IT was Evelyn Waugh, no literary slouch himself, who once said to a fellow writer: “You are the head of my profession.”
The man he was talking to was PG Wodehouse, best known for his classic Jeeves and Wooster capers.
Wodehouse’s books were hugely popular during his lifetime and he is regarded by many as one the greatest English comic writers of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, since his death 30 years ago he hasn’t always been flavour of the month, with some critics arguing that his characters didn’t live in the real world. That’s quite possibly true, but it’s also one of the reasons why they were so popular.
Wodehouse has always attracted criticism but by the same token he has never fallen out of fashion for too long.
Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry memorably played the Jeeves and Wooster roles on TV in the early 1990s, while more recently the BBC turned to the author’s Blandings Castle series in a bid to wrestle back viewers from ITV.
Now, for the first time, Wodehouse’s books and stories – all 99 of them – are available in hardback and under the same publisher.
It caps the end of an epic 15 year project. “We’ve done them all,” says David Campbell, from the publishers, Everyman.
The last of these was Sunset At Blandings, his very last novel. Fittingly, there was a story here, too, with 16 of what was going to be 22 chapters found on his Remington 1927 typewriter by his hospital bed when he died.
The decision to publish all his books coincided with the 25th anniversary of Wodehouse’s death. “We thought it would be something a bit different because there’s never been a collected Wodehouse edition in hardback,” says Campbell.
Wodehouse started writing as early as 1902 and was still working when he died at the age of 93, and Campbell admits it’s been something of a labour of love.
“When we started we weren’t sure how many books there would be so we went back to the first British edition of each title,” he says.
Wodehouse had numerous publishers over the course of his lifetime which meant editing them was a painstaking job. “We had to go through them to pick out any mistakes which made the job even harder, but these are almost certainly the most accurate books since the first editions were published.”
Just as much care has gone into the publishing process with the books printed on acid-free paper, and then sewn and bound in cloth.
It’s proved hugely successful with more than 500,000 copies sold worldwide. “This was before the e-book existed,” says Campbell. “But one of the interesting things that’s happened is that although sales of paperbacks have declined, the e-book revolution has meant that hardbacks are more highly prized,” he says.
“People want books by their favourite authors, whether it’s Wodehouse, or Tolstoy or García Márquez, that are going to last. The most important thing for an author, too, is to know that their books will still be around in 100 or 200 years time – and our books will be.”
People often think of Wodehouse’s stories as being a bit old-fashioned and twee, and very much aimed at an English audience. But, as Campbell points out, he had a wider following than many of us perhaps realise.
“He’s very popular in India. You might think he would have nothing in common with people there but he’s one of the country’s most popular authors. Indian people are very interested in the English language and Wodehouse was a marvellous wordsmith.”
He could also be very funny. “There aren’t many authors that can actually make you laugh out loud, but Wodehouse is one of them.”