring eight stories (four about Bertie and Jeeves), was published in 1919, and three further collections, consisting exclusively of Bertie and Jeeves episodes, came out in 1923, 1925, and 1930.

In 1934, the first two novels, Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves, appeared.  Another nine Jeeves and Wooster books would follow at regular intervals.  After that, Wodehouse wrote only two more short stories featuring the popular duo.  

An extremely shy man, Wodehouse once made his wife promise to rent them an apartment on the first floor of a large building because he never knew what to say to the elevator operator.  People who knew him said that he was incredibly dull, that he was never funny in person, and that he lacked all personality.  He said of himself, "I haven't got any violent feelings about anything.  I just love writing."

Over the course of his lifetime, Wodehouse wrote close to a hundred books of fiction, sixteen plays, and the lyrics for twenty-eight musicals.  When asked about his technique for writing, he said, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit."  Best known for his metaphors and similes, he once described a character as "A tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'"  He wrote of another, "He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg." 

In his lifetime, Wodehouse was regarded as a lightweight, populist writer.  More recently, his work has shown him to be a master prose stylist.  His most popular works were recently brought to television in the form of the British series named simply Jeeves and Wooster.  It has since been released as a complete series on DVD and videocassette tapes. 

In 1975, Wodehouse was honored by being knighted by Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.  P. G. Wodehouse, showing the signs of age and a long and fruitful life, died shortly thereafter.

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