The Führer’s “Performing Flea”

In a 1982 review from TNR’s archives, Samuel Hynes evaluated a biography of P.G. Wodehouse, the British humorist behind Jeeves and Wooster.  He zeroed in on Wodehouse’s lowest moment, when he provided broadcasts for German radio after being captured during WWII.  But Hynes wrote that “as Fascist propaganda [the broadcasts] were surely no more useful than [Ezra] Pound’s were”:

Still, it’s not surprising that the British took a harsher view, and considered that Wodehouse had given comfort to the enemy. He was never tried, but the incident darkened his life, and made him an exile until his death. Even long after the war he could get no assurance from the British government that he would not be prosecuted if he returned to England, and so he ended his days at Remsenburg, on Long Island, though at the last moment the British did relent enough to offer him a knighthood (the Queen Mother’s work, no doubt).

The whole episode is a sad one, reflecting only discredit on everyone connected with it. It is interesting, though, for what it suggests about Wodehouse the man, and also about the kind of writing of which he was so much a master. Throughout the German years, and for long afterward, Wodehouse behaved like one of his own characters—like the imbecile Bertie, or Lord Emsworth, that “vague and woolen-headed” peer whom he admitted he resembled. He never really did understand what he had done that was wrong, and though he regretted having broadcast, it was only because it had offended his readers. The moral issues of the war seem never to have penetrated his woolen head.

Update from a reader:

As is often the case, Orwell got there first. In his wonderful essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse” (July, 1945), he makes the argument that Wodehouse was really only guilty of stupidity and to charge him with treason, etc. was “untenable and even ridiculous.” Orwell believed the that fascism was a distinctly modern (i.e. interwar) phenomenon. Orwell’s contention is that Wodehouse’s mind never moved beyond 1914 (nor did the mental universe of any of his characters, including the knee loving “fascist” Roderick Spode). To Orwell’s mind, Wodehouse was a Victorian who couldn’t even comprehend fascism and Nazi tyranny, let alone be complicit in it. It’s interesting that this is also his argument for why Kipling, that “good bad poet,” was also innocent of fascism – his mental universe never grew beyond the summer of 1914. 

(Video: “P.G.Wodehouse faces the music from his wife, Ethel, following the reception of his broadcasts on German radio during WWII.”)