On August 13th 1932, P.G.Wodehouse wrote to his old school friend Bill Townend. Wodehouse was living at Auribeau-sur-Siagne, just north of Cannes in the South of France. Much of the letter is about the iniquities of the British and American tax system, something of an obsession with the hardly down-at-heel Wodehouse – it is why he spent so much time “abroad”. However, there is some gossip too. Amongst which is this vitriolic gem,
“We now have Mrs.Barney in our midst! I haven’t seen her, but I’m told she haunts low bars in red pyjamas and talks to everyone at the top of her voice. I can’t see what it matters whether she actually slew the young drug-fiend or not, – they ought to have hung a woman like that on principle.”
Whether “in our midst” means that Elvira was also in Auribeau, or was in the general area (probably Cannes) is unclear, although the footnotes to the letter do claim that Elvira had just moved to Auribeau.
What is more significant is the hostility to both Michael and Elvira. Michael is a “drug-fiend”, whose death is practically welcomed. Where did Wodehouse get “drug-fiend” from? The trial reports hinted at debauchery and dissolution but stopped short of that accusation. Rumours did abound, especially among those “in the know”. Wodehouse was well acquainted with Beverley Nichols, who was happy to tell all and sundry that Michael was a “pusher of cocaine”, so maybe that’s the source.
As to his take on Elvira, it firstly shows how quickly she had become demonised. Remember, just one month previously a large crowd had greeted her acquittal with jubilation and a quick burst of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. Again, it is her lifestyle that is deplored, not whether she committed murder or not. I do wonder where Wodehouse picked up the authentic-sounding detail about “red pyjamas”. These would have been beach pyjamas, very much the thing in the South of France in the early thirties. Red then, as it does now, carried very definite overtones of sexual availibility.
Anyway, inappropriate dress, a loud voice and a fondness for low dives are obviously grounds for hanging (for a woman,anyway). Wodehouse may not have been speaking absolutely literally, but he was not being ironic. Supreme comedic writer that he was, there is barely a grain of humour in any of his letters. He was simply voicing what was becoming a general revulsion at Elvira’s all-too-public behaviour.
It is not easy to find anything redeeming about Elvira’s demeanour or personality. On the other hand,perhaps perversely, comments such as Wodehouse’s rather make me side with her. Beloved though he is, and I am a big fan of his writing, his own career in France was not, when all is said and done, exactly blameless.