A Life in Letters

On Monday evening we went to Mayfair for the launch of P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters by Dr. Sophie Ratcliffe.

I had the immense pleasure of working, a little, on the book. About two years ago, Sophie asked me if I'd like to be her research assistant. She was heavily pregnant with her first child, and I would show up at her house in the early afternoon to do some Wodehouse. It was a very hot summer, and sometimes we'd take a break to drink elderflower cordial and watch Wimbledon; Andy Murray was doing very well, I seem to remember, until he one day he wasn't.

Then this little creature - a baby boy - materialized. The thing I always think about babies is how suddenly they appear, even after nine months of anticipation. Where there had been no one, there was someone: a son, an actual human being. It sounds stupid - of course you know this is how birth works. But when I returned to recommence the Wodehouse work, I kept thinking: last time I was in this house this child did not exist. And now this child does exist.

I think books might be a little the same way: not as momentous, but equally surprising, even after all that time. My involvement was ad hoc, part time, and only spans the last two years; but this book has been in the works for nearly six years. There were a lot of letters, and consequently, even after editing (I can tell you with some confidence that once you've read one of the elderly Wodehouse's letters listing various physical ailments, you've basically read all of the elderly Wodehouse's letters listing various physical ailments), it's a big book. ("I have been looking through my diary," Wodehouse writes to Denis Mackail in 1946, "and I realize that I must be one of the world's great correspondents. This is the 43rd letter I have written this month, and my monthly average for the last year has been over thirty"). So its presence now on my desk seems miraculous to me, even though, not so long ago, I delivered the manuscript to Random House (it was so big I had to carry it in a rucksack) after Sophie had made some final edits, and it seemed at that point a very real thing.

Anyhow, I didn't know the first thing about babies, and to be honest I didn't know all that much about Wodehouse, either, but Sophie was kind enough to believe in my ability to pick up on the basics of both, and I spent many happy hours pushing a pram, making tea, steaming milk bottles, leafing through old copies of Punch and The Captain at the Bodleian, researching obscure silent film stars, transcribing letters, reading and re-reading passages from Robert McCrum's epic biography, formatting footnotes. It was easily the best, most enjoyable and ultimately satisfying work I have ever had the honor of being allowed to do.

In fact I've spent the last two years feeling a little like I'm living in Wodehouse's backyard, like I have this view of him that no one else has. I'm not even sure I like Wodehouse, as a man, all the time, but I feel close to him, or to his words, anyway. Perhaps the joy of letters is not just their historical and academic importance, but the way you can sometimes be made to feel that a letter was, in a way, meant for you - how comforting as a writer, for instance, to read the insecurities of such a great author. "Gosh, Bill, will one never learn to write?" wonders Wodehouse in 1954, even after so many successes. Gosh, I tell myself, often, and after very few successes: will one never learn to write?

I first read Wodehouse in my teens; I was lonely, and obsessed by the discrepancy between what I perceived to be the beauty of the early 20th century, as embodied by the tragic decadence of, say, Brideshead Revisited, and the ugliness of these very early days of the 21st century. I had voluntarily exiled myself from the community of my peers; I forced them to reject me by rejecting them first. Instead of joining in, I chose to live simultaneously in the past (I wrote by copying the cadences of Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh - something I'm not sure even now I've been able to fully correct) and the future (I worked hard in high school so that I could get into college so that I could be successful in whatever my chosen career was, which seems comic now).

What appealed to me about Wodehouse, of course, was the nostalgia. "Let's face it," Wodehouse writes in 1973,

"the world I write about, always a small one, - one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say, - is now not even small, it is nonexistent...This is pointed out to me every time a new book of mine dealing with the Drones Club and the lads who congregate there is published. 'Edwardian' the critics cry, and I shuffle my feet and blush a good deal and say 'Yes, I suppose you're right.'...But sometimes I am in a more defiant mood. Mine, I protest, are historical novels."

Someone better versed in 20th century British history than myself might argue that the world Wodehouse wrote about had never existed at all, but I'm not sure matters. The nostalgia for it is as fresh now as it was in 1973 or 1933. On Monday I found myself face-to-face with Norman Murphy, a man of seemingly limitless knowledge about Wodehouse. He is old and bright eyed; he approached me after the speeches, caught me starting my second glass of wine, leaning against a stack of books on a table, trying to look nonchalant and friendly at the same time. He asked who I was; I told him, or at least I said my name, and my reason for being here.

"Ah," he said. "Now, what did you read, and where did you read it?"

I did not point out, but I could have pointed out, I guess, that Wodehouse never went to Oxbridge, either. I suppose in a sense I had passed a test simply by understanding what he was asking (later, I told the story to a friend of mine who really did go to Oxford; "I don't get it," he said). I felt revolted by the antiquated assumption that, in order to contribute to anything worth contributing to, one must have read a subject at an appropriate institution (I was educated in Boston, but not even at Harvard!). But a part of me felt also comforted, or at least sympathetic: it was an act of nostalgia, I felt, to ask such a question, in such a way. After all, I had felt so initially drawn to Oxford as a place because it placed me as near a thing that doesn't exist (the Oxford of literature) as I could be; my living here, in England, was in a way also an act of nostalgia.

To be contrary (but also truthful), I told Murphy that I had grown up in California ("I think Californian scenery is the most loathsome on earth," Wodehouse wrote while living in Hollywood). I told him I was writing a book about a rock n' roll band. I disagreed when he suggested that Beerbohm's fictional Judas College was based on Christ Church. And he was, I flatter myself, delighted and horrified in equal measure.

The question people often ask, when confronted with this book, or a book like this, a book of correspondence, is what will happen next. Will there be any more lives in letters? Is this one of the last? "A Life in Email," after all, doesn't have the same gravitas.

I find the question doesn't really interest me. Perhaps the teenage me, speeding through the loathsome, beautiful California landscape, wanting to be a part of the modern world and reject it at the same time, would have come down on the side of the doubters, the ones who say that because tweets are disposable, the art of correspondence has died. Now, though, I remain hopeful that there will nearly always be enough contradiction in the world, and enough nostalgia, to keep correspondence - whatever that may come to mean - alive. And in the meantime I mean to further develop my relationship with Wodehouse by reading his letters again, in their final form, and seeing what narrative makes itself apparent this time.