"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 25, 2013

The P. G. Wodehouse/A. A. Milne Feud

P. G. Wodehouse, via Wikipedia

There are few things I find more entertaining than the sight of two writers hurling bricks at each other. Although Edgar Allan Poe perfected the art of the serial literary spat, I have a special fondness for the feud between P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne. Wodehouse is (old Edgar aside) my chief literary idol, and it pleases me that he gained a victory that was not only moral, but witty.

In the 1920s, Wodehouse and Milne were friends, although it was an association based largely on mutual admiration for each other’s talents than any real personal warmth. The two men were incompatible. Wodehouse was an amiable, uncomplicated man with a gift for taking life as it came. Milne was simply incompatible with everyone. He was intelligent and ambitious, but small-minded, thin-skinned, and as far as I can determine, utterly lacking in anything even vaguely resembling a sense of humor. (In 1952, his son Christopher gave an interview stating “I shall never get over my dislike of being the ‘real live Christopher Robin.’” The elder Milne’s reaction was to rewrite his will.) Wodehouse was once reported to have said that he had started a “Try to Like A.A. Milne Club.” There were no takers, until one man joined, only to resign a week later. “Since joining the association,” he explained, “I have met Mr. Milne.”

A. A. Milne, via Wikipedia

Despite all this, the two writers remained on ostensibly good terms until the 1930s. During that decade, not only did Wodehouse’s genius shine as brightly as ever, but his public acclaim kept increasing, culminating with an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1939. Milne, on the other hand, seemed a writer on the way out. His books still sold, but he sensed his best days were past. Milne was a jealous nature, and Wodehouse himself believed he became increasingly resentful of "Plum's" success, seeing him more as a rival than a friend. 

During the ‘30s, Milne increasingly turned his attention to politics. He was originally an ardent pacifist, but when Britain entered World War II, he supported the fight with equal fervor. As his attacks against Wodehouse would show, he was never a man to do things by halves, for good or bad.

Wodehouse, like Poe before him, was more cognizant of current events than one would immediately think. Both men responded to the world around them in an indirect fashion, expressing themselves through their art in a way that got their views across while avoiding overt polemics. Both men also liked to respond to antagonists by mocking them. One of Wodehouse’s most memorable characters was the aspiring dictator/designer of ladies’ lingerie Roderick Spode (“It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed his mind at the last moment.”) Spode and his bumbling little army of Black Shorts (“by the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left") gave a view of the Fascist movement that was as cutting as it was humorous.

Wodehouse and his wife had the incredible bad luck—or bad judgment—to be in France when the Germans invaded in 1940, and he was sent to an internment camp. A couple of Germans whom he had known years before when he was writing for Hollywood were now Nazi propagandists. Through them, Wodehouse was asked to make radio broadcasts describing his experiences in the camp, and, little knowing what he was getting himself into, he agreed. I will not get into the whole long story of Wodehouse’s notorious broadcasts here. His own account of the uproar can be found here, along with transcripts of his actual radio talks, which are well worth reading, and provide the necessary background for what followed. Suffice to say that in these talks, he basically did to the Nazis what he did to Oswald Mosely’s Brown Shirts—that is, he made comic sport of them. (A British Air Marshal, after reading transcripts of the broadcasts, commented: “Why the Germans let him say all this I cannot think. They have either got more sense of humour than I credited them with or it has just slipped past the censor…Wodehouse has probably been shot by now.”)

It was Wodehouse’s countrymen, not the Nazis, who were calling for his head. Few in Britain had actually heard the broadcasts, which left everyone free to imagine the worst about them. The usual assumption was that he had made traitorous broadcasts aiding the enemy in exchange for favored treatment. Such was hardly the case, but hysteria against the formerly beloved author reached the point where a treason trial was no impossibility.

Forefront in the public attacks on Wodehouse was A. A. Milne. Responding to claims that Wodehouse had been guilty of nothing worse than na├»ve judgment, Milne wrote in the “Daily Telegraph”: “Irresponsibility in what the papers call ‘a licensed humorist’ can be carried too far; naivete can be carried too far. Wodehouse has been given a good deal of license in the past, but I fancy that now his license will be withdrawn.” Milne twisted Wodehouse's healthy ability to find humor in nearly everything as mere infantilism, sniping that he “has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in ‘politics’—‘politics’ being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner when one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance, like the last war, which found and kept him in America; and postwar taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic.” In a truly waspish move, this modern Rufus W. Griswold added that Wodehouse had once told him that he would have liked to have had a son, “But he would have to be born at the age of 15, when he was just getting into his House Eleven.” Milne scornfully presented this as proof of Wodehouse’s lack of character. Those words were not uttered by Wodehouse himself, but by one of his fictional characters: It is a line from “Psmith in the City.” A few people have tried to defend Milne by saying it was an honest error in memory, but his act reeks of deliberate, malicious misrepresentation. Like Griswold, Milne had finally found the means of getting revenge against a rival for the crime of being talented.

After the war ended, a British government investigation cleared Wodehouse of wrongdoing, but the stigma has clung to his reputation ever since. And Plum knew where to place a good share of the blame. “Nobody could be more anxious than myself, for instance,” he said later, “that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.” As Milne was not nearly that considerate, Wodehouse than turned to a more subtle revenge. In “The Mating Season” (1949) Bertie Wooster found himself in the appalling position of having to recite Milne’s poems at a village concert. “A fellow who comes on a platform and starts reciting about Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hop (or alternatively saying his prayers) does not do so from sheer wantonness but because he is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control.” Later, when Wooster complained to a friend about having to recite Christopher Robin poems, the friend replied:
“Pah!” he said. “It might have been Winnie the Pooh.” Well, there was that, of course.
In that same year, Wodehouse wrote a short story, “Rodney Has a Relapse.” Here, a young man who (like Milne) started out as a writer of detective stories began, to everyone’s horror, to instead write nauseatingly sentimental verses about his infant son.
“Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy’s cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat when asleep. Some baloney, no doubt, about how he hugs his teddy bear and dreams of angels. Yes, that is what he is doing, writing poetry about Timothy. Horrible whimsical stuff that…Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as ‘Timothy Bobbin,’ you will appreciate what we are up against.” 
I am not a weak man, but I confess I shuddered.
Rodney’s brother-in-law continued:
”What it comes to,” said William, “is that he is wantonly laying up a lifetime of shame and misery for the wretched little moppet. In the years to come, when he is playing in the National Amateur, the papers will print photographs of him with captions underneath explaining that he is the Timothy Bobbin of the well-known poems.”
While on the surface, this story is a light-hearted spoof, for anyone familiar with Milne’s personal life, this would have read as a grim indictment. Like Rodney, Milne saw his son as little more than source material. He took almost no interest in him as a child, gathering from his wife most of the details about Christopher that he used in his stories. And Christopher spent his adulthood convinced this cold-blooded literary exploitation had blighted his life. (He once said of his father, "One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it.") For all Wodehouse’s mild good-nature, he was no weakling. In his own fashion, he could and did fight back against his enemies. Although his savaging of Milne was not nearly as blatant or infinitely damaging as what his opponent had done to him, Wodehouse had the truth on his side, and nothing is more devastating than that. (Ironically, Milne himself deeply resented that his children’s stories came to far overshadow his “grown-up” works.)

Wodehouse’s fiction managed to get his anger against Milne out of his system. By 1954 he could write, “Poor Milne. I was shocked to hear of his illness. I’m afraid there seems little chance of him getting any better. It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this. He has always been about my favorite author.” Milne, on the other hand, apparently retained his bitter attitude towards Wodehouse to the end. (If he felt any guilt about how he had wronged his old friend, that undoubtedly added to his feelings of resentment.) The two never spoke or wrote to each other again.

Milne’s last years were deeply unhappy. He and his wife were estranged from their son, and Milne suffered a stroke in 1952, which left him an invalid until his death in 1956. Wodehouse’s life was far longer, and infinitely more fortunate. After the war, he settled permanently and quite happily in America. Although he was pained by the lingering antipathy against him in his homeland, this prejudice lifted to the point that he was given a knighthood in January 1975. (It has been said that this honor was given him in no small part due to the influence of the Queen Mother, who was one of his most devoted fans.) Sir Pelham died as serenely as he had lived six weeks later.

5 comments:

  1. Oh Lord, this brings back memories of reading Wodehouse's Timothy Bobbin story for the first time and screaming with laughter. "A slim volume of verses bound in limp violet leather," if I recall - always a sign of trouble.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've always wondered what Milne himself thought of that story. I hope it made him squirm a bit.

      Delete
    2. I loved this and plan to share it with my Plum loving chums. Thanks old bean.

      Delete
  2. In looking back through your archives, I came across this story. I too am a fan of Wodehouse, the only author who has made me laugh loud while reading his works - not counting politicians and their supporters. I wasn't familiar with the feud between him and Milne, though I was with the former's war-time broadcasts. It's my belief that Wodehouse was an irresponsible and childish man at times, and that his broadcasts stemmed from an opinion of his superiority over more 'serious' people, such as the Nazis. He figured he could fool them, which he did. But he fooled himself, too, thinking that his countrymen, who were being butchered by the thousands in their homes, would connive at the jollity of his statements. He probably never understood why his actions created such antagonism.

    This written, I agree that Milne's opinions of Wodehouse seem to have been motivated by professional jealousy. Milne appears always to have been a humourless old man, even when young, and if Wodehouse was always a child, he at least was a good-natured one who never really wanted anyone to suffer harm.

    ReplyDelete
  3. On his radio show last weekend, Danny Baker made a passing reference to this quarrel (and was firmly on Wodehouse's side I might add). Googling brought me here and what a good read it's been. Many thanks.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated. The author of this blog reserves the right to delete remarks from spammers, trolls, idiots, lunatics, jerks, and anyone who happens to annoy me on days when I've gotten out of bed the wrong way. Which is usually any day ending with a "y."