Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ethel Wodehouse, spy?

Ben Macintyre's Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is, as expected, full of drama, surprise, and interesting tidbits--just seeing Anthony Burgess and Kim Philby pop up as members in good standing of MI5, commenting on reports from double agents, is fascinatingly creepy. What I didn't expect, and something I haven't seen noted in any of the reviews, is that it also goes a ways toward rehabilitating P. G. Wodehouse's wife, Ethel, from the lingering charge of collaboration during the couple's internment.

The last I'd read on the issue was in Robert McCrum's 2004 biography of Wodehouse. McCrum builds a convincing case for what is now, I think, the general assessment of Wodehouse's own level of culpability for his pro-German broadcasts: Wodehouse, McCrum argues, was guilty at most of gullibility and ignorance, rooted in naivete and a desire to please. He should have known better, but he certainly didn't intend worse.

Ethel, however, doesn't come off so well in McCrum's book. Major Cussen, the M15 officer assigned to interrogate the couple after the war, McCrum writes, was strongly critical of Ethel:
"From what I have seen of Mrs Wodehouse," he wrote, " I expect to learn that she conducted herself [in Germany] in a flamboyant manner and that she accepted all the attention which was no doubt paid to her by German officials."
Macintyre, drawing on security service documents, paints a different picture.

The Wodehouses enter Macintyre's account because, while living in France in the pre-war years, they became friends with a German agent, Johnny Jebsen, who was quietly anti-Nazi and eventually became a double agent for Britain. Among his many shady activities, Jebsen ran a minor currency scam, accepting forged British banknotes from Nazi officials to trade for dollars, while skimming a substantial amount--some of which he used to help support the Wodehouses, who knew nothing of Jebsen's secret job or the source of the money.

Macintyre doesn't offer any new information about Wodehouse himself, but Ethel appears very differently in this report from MI6 operative Charles de Salis, written in conjunction with an analysis of Jebsen (whose codename was Artist):
Mrs. Wodehouse is very pro-British and is inclined to be rude to anyone who dares address her in German. She has on occasion said loudly in public places: "If you cannot address me in English don't speak at all. You had better learn it as you will have to speak it after the war anyway." Artist thinks she might be a useful source. . . . Wodehouse himself is entirely childlike and pacifist.
Here's how MaciMntyre glosses the report:
It is not known whether MI6 acted on this suggestion and recruited Ethel Wodehouse, but Jebsen's suggestion casts a new light on their time in Paris. . . . Jebsen's report proves that while Wodehouse himself may have been passively apolitical, his wife was so anti-Nazi that she was considered a potential spy.
Though I realize that security service files, with their purging and blackouts, don't allow for a lot of certainty, it does seem reasonable to assume that if Ethel Wodehouse had actually been recruited that fact would have emerged in the subsequent decades. Regardless, for a Wodehouse fan it's good to see this report--anything that further clears the cloud of collaboration is welcome.

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