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“Things Grown-Ups Talk About”

January 18, 2013 | by

Today is A. A. Milne’s birthday. While he is certainly best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, Milne was a prolific writer who came to resent his association with the beloved bear of very little brain. One of the more intriguing episodes of Milne’s life is his feud with author P. G. Wodehouse.

The two men were initially friends: exactly the same age, and both comic writers, they moved in the same circles in 1920s London, playing on the same cricket team and contributing to many of the same publications. In 1928, they even collaborated on the adaptation of Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. By the 1930s, their friendship had cooled somewhat—Wodehouse defenders cite jealousy—but it wasn’t until World War II that things became actively hostile.

Following his time fighting in World War I, Milne had become an outspoken pacifist. He amended this stance somewhat with the advent of World War II, but remained politically engaged, writing War with Honour in 1940. Wodehouse, by contrast, was apolitical. Although his satire occasionally skewered contemporary political figures, his work was patently escapist.

A.A. Milne

In 1940, while living in occupied France, the Wodehouses were captured and detained by Nazi troops. Told he would be released if he agreed to do a series of humorous broadcasts for German radio, Wodehouse infamously agreed. The resulting pieces, about his time as a detainee, are lighthearted and apolitical. But doing broadcasts for the enemy did not go down well in war-torn England. “I have come to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale—that of his own country,” declared one broadcast. He was denounced as a traitor on the floor of the House of Commons.

Nothing, however, was more blistering than Milne’s letters to the Daily Telegraph. “Irresponsibility in what the papers call ‘a licensed humorist’ can be carried too far; naivete can be carried too far,” wrote Milne. “Wodehouse has been given a good deal of licence in the past, but I fancy that now his licence will be withdrawn.” His critique was also personal: Wodehouse, he wrote, “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.”

P.G. Wodehouse with his wife, Ethel

Writes James Parker of the episode, “His greatest artistic gift, his essential levity, was mercilessly revealed as his greatest moral flaw, and the beauty of his comic style was reduced to a ghastly mechanical flippancy.” Ultimately, Wodehouse was cleared of formal charges of treason, but it would take many years for his reputation to recover: his sales dropped sharply, and the BBC stopped running his popular radio plays. Shocked and hurt, Wodehouse moved to America; he would never return to England. Wodehouse was a famously happy-go-lucky man, yet he reportedly told one interviewer, “Nobody could be more anxious than myself ... that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.”

Wodehouse would go on to lampoon Milne in The Mating Season and some of his stories, portraying a disengaged father who wrote saccharine stories for the son he ignored. In his Art of Fiction interview, Wodehouse addressed the feud: “We were supposed to be quite good friends, but, you know, in a sort of way I think he was a pretty jealous chap. I think he was probably jealous of all other writers. But I loved his stuff.”

Whether Milne was equally forgiving is unknown.

8 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. tom | January 18, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Mr. Wodehouse had no chance to read Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers which exploits exactly such encounter of a writer with Germans, and tells a story how he, the writer, made the fools of the Germans. The problem with Earthly Powers is Anthony Burgess’ book is fiction written AFTER the war and Ezra Pound and P G Wodehouse had to live through it and survive. Though I understand the position of their critics, I do not blame either the poet or the writer.

  2. Stevo King | January 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    The matter of hostility between Milne and Wodehouse was certainly an unfortunate circumstance brought about by the Wodehouse’s capture by the Nazis and his questionable decision to aid the German propoganda machine. However @tom, to equate the content of Wodehouse’s broadcasts with those of Pound [“You let in the Jew and the Jew rotted your empire, and you yourselves out-jewed the Jew”. “And the big Jew has rotted EVERY nation he has wormed into.”] is deceitful and plain wrong.

  3. Joe Carlson | January 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Wow, get to recycle my PR post from December 15, 2011:

    In 1956 William Faulkner wrote Saul Bellow to join in an effort to get Ezra Pound released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Bellow’s reply, recently published in Benjamin Taylor’s edited LETTERS, was dated January 7, 1956:

    “Pound is not in prison but in an insane asylum. If sane he should be tried again as a traitor; if insane he ought not to be released merely because he is a poet…In France, Pound would have been shot. Free him because he is a poet? Why, better poets than he were exterminated, perhaps. Shall we say nothing on their behalf?”

    Imagine Faulkner’s jaw dropping as he reaches for the bourbon.

  4. Mack Hall | January 21, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    PGW was wholly innocent of any evil intent; as a 60-year-old living a sheltered life he simply hadn’t the political awareness to understand the sinister machinations of the Nazis.

  5. Nick Fitzsimons | January 24, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Wodehouse was not released from internment in return for agreeing to broadcast: he was released as he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, at which age he was entitled to be released under the terms of the Geneva Convention. The invitation to broadcast to the USA – which was, at that time, neutral – came after his release.

3 Pingbacks

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