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George Orwell > In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse > Essay

In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse


When the Germans made their rapid advance through Belgium in the early
summer of 1940, they captured, among other things, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse,
who had been living throughout the early part of the war in his villa at
Le Touquet, and seems not to have realised until the last moment that he
was in any danger. As he was led away into captivity, he is said to have
remarked, "Perhaps after this I shall write a serious book." He was
placed for the time being under house arrest, and from his subsequent
statements it appears that he was treated in a fairly friendly way,
German officers in the neighbourhood frequently "dropping in for a bath
or a party".

Over a year later, on 25th June 1941, the news came that Wodehouse had
been released from internment and was living at the Adlon Hotel in
Berlin. On the following day the public was astonished to learn that he
had agreed to do some broadcasts of a "non-political" nature over the
German radio. The full texts of these broadcasts are not easy to obtain
at this date, but Wodehouse seems to have done five of them between 26th
June and 2nd July, when the Germans took him off the air again. The first
broadcast, on 26th June, was not made on the Nazi radio but took the form
of an interview with Harry Flannery, the representative of the Columbia
Broadcasting System, which still had its correspondents in Berlin.
Wodehouse also published in the SATURDAY EVENING POST an article which he
had written while still in the internment camp.

The article and the broadcasts dealt mainly with Wodehouse's experiences
in internment, but they did include a very few comments on the war. The
following are fair samples:

"I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable to work up any kind
of belligerent feeling. Just as I'm about to feel belligerent about some
country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any
fighting thoughts or feelings."

"A short time ago they had a look at me on parade and got the right idea;
at least they sent us to the local lunatic asylum. And I have been there
forty-two weeks. There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps
you out of the saloon and helps you to keep up with your reading. The
chief trouble is that it means you are away from home for a long time.
When I join my wife I had better take along a letter of introduction to
be on the safe side."

"In the days before the war I had always been modestly proud of being an
Englishman, but now that I have been some months resident in this bin or
repository of Englishmen I am not so sure... The only concession I want
from Germany is that she gives me a loaf of bread, tells the gentlemen
with muskets at the main gate to look the other way, and leaves the rest
to me. In return I am prepared to hand over India, an autographed set of
my books, and to reveal the secret process of cooking sliced potatoes on
a radiator. This offer holds good till Wednesday week."

The first extract quoted above caused great offence. Wodehouse was also
censured for using (in the interview with Flannery) the phrase "whether
Britain wins the war or not," and he did not make things better by
describing in another broadcast the filthy habits of some Belgian
prisoners among whom he was interned. The Germans recorded this broadcast
and repeated it a number of times. They seem to have supervised his talks
very lightly, and they allowed him not only to be funny about the
discomforts of internment but to remark that "the internees at Trost camp
all fervently believe that Britain will eventually win." The general
upshot of the talks, however, was that he had not been ill treated and
bore no malice.

These broadcasts caused an immediate uproar in England. There were
questions in Parliament, angry editorial comments in the press, and a
stream of letters from fellow-authors, nearly all of them disapproving,
though one or two suggested that it would be better to suspend judgment,
and several pleaded that Wodehouse probably did not realise what he was
doing. On 15th July, the Home Service of the B.B.C. carried an extremely
violent Postscript by "Cassandra" of the DAILY MIRROR, accusing Wodehouse
of "selling his country." This postscript made free use of such
expressions as "Quisling" and "worshipping the Fμhrer". The main charge
was that Wodehouse had agreed to do German propaganda as a way of buying
himself out of the internment camp.

"Cassandra's" Postscript caused a certain amount of protest, but on the
whole it seems to have intensified popular feeling against Wodehouse. One
result of it was that numerous lending libraries withdrew Wodehouse's
books from circulation. Here is a typical news item:

"Within twenty-four hours of listening to the broadcast of Cassandra, the
DAILY MIRROR columnist, Portadown (North Ireland) Urban District Council
banned P. G. Wodehouse's books from their public library. Mr. Edward
McCann said that Cassandra's broadcast had clinched the matter. Wodehouse
was funny no longer." (DAILY MIRROR.)

In addition the B.B.C. banned Wodehouse's lyrics from the air and was
still doing so a couple of years later. As late as December 1944 there
were demands in Parliament that Wodehouse should be put on trial as a

There is an old saying that if you throw enough mud some of it will
stick, and the mud has stuck to Wodehouse in a rather peculiar way. An
impression has been left behind that Wodehouse's talks (not that anyone
remembers what he said in them) showed him up not merely as a traitor but
as an ideological sympathiser with Fascism. Even at the time several
letters to the press claimed that "Fascist tendencies" could be detected
in his books, and the charge has been repeated since. I shall try to
analyse the mental atmosphere of those books in a moment, but it is
important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of
anything worse than stupidity. The really interesting question is how and
why he could be so stupid. When Flannery met Wodehouse (released, but
still under guard) at the Adlon Hotel in June 1941, he saw at once that
he was dealing with a political innocent, and when preparing him for
their broadcast interview he had to warn him against making some
exceedingly unfortunate remarks, one of which was by implication slightly
anti-Russian. As it was, the phrase "whether England wins or not" did get
through. Soon after the interview Wodehouse told him that he was also
going to broadcast on the Nazi radio, apparently not realising that this
action had any special significance. Flannery comments [ASSIGNMENT TO
BERLIN by Harry W. Flannery.]:

"By this time the Wodehouse plot was evident. It was one of the best Nazi
publicity stunts of the war, the first with a human angle. ...Plack
(Goebbels's assistant) had gone to the camp near Gleiwitz to see
Wodehouse, found that the author was completely without political sense,
and had an idea. He suggested to Wodehouse that in return for being
released from the prison camp he write a series of broadcasts about his
experiences; there would be no censorship and he would put them on the
air himself. In making that proposal Plack showed that he knew his man.
He knew that Wodehouse made fun of the English in all his stories and
that he seldom wrote in any other way, that he was still living in the
period about which he wrote and had no conception of Nazism and all it
meant. Wodehouse was his own Bertie Wooster."

The striking of an actual bargain between Wodehouse and Plack seems to be
merely Flannery's own interpretation. The arrangement may have been of a
much less definite kind, and to judge from the broadcasts themselves,
Wodehouse's main idea in making them was to keep in touch with his public
and — the comedian's ruling passion — to get a laugh. Obviously they are
not the utterances of a Quisling of the type of Ezra Pound or John Amery,
nor, probably, of a person capable of understanding the nature of
Quislingism. Flannery seems to have warned Wodehouse that it would be
unwise to broadcast, but not very forcibly. He adds that Wodehouse
(though in one broadcast he refers to himself as an Englishman) seemed to
regard himself as an American citizen. He had contemplated
naturalisation, but had never filled in the necessary papers. He even
used, to Flannery, the phrase, "We're not at war with Germany."

I have before me a bibliography of P. G. Wodehouse's works. It names
round about fifty books, but is certainly incomplete. It is as well to be
honest, and I ought to start by admitting that there are many books by
Wodehouse perhaps a quarter or a third of the total — which I have not
read. It is not, indeed, easy to read the whole output of a popular
writer who is normally published in cheap editions. But I have followed
his work fairly closely since 1911, when I was eight years old, and am
well acquainted with its peculiar mental atmosphere — an atmosphere which
has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little
alteration since about 1925. In the passage from Flannery's book which I
quoted above there are two remarks which would immediately strike any
attentive reader of Wodehouse. One is to the effect that Wodehouse "was
still living in the period about which he wrote," and the other that the
Nazi Propaganda Ministry made use of him because he "made fun of the
English." The second statement is based on a misconception to which I
will return presently. But Flannery's other comment is quite true and
contains in it part of the clue to Wodehouse's behaviour.

A thing that people often forget about P. G. Wodehouse's novels is how
long ago the better-known of them were written. We think of him as in
some sense typifying the silliness of the nineteen-twenties and
nineteen-thirties, but in fact the scenes and characters by which he is
best remembered had all made their appearance before 1925. Psmith first
appeared in 1909, having been foreshadowed by other characters in early
school stories. Blandings Castle, with Baxter and the Earl of Emsworth both
in residence, was introduced in 1915. The Jeeves-Wooster cycle began
in 1919, both Jeeves and Wooster having made brief appearances earlier.
Ukridge appeared in 1924. When one looks through the list of Wodehouse's
books from 1902 onwards, one can observe three fairly well-marked periods.
The first is the school-story period. It includes such books as THE GOLD
BAT, THE POTHUNTERS, etc and has its high-spot in MIKE (1909). PSMITH IN
THE CITY, published in the following year, belongs in this category,
though it is not directly concerned with school life. The next is the
American period. Wodehouse seems to have lived in the United States
from about 1913 to 1920, and for a while showed signs of bECOMING
TWO LEFT FEET (1917) appear to have been influenced by 0. Henry, and
other books written about this time contain Americanisms (e.g. "highball"
for "whisky and soda") which an Englishman would not normally use IN
PROPRIA PERSONA. Nevertheless, almost all the books of this period--PSMITH,
JIM and various others-depend for their effect on the CONTRAST between
English and American manners. English characters appear in an American
setting, or vice versa: there is a certain number of purely English stories,
but hardly any purely American ones. The third period might fitly be called
the country-house period. By the early nineteen-twenties Wodehouse must
have been making a very large income, and the social status of his
characters moved upwards accordingly, though the Ukridge stories form a
partial exception. The typical setting is now a country mansion, a
luxurious bachelor flat or an expensive golf club. The schoolboy
athleticism of the earlier books fades out, cricket and football giving
way to golf, and the element of farce and burlesque becomes more marked.
No doubt many of the later books, such as SUMMER LIGHTNING, are light
comedy rather than pure farce, but the occasional attempts at moral
earnestness which can be found in PSMITH, JOURNALIST; THE LITTLE NUGGET;
stories, no longer appear. Mike Jackson has turned into Bertie Wooster.
That, however, is not a very startling metamorphosis, and one of the most
noticeable things about Wodehouse is his LACK of development. Books like
THE GOLD BAT and TALES OF ST AUSTIN'S, written in the opening years of
this century, already have the familiar atmosphere. How much of a formula
the writing of his later books had become one can see from the fact that
he continued to write stories of English life although throughout the
sixteen years before his internment he was living at Hollywood and Le

MIKE, which is now a difficult book to obtain in an unabridged form, must
be one of the best "light" school stories in English. But though its
incidents are largely farcical, it is by no means a satire on the
publicschool system, and THE GOLD BAT, THE POTHUNTERS, etc are even less
so. Wodehouse was educated at Dulwich, and then worked in a bank and
graduated into novel writing by way of very cheap journalism. It is clear
that for many years he remained "fixated" on his old school and loathed
the unromantic job and the lower-middle-class surroundings in which he
found himself. In the early stories the "glamour" of publicschool life
(house matches, fagging, teas round the study fire, etc) is laid on
fairly thick, and the "play the game" code of morals is accepted with not
many reservations. Wrykyn, Wodehouse's imaginary public school, is a
school of a more fashionable type than Dulwich, and one gets the
impression that between THE GOLD BAT (1904) and MIKE (1908) Wrykyn itself
has become more expensive and moved farther from London. Psychologically
the most revealing book of Wodehouse's early period is PSMITH IN THE
CITY. Mike Jackson's father has suddenly lost his money, and Mike, like
Wodehouse himself, is thrust at the age of about eighteen into an
ill-paid subordinate job in a bank. Psmith is similarly employed, though
not from financial necessity. Both this book and PSMITH, JOURNALIST
(1915) are unusual in that they display a certain amount of political
consciousness. Psmith at this stage chooses to call himself a
Socialist-in his mind, and no doubt in Wodehouse's, this means no more
than ignoring class distinctions-and on one occasion the two boys attend
an open-air meeting on Clapham Common and go home to tea with an elderly
Socialist orator, whose shabby-genteel home is described with some
accuracy. But the most striking feature of the book is Mike's inability
to wean himself from the atmosphere of school. He enters upon his job
without any pretence of enthusiasm, and his main desire is not, as one
might expect, to find a more interesting and useful job, but simply to be
playing cricket. When he has to find himself lodgings he chooses to
settle at Dulwich, because there he will be near a school and will be
able to hear the agreeable sound of the ball striking against the bat.
The climax of the book comes when Mike gets the chance to play in a
county match and simply walks out of his job in order to do so. The point
is that Wodehouse here sympathises with Mike: indeed he identified
himself with him, for it is clear enough that Mike bears the same
relation to Wodehouse as Julien Sorel to Stendhal. But he created many
other heroes essentially similar. Through the books of this and the next
period there passes a whole series of young men to whom playing games and
"keeping fit" are a sufficient life-work. Wodehouse is almost incapable of
imagining a desirable job. The great thing is to have money of your own,
or, failing that, to find a sinecure. The hero of SOMETHING FRESH (1915)
escapes from low-class journalism by becoming physical-training instructor
to a dyspeptic millionaire: this is regarded as a step up, morally as well
as financially.

In the books of the third period there is no narcissism and no serious
interludes, but the implied moral and social background has changed much
less than might appear at first sight. If one compares Bertie Wooster
with Mike, or even with the rugger-playing prefects of the earliest
school stories, one sees that the only real difference between them is
that Bertie is richer and lazier. His ideals would be almost the same as
theirs, but he fails to live up to them. Archie Moffam, in THE
INDISCRETIONS OF ARCHIE (1921), is a type intermediate between Bertie and
the earlier heroes: he is an ass, but he is also honest, kind-hearted,
athletic and courageous. From first to last Wodehouse takes the
public-school code of behaviour for granted, with the difference that in
his later, more sophisticated period he prefers to show his characters
violating it or living up to it against their will:

"Bertie! You wouldn't let down a pal?"
"Yes, 1 would."
"But we were at school together, Bertie."
"I don't care."
"The old school, Bertie, the old school!"
"Oh, well--dash it!"

Bertie, a sluggish Don Quixote, has no wish to tilt at windmills, but he
would hardly think of refusing to do so when honour calls. Most of the
people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites,
and some of them are plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be
described as immoral. Even Ukridge is a visionary rather than a plain
crook. The most immoral, or rather un-moral, of Wodehouse's characters is
Jeeves, who acts as a foil to Bertie Wooster's comparative
high-mindedness and perhaps symbolises the widespread English belief that
intelligence and unscrupulousness are much the same thing. How closely
Wodehouse sticks to conventional morality can be seen from the fact that
nowhere in his books is there anything in the nature of a sex joke. This is
an enormous sacrifice for a farcical writer to make. Not only are there no
dirty jokes, but there are hardly any compromising situations: the
horns-on-the-forehead motif is almost completely avoided. Most of the
full-length books, of course, contain a "love interest", but it is always
at the light-comedy level: the love affair, with its complications and
its idyllic scenes, goes on and on, but, as the saying goes "nothing
happens". It is significant that Wodehouse, by nature a writer of farces,
was able to collaborate more than once with lan Hay, a serio-comic writer
and an exponent (VIDE PIP, etc) of the "clean-living Englishman"
tradition at its silliest.

In SOMETHING FRESH Wodehouse had discovered the comic possibilities of
the English aristocracy, and a succession of ridiculous but, save in a
very few instances, not actually contemptible barons, earls and what-not
followed accordingly. This had the rather curious effect of causing
Wodehouse to be regarded, outside England, as a penetrating satirist of
English society. Hence Flannery's statement that Wodehouse "made fun of
the English," which is the impression he would probably make on a German
or even an American reader. Some time after the broadcasts from Berlin I
was discussing them with a young Indian Nationalist who defended
Wodehouse warmly. He took it for granted that Wodehouse HAD gone over to
the enemy, which from his own point of view was the right thing to do.
But what interested me was to find that he regarded Wodehouse as an
anti-British writer who had done useful work by showing up the British
aristocracy in their true colours. This is a mistake that it would be
very difficult for an English person to make, and is a good instance of
the way in which books, especially humorous books, lose their finer
nuances when they reach a foreign audience. For it is clear enough that
Wodehouse is not anti-British, and not anti-upper class either. On the
contrary, a harmless old-fashioned snobbishness is perceptible all
through his work. Just as an intelligent Catholic is able to see that the
blasphemies of Baudelaire or James Joyce are not seriously damaging to
the Catholic faith, so an English reader can see that in creating such
characters as Hildebrand Spencer Poyns de Burgh John Hanneyside
Coombe-Crombie, 12th Earl of Dreever, Wodehouse is not really attacking
the social hierarchy. Indeed, no one who genuinely despised titles would
write of them so much. Wodehouse's attitude towards the English social
system is the same as his attitude towards the public-school moral code —
a mild facetiousness covering an unthinking acceptance. The Earl of
Emsworth is funny because an earl ought to have more dignity, and Bertie
Wooster's helpless dependence on Jeeves is funny partly because the
servant ought not to be superior to the master. An American reader can
mistake these two, and others like them, for hostile caricatures, because
he is inclined to be Anglophobe already and they correspond to his
preconceived ideas about a decadent aristocracy. Bertie Wooster, with his
spats and his cane, is the traditional stage Englishman. But, as any
English reader would see, Wodehouse intends him as a sympathetic figure,
and Wodehouse's real sin has been to present the English upper classes as
much nicer people than they are. All through his books certain problems
are constantly avoided. Almost without exception his moneyed young men
are unassuming, good mixers, not avaricious: their tone is set for them
by Psmith, who retains his own upper-class exterior but bridges the
social gap by addressing everyone as "Comrade".

But there is another important point about Bertie Wooster: his
out-of-dateness. Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs
to an epoch earlier than that. He is the "knut" of the pre-1914 period,
celebrated in such songs as "Gilbert the Filbert" or "Reckless Reggie of
the Regent's Palace". The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by
preference, the life of the "clubman" or "man about town", the elegant
young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his
arm and a carnation in his buttonhole, barely survived into the
nineteen-twenties. It is significant that Wodehouse could publish in 1936
a book entitled YOUNG MEN IN SPATS. For who was wearing spats at that
date? They had gone out of fashion quite ten years earlier. But the
traditional "knut", the "Piccadilly Johnny", OUGHT to wear spats, just as
the pantomime Chinese ought to wear a pigtail. A humorous writer is not
obliged to keep up to date, and having struck one or two good veins,
Wodehouse continued to exploit them with a regularity that was no doubt
all the easier because he did not set foot in England during the sixteen
years that preceded his internment. His picture of English society had
been formed before 1914, and it was a naive, traditional and, at bottom,
admiring picture. Nor did he ever become genuinely americanised. As I
have pointed out, spontaneous Americanisms do occur in the books of the
middle period, but Wodehouse remained English enough to find American
slang an amusing and slightly shocking novelty. He loves to thrust a slang
phrase or a crude fact in among Wardour Street English ("With a hollow
groan Ukridge borrowed five shillings from me and went out into the
night"), and expressions like "a piece of cheese" or "bust him on the
noggin" lend themselves to this purpose. But the trick had been developed
before he made any American contacts, and his use of garbled quotations
is a common device of English writers running back to Fielding. As
Mr John Hayward has pointed out, [Note, below] Wodehouse owes a good deal
to his knowledge of English literature and especially of Shakespeare.
His books are aimed, not, obviously, at a highbrow audience, but at an
audience educated along traditional lines. When, for instance, he
describes somebody as heaving "the kind of sigh that Prometheus might
have heaved when the vulture dropped in for its lunch", he is assuming
that his readers will know something of Greek mythology. In his early
days the writers he admired were probably Barry Pain, Jerome K. Jerome,
W. W. Jacobs, Kipling and F. Anstey, and he has remained closer to them
than to the quickmoving American comic writers such as Ring Lardner
or Damon Runyon. In his radio interview with Flannery, Wodehouse wondered
whether "the kind of people and the kind of England I write about will
live after the war", not realising that they were ghosts already.
"He was still living in the period about which he wrote," says Flannery,
meaning, probably, the nineteen-twenties. But the period was really the
Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round
about 1915.

[Note: "P. G. Wodehouse" by John Hayward. (The Saturday Book, 1942.)
I believe this is the only full-length critical essay on Wodehouse.
(Author's footnote.)]

If my analysis of Wodehouse's mentality is accepted, the idea that in
1941 he consciously aided the Nazi propaganda machine becomes untenable
and even ridiculous. He MAY have been induced to broadcast by the promise
of an earlier release (he was due for release a few months later, on
reaching his sixtieth birthday), but he cannot have realised that what he
did would be damaging to British interests. As I have tried to show, his
moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy, and according to
the public-school code, treachery in time of war is the most unforgivable
of all the sins. But how could he fail to grasp that what he did would be
a big propaganda score for the Germans and would bring down a torrent of
disapproval on his own head? To answer this one must take two things into
consideration. First, Wodehouse's complete lack — so far as one can judge
from his printed works--of political awareness. It is nonsense to talk
of "Fascist tendencies" in his books. There are no post-1918 tendencies
at all. Throughout his work there is a certain uneasy awareness of the
problem of class distinctions, and scattered through it at various dates
there are ignorant though not unfriendly references to Socialism. In THE
HEART OF A GOOF (1926) there is a rather silly story about a Russian
novelist, which seems to have been inspired by the factional struggle
then raging in the U.S.S.R. But the references in it to the Soviet system
are entirely frivolous and, considering the date, not markedly hostile.
That is about the extent of Wodehouse's political consciousness, so far
as it is discoverable from his writings. Nowhere, so far as I know, does
he so much as use the word "Fascism" or "Nazism." In left-wing circles,
indeed in "enlightened" circles of any kind, to broadcast on the Nazi
radio, to have any truck with the Nazis whatever, would have seemed just
as shocking an action before the war as during it. But that is a habit of
mind that had been developed during nearly a decade of ideological
struggle against Fascism. The bulk of the British people, one ought to
remember, remained an¦sthetic to that struggle until late into 1940.
Abyssinia, Spain, China, Austria, Czechoslovakia — the long series of
crimes and aggressions had simply slid past their consciousness or were
dimly noted as quarrels occurring among foreigners and "not our
business." One can gauge the general ignorance from the fact that the
ordinary Englishman thought of "Fascism" as an exclusively Italian thing
and was bewildered when the same word was applied to Germany. And there
is nothing in Wodehouse's writings to suggest that he was better
informed, or more interested in politics, than the general run of his

The other thing one must remember is that Wodehouse happened to be taken
prisoner at just the moment when the war reached its desperate phase. We
forget these things now, but until that time feelings about the war had
been noticeably tepid. There was hardly any fighting, the Chamberlain
Government was unpopular, eminent publicists were hinting that we should
make a compromise peace as quickly as possible, trade union and Labour
Party branches all over the country were passing anti-war resolutions.
Afterwards, of course, things changed. The Army was with difficulty
extricated from Dunkirk, France collapsed, Britain was alone, the bombs
rained on London, Goebbels announced that Britain was to be "reduced to
degradation and poverty". By the middle of 1941 the British people knew
what they were up against and feelings against the enemy were far fiercer
than before. But Wodehouse had spent the intervening year in internment,
and his captors seem to have treated him reasonably well. He had missed
the turning-point of the war, and in 1941 he was still reacting in terms
of 1939. He was not alone in this. On several occasions about this time
the Germans brought captured British soldiers to the microphone, and some
of them made remarks at least as tactless as Wodehouse's. They attracted
no attention, however. And even an outright Quisling like John Amery was
afterwards to arouse much less indignation than Wodehouse had done.

But why? Why should a few rather silly but harmless remarks by an elderly
novelist have provoked such an outcry? One has to look for the probable
answer amid the dirty requirements of propaganda warfare.

There is one point about the Wodehouse broadcasts that is almost
certainly significant — the date. Wodehouse was released two or three
days before the invasion of the U.S.S.R., and at a time when the higher
ranks of the Nazi party must have known that the invasion was imminent.
It was vitally necessary to keep America out of the war as long as
possible, and in fact, about this time, the German attitude towards the
U.S.A. did become more conciliatory than it had been before. The Germans
could hardly hope to defeat Russia, Britain and the U.S.A. in
combination, but if they could polish off Russia quickly — and presumably
they expected to do so — the Americans might never intervene. The release
of Wodehouse was only a minor move, but it was not a bad sop to throw to
the American isolationists. He was well known in the United States, and
he was — or so the Germans calculated — popular with the Anglophobe
public as a caricaturist who made fun of the silly-ass Englishman with
his spats and his monocle. At the microphone he could be trusted to
damage British prestige in one way or another, while his release would
demonstrate that the Germans were good fellows and knew how to treat
their enemies chivalrously. That presumably was the calculation, though
the fact that Wodehouse was only broadcasting for about a week suggests
that he did not come up to expectations.

But on the British side similar though opposite calculations were at
work. For the two years following Dunkirk, British morale depended
largely upon the feeling that this was not only a war for democracy but a
war which the common people had to win by their own efforts. The upper
classes were discredited by their appeasement policy and by the disasters
of 1940, and a social levelling process appeared to be taking place.
Patriotism and left-wing sentiments were associated in the popular mind,
and numerous able journalists were at work to tie the association
tighter. Priestley's 1940 broadcasts, and "Cassandra's" articles in the
DAILY MIRROR, were good examples of the demagogic propaganda flourishing
at that time. In this atmosphere, Wodehouse made an ideal whipping-boy.
For it was generally felt that the rich were treacherous, and Wodehouse —
as "Cassandra" vigorously pointed out in his broadcast — was a rich man.
But he was the kind of rich man who could be attacked with impunity and
without risking any damage to the structure of society. To denounce
Wodehouse was not like denouncing, say, Beaverbrook. A mere novelist,
however large his earnings may happen to be, is not OF the possessing
class. Even if his income touches £50,000 a year he has only the outward
semblance of a millionaire. He is a lucky outsider who has fluked into a
fortune — usually a very temporary fortune — like the winner of the
Calcutta Derby Sweep. Consequently, Wodehouse's indiscretion gave a good
propaganda opening. It was a chance to "expose" a wealthy parasite
without drawing attention to any of the parasites who really mattered.

In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry
at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years
later — and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with
conscious treachery — is not excusable. Few things in this war have been
more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and
Quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the
guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats — police officials,
penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers —
are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In
England the fiercest tirades against Quislings are uttered by
Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who
were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched
Wodehouse — just because success and expatriation had allowed him to
remain mentally in the Edwardian age — became the CORPUS VILE in a
propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the
incident as closed. If Ezra Pound is caught and shot by the American
authorities, it will have the effect of establishing his reputation as a
poet for hundreds of years; and even in the case of Wodehouse, if we
drive him to retire to the United States and renounce his British
citizenship, we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves.
Meanwhile, if we really want to punish the people who weakened national
morale at critical moments, there are other culprits who are nearer home
and better worth chasing.

Index Index

  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
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