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P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

Katherine A. Powers tracks the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves through his correspondence.

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P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Norton, W.W. & Company
640 pp.

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Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble Review

I was over a hundred pages into P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters before I could square the author of these letters with the person who was England's greatest comic writer, the man with the golden ear and onlie begetter of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith, Ukridge, Uncle Fred, Lord Emsworth, the Duchess of Blandings, and a monstrous regiment of aunts. The continuous "feast of reason and flow of the soul" I had expected from the founder of the Drones Club is on show only now and again in this three-quarters-of-a-century epistolary journey. But what is revealingly and disconcertingly present, and what becomes increasingly engrossing, is the down-to-earth, strangely unfrisky human being in which that genius dwelled.

Like most people who earn their bread by the ink of their pens, P. G. Wodehouse took a great interest in money and words produced per day, week, and month, but unlike most scribblers, the figures he ran up in all cases are truly arresting. "Finished yesterday," he writes in 1933 to his friend the novelist Denis Mackail, "making three novels and 10 short stories in 18 months, which as Variety would say, is nice sugar." Elsewhere he reports, variously, an 8,000-word story in two days, 40,000 words in three weeks, 55,000 words in one month, and 100,000 words of a novel in two. The pleasure he takes in these numbers is palpable, as is his pride in reporting his earnings, his most lucrative venue being the Saturday Evening Post. Boasting of a serial he had just finished, he tells his old school chum and confidant, Bill Townend, "The good old Satevpost have done me proud... I mailed them the last part on a Wednesday and got a cheque for $18,000 (my record) on the following Tuesday!!! That's the way to do business." This is 1922, when $18,000 was the farthest thing from peanuts, as was the next year's $20,000 for another serial -- which sums made up only a portion of each year's income.

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