Plum in Love and War

Robert McCrum The Times 21.08.04

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Wodehouse hardly ever referred to the First World War, but he did acknowledge the Edwardians' fatal nonchalance towards the gathering European crisis in Jeeves in the Springtime, a story first published in 1921:

"How's the weather, Jeeves?"
"Exceptionally clement, sir."
"Anything in the papers?"
"Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing."

    Wodehouse's behaviour during the countdown to the declaration of war on August 4,1914, was similarly disengaged. He was on a German liner crossing to New York. In the days that followed there was a rush to enlist among the public, and the British Expeditionary Force was soon disembarking in France. Unmoved by this excitement, Wodehouse stayed in America.
    His failure to enlist in England was in character. On the outbreak of both World Wars, he watched from the sidelines, and carried on writing about an imaginary world that seemed far more vivid to him. He took a quiet pride in being English, but he was utterly lacking in chauvinism or a taste for real danger, or a desire to disrupt his cosy little world. Practically speaking, he knew :; that his poor eyesight would have : ; disqualified him from active service. Besides, he was caught up in another kind of turmoil he was in love.
    On August 3, the day after his ship had docked in New York, he had met a recently widowed Englishwoman named Ethel Wayman. Mrs Wayman was an actress visiting New York with a touring company, and should have been an alarming blind date for the shy, emotionally backward, 32-year-old bachelor. Memorably described by Malcolm Muggeridge as "a mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in", Ethel was flirtatious, frivolous and fun. She was not beautiful, but she had a very good figure, an excellent dress sense and wonderful legs. A high-spirited partygoer with a passion for dancing, whose life was a whirlwind quest for distraction, she was, at the moment she came into Wodehouse's life, vulnerable and in search of a husband.

    Wodehouse and his future wife were opposite in so many obvious ways: he was quiet and elusive, she was noisy and demonstrative; he was intellectual arid solitary, she was relatively uneducated and sociable; he was repressed, she was highly sexed; he was fanatically prudent, she was extravagant with money. Their relationship finds an unconscious echo in several aspects of Jeeves and Bertie's rapport.
    We cannot know if he understood Ethel's vulnerability, or how it spoke to him. Such revelations were never part of his or his generation's repertoire, even with intimate friends, but he responded to her forcefulness, allowing himself to be swept off his feet. Soon they were caught up in a summer romance orchestrated by Ethel,
    Early in their married life, in deference to Wodehouse's working habits and his asexuality, they established separate bedrooms. Wodehouse was, nonetheless, a devoted husband. He missed EtheJ when she was absent, relied on her, and trusted her. In sexual matters, he seems to have recognised that he was not his wife's equal and that, so long as she did not embarrass or neglect him, she should be free to socialise as she chose. Self-control came Text © Robert McCrum - The Times
Layout © R.D. Collins 2004

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