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The Inimitable P. G. Wodehouse:

The Story of His Life and a Treasury of His Wit

by Mark Hichens; illustrations by Wendy McLerie

(Book Guild Publishing, Sussex; © 2009; 228 pages)

Reviewed by Norman Murphy

Mark Hichens is clearly a Wodehouse enthusiast, and his book reflects this. Within the compass of what is essentially a short work (166 pages of text, followed by 54 pages of Wodehouse quotations and an abbreviated list of Wodehouse books), he gives us a biography of Wodehouse as well as descriptions of his major fictional characters. Further, he seeks to demonstrate how what he calls ‘autobiographical overtones’ appear in Wodehouse’s writing.

It is difficult to find the right words to describe the book; the nearest I can get is ‘cursory’ or ‘superficial’. Mr Hichens says he is aware of recent biographies and research into Wodehouse’s life but appears to have decided to ignore much of their findings in his book. I expected to see some mention of the part Wodehouse’s family played in his stories (four clerical uncles and his many aunts, one of whom he frankly stated was the basis of Bertie’s Aunt Agatha). I also expected to read some comment on his excellent school stories but was surprised to find that Mike is just about the only one mentioned and equally surprised that Mr Hichens equates these to Charles Hamilton’s stories in the Magnet and Gem (which had not yet come into existence). Perhaps I missed them, but I recall no mention of the golf stories, the Drones Club or Mr Mulliner; however, possibly such omissions can be accepted in a volume as short as this. In the main, Mr Hichens gives a reasonable account of Wodehouse’s long life, though he makes a number of assumptions and generalisations that are not backed up by reference to other, more authoritative sources.

The book’s cover with illustrations by Wendy McLerie

There are several errors and omissions. I was surprised, for example, by the statement that Wodehouse had spent his childhood in the care of a ‘series of ladies who, though not necessarily related, were always known as aunts’. Apart from the women who ran the two kindergarten schools he attended, the ladies who looked after Wodehouse till he was fifteen were definitely aunts. I also note that there was no mention of Wodehouse’s older brother Armine attending Dulwich (a major factor in PGW going there himself) – nor indeed, any mention of any of Wodehouse’s brothers. Unless one knew better, one might assume from this book that Wodehouse was an only child.

Then there are the factual slips which, though small in themselves, lead one to doubt Mr Hichens’s research. These include Uncle Fred’s name given incorrectly (p41), Bertie Wooster attending Cambridge rather than Oxford (p75), and a letter quoted in which Wodehouse says a nest egg of £350,000 quid is as much as anybody could want (p110) – the amount is £50,000 in the photocopy I saw. Further, the Wodehouses decided to buy a house in Le Touquet in 1934, not 1935, and Leonora died in May 1944, not ‘in the last weeks of the war’ (p144).

And then there are quotations which I did not recognise or could not reconcile with my knowledge of Wodehouse. I may be completely wrong, but I cannot recollect Honoria Glossop being ‘built on the lines of the Albert Hall’ and I was puzzled by the quoted description of her on page 80 that ends: ‘She may even have boxed for the University'. My edition of The Inimitable Jeeves has: ‘I’m not sure she didn’t box for the Varsity while she was up.’ I was equally puzzled by the quoted description on page 78 of Florence Craye, ‘with a wonderful profile but steeped to the gills in serious purpose and reading books on such subjects as idiopsychological ethics’. I found both parts of this description, but not joined together in this way.

If this book had been published thirty-five years ago, I imagine it might have become a reference source for Wodehouse devotees, but Richard Usborne’s Wodehouse at Work and the various subsequent biographies have given us much more reliable information than Mr Hichens does. In fairness to him, his book would be of interest to someone just beginning to read Wodehouse and knowing little about him. To such a reader, the occasional misquotations and minor errors of fact would be of little importance, though an aficionado will find them very irritating. What I regret, however, is that Mr Hichens’s apparent desire for brevity led him to end the book with two pages purportedly listing ‘The Books of P. G. Wodehouse’. There are forty-seven titles shown, less than half the usually accepted ninety-eight. That is brevity carried too far.