When I reached these five, I had to take a moment to get the sheer delight back under control. They really are something very special indeed.
Early Wodehouse (the last of them, Leave It to Psmith, was published in 1923, before the first Jeeves books though not before the character’s first appearance), these novels trace Wodehouse’s development from the school stories of the Edwardian era with which he first made his mark to the romantic comedies which became his stock-in-trade.
Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith were originally serialised in The Captain as Jackson Junior and The Lost Lambs respectively, and then collected as Mike in 1909 before being republished under their new titles in 1953. (The Lost Lambs was also collected as Enter Psmith in 1935.) Mike at Wrykyn (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll eschew all earlier titles) is, on its own merits, a good, even excellent, school story. It’s predominantly about cricket; it centres on a character’s beginnings at a senior school; there aren’t really any villains to speak of; like in all the best school stories, there are official rules which may be broken if you care to run the risk, and unofficial ones which must be sacrosanct. It’s probably of a rather higher class than a lot of the stories being churned out in equivalent magazines at the time, but it’s essentially a fine specimen of the school genre. I love it, don’t misunderstand, but if it weren’t for its sequels it would probably occupy the same stratum in the Wodehouse canon as A Prefect’s Uncle.
Mike and Psmith is where the real magic starts. Mike, removed from Wrykyn for consistent failure to bring home anything resembling a good report, is sent to the distinctly pokey Sedleigh instead. All is not, however, lost, because at Sedleigh he meets my favourite character in all of fiction, “the immaculate one”, Rupert Psmith, expelled from Eton for similar lack of academic application. The ‘p’ is silent, as in ptarmigan. Psmith is tall, dandyish, whimsical and quick-thinking. He succeeds by the sheer outrageousness of his schemes, the compelling force of his character, and by getting the right people onside. When we meet him, he has just added the ‘p’ to his name, and has also become a Socialist, which in his understanding consists of (a) calling people Comrade, and (b) “collaring all you can and sitting on it.” This proves to be a surprisingly successful strategy, mostly due to the tendency of the public to (as Psmith likes to put it) confuse the impossible and the merely improbable. Having never considered the possibility of someone acting as he does, they are stymied, unequal to the situation. Psmith, who falls into no such error, is like a paean of praise to sheer brass. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” wrote our national poet, “which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” Psmith is the master of that tide; no swell is too dauntingly huge, no window of opportunity too narrow.
This book is still in a very large degree cricketing. Unlike Mike, Psmith is far from a lover of the game. (To be precise: “Cricket I dislike, but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”) Mike, meanwhile, the great Wrykyn batsman, refuses to play at Sedleigh. The Sedleigh team is captained by Adair, a hard worker who has “that passionate fondness for his school which every boy is popularly supposed to have, but which really is implanted in about one in every thousand.” (The average student, Wodehouse realises, “likes his school. He hopes it will lick Bedford at Rugger and Malvern at cricket, but he rather bets it won’t. […] If anybody came up to him, slapped him on the back, and cried ‘Come along, Jenkins, my boy! Play up for the old school, Jenkins! The dear old school! The old place you love so!’ he would feel seriously ill.”) Adair’s almost religious love for Sedleigh is a stark contrast; but Mike, who detests the place, decides to pull the Achilles-in-his-tent act and join (along with Psmith) the Archaeological Society. (This, incidentally, wins them the wholehearted alliance of their housemaster, Mr Outwood, who runs the society.)
Unlike Mike at Wrykyn, there’s a villain of sorts in Mike and Psmith. The villain is Mr Downing, another housemaster, who acts with favouritism and carries out personal vendettas. He’s very easy to dislike, and few parts of the book give greater pleasure than Psmith demonstrating with consummate ease his ability to be master of any situation.
“Is this impertinence studied, Smith?”
“Ferguson’s study, sir? No, sir. That’s farther down the passage. This is Barnes’s.”
Mr Downing looked at him closely. Psmith’s face was wooden in its gravity.
Giving too much away would be cruel. If you haven’t read this book, I implore you to.
Psmith’s attitude towards the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune was to regard them with a bland smile, as if they were part of an entertainment got up for his express benefit.
Mike and Psmith is followed by Psmith in the City. The title acknowledges that Psmith has taken over as the dominant character. The plot finds both Mike and Psmith working in the New Asiatic Bank: Mike because some bad luck on his father’s part means there isn’t enough money to send him to Cambridge (King’s – boo), and Psmith because of a whim of old Mr Smith’s. (Wodehouse himself, owing to changes in the value of his father’s pension, was forced in 1900 to begin working at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (now HSBC) rather than going up to Oxford.)
This is going to go well, isn’t it?
Psmith sets about making the life of high finance rather more bearable, while Mike pines for a game of cricket (unlike his older brother, Joe, the greatest of the cricketing Jacksons, who as an employee of a cricket-loving landowner is given to understand that playing for the county is among his chief duties). Psmith devotes himself to the “improvement” of Mr Bickersdyke, the bank’s manager. He runs into him at their shared club; attends his political rallies (Mr Bickersdyke is running for Parliament); gathers all the information and allies he will need to outmanoeuvre the man at every turn. “You do not like my impudence?” he asks. “Well, well, some people don’t.”
Can the outcome even be doubted? A quick wit and an apparently platinum tongue carry the day.
I am Psmith. I sub-edit.
Psmith, Journalist is yet another change. Our twosome, now at Cambridge, where old Mr Smith is paying for Mike to study preparatory to managing the Smith estate, have landed in New York. Mike is touring with the MCC, and Psmith has accompanied him, presumably on the basis that if your confidential secretary and advisor can’t follow you around, you’d better follow him. In New York, Mike and Psmith meet Billy Windsor, sub-editor of Cosy Moments magazine, whose editor has been forced by his doctor to take a holiday. Cosy Moments, as the name suggests, is insipid bilge of the absolute first water (catering “exclusively for children with water on the brain, and men and women with solid ivory skulls”), and Billy, whose journalistic instincts tend more towards the hard-hitting, is far from a happy camper.
Psmith, with the admirable clarity that lets him hit upon the unusual which most people regard as impossible, cuts straight to the heart of the matter: if Billy Windsor wants a job on a real newspaper, he must take advantage of his position as acting editor, turn his rag into the real deal, and “make Windsor of Cosy Moments a name to conjure with.” Psmith will remain in New York as acting sub-editor while Mike continues his tour of the States; and, with a war-cry of “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled,” the reinvention is launched.
Cosy Moments, to be truly reinvented, needs a Topic, a Campaign. Psmith finds it in the squalid tenement flats of the admirably misnamed Pleasant Street, owned by an unknown and unscrupulous landlord.
I am a very fair purveyor of good, general invective. And as my visit to Pleasant Street is of such recent date, I am tolerably full of my subject. Taking full advantage of the benevolent laws of this country governing libel, I fancy I will produce a screed which will make this anonymous lessee feel as if he had inadvertently seated himself upon a tin-tack.
Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled, as Psmith tells us. From bribery and threat (delivered by a Mr Parker who is almost as impeccable as Psmith himself) to more direct methods, attempts are made to silence the helmsmen of this renewed Cosy Moments. With the support of “Kid” Brady, a boxer, and “Bat” Jarvis, a cat-fancying mobster whose eternal gratitude was won by Billy’s rescue of one of his favoured felines, these challenges are faced down bravely.
Psmith, Journalist is a very different book from the previous three. Our hero’s previous challenges and victories have been essentially meaningless, a game of wits at which he reigns supreme, but still essentially a game. Failure, if it had ever come, would have meant at worst some temporary personal inconvenience – some school disciplinary procedure, or being fired from a job he never really wanted. Now, however, he finds himself a social crusader, sickened but resolved, sticking to the job “like a conscientious leech.” It’s a definite tone shift, albeit still gloriously fun.
The last book of the five, Leave It to Psmith is my favourite book of all time, combining as it does Wodehouse’s greatest setting, Blandings Castle, with his greatest character, Rupert Psmith. (He was rechristened Ronald Eustace Psmith for this book. I choose to ignore this.)
Mike and Psmith have graduated. Old Mr Smith has, unfortunately, died, and done so in rather a lot of debt. The Smith estate (with, you might remember, its guaranteed job for Mike) has been sold, and the new owners have installed their own, as it were, charge d’affaires. Psmith has gone into business under his uncle, who sells fish.
Let me take you back a bit. We open at the Castle, focusing on the Earl of Emsworth, “that amiable and boneheaded peer”; his son, Freddie Threepwood; his secretary, the Efficient Baxter. The systematic reader will remember these illustrious figures from Something Fresh. We also meet Lady Constance Keeble, Lord Emsworth’s beautiful and deceptively gentle-looking sister, and her wealthy husband Joe Keeble. Keeble’s step-daughter Phyllis, at some point in the past two years, angered her new step-mother Lady Constance by throwing over the “rich and suitable” fiancé said Lady had provided for her (“rather in the manner of a conjurer forcing a card upon his victim”) and marrying elsewhere (the husband is “far from rich and quite unsuitable”). The young couple have found rather a nice farm in Lincolnshire, and Phyllis has written to her step-father asking for a loan of three thousand pounds to finance its purchase – a request which Lady Constance absolutely will not conscience.
The other important plot point is that Lady Constance owns an immensely valuable necklace – costing close to twenty thousand pounds – which she absolutely declines to keep in a bank. In desperation, Joe Keeble schemes with Freddie Threepwood to steal this necklace (“husband pinching from wife isn’t stealing. Law.”) and sell it. A new necklace can be bought for Connie, and the proceeds of the sale used to finance the farm (and a couple of thousand for Freddie, who wants to get in on a bookie’s).
Freddie, however, is terrified of his aunt, and he’s on the verge of calling the whole thing off when he spots the following advertisement:
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Address Applications To ‘R. Psmith, Box 365’
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Chapter II, “Enter Psmith”, makes it absolutely clear that the unsuitable Jackson to whose fortunes Phyllis has hitched her own is none other than our dear friend Mike, and that they are currently occupying a house on the rather gopping Wallingford Street, West Kensington (“sensitive young impressionists from the artists’ colony up Holland Park way may sometimes be seen stubling through it with hands over their eyes, muttering between clenched teeth ‘How long? How long?’”). Psmith’s first action in the book (apart from taking off his top hat) is to half-traumatise the Jackson’s maid by explaining his name. We also learn that Psmith is throwing over the fish business owing to being heartily sick of it; that Phyllis didn’t actually go through the formality of breaking off her previous engagement (the one foisted on her) before marrying Mike; and that the Miss Halliday who, we are informed in the first chapter, is coming to catalogue the Blandings library (“It has not been done since the year 1885.” “Well, and look how splendidly we’ve got along without it”) is none other than Eve Halliday, an old school-friend of Phyllis’s. (Psmith is “a perfect darling, Eve, and you would love him. He’s just your sort,” says Phyllis when she hears that the spotless one has called, demonstrating that she knows her friend better than said friend knows herself.)
In Chapter III, “Eve Borrows An Umbrella” (and no, I’m not going to give you an absolutely blow-by-blow account, I promise), Psmith, sitting by the window of the Drones Club, spots a beautiful young woman – none other than Eve, naturally – caught by the rain. Ever-chivalrous, he hastens to provide her with an umbrella. The fact that he possesses none is neither here nor there; ever the Practical Socialist, he selects the best specimen of the breed to be found in the club’s cloak-room and effects an immediate redistribution of property, pressing it upon her without a word of explanation and returning to the club.
I really should keep that promise. Right. Psmith ends up going to Blandings Castle in the guise of Ralston McTodd, a Canadian poet who is married to (and has, reportedly, rather mistreated) a woman named Cynthia, also a schooldays chum of Phyllis and Eve. Yes, it’s all very convoluted and coincidental. Just roll with it. Eve goes down to fulfil her library-cataloguing duties. Once there, as well as the usual denizens of the Castle, they meet fellow-poet Miss Aileen Peavey, as well as gangster Edward Cootes.
Eve also takes on the necklace-pinching assignment (remember that?). It’s reminiscent of the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh. Deceptions and revelations abound. And flirting. So much Wodehousian flirting.
“I think you’re terribly conceited.”
“Not at all,” said Psmith. “Conceited? No, no. Success has not spoiled me.”
“Have you had any success?”
This book is, in short, a perfect capstone to the chronicles of Wodehouse’s finest creation. If you never read another Wodehouse book as long as you live – I’m tempted to say if you never read another novel as long as you live – do yourself a favour and read this one.
I would like to take a brief moment to note that there is a clutch of Twitter accounts, masterminded by the Tumblr blog The Annotated Psmith Project, dedicated to a real-time twenty-first century retelling of the events of the Psmith saga (Psaga?). Accounts include @ThePIsPsilent (Psmith) and @WrykynBatsman (Mike). Psmith, Journalist is currently being reinterpreted, complete with hashtag #CosyMomentsCannotBeMuzzled. That is all.
Psmith is the best character, without a shadow of a doubt, in every book he appears in. This necessitates a slight format change: I’ll be listing the runners-up for all but the first book instead.
Mike at Wrykyn
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1909 (as the first half of Mike); 1953 (as Mike at Wrykyn)
Best line “‘What do you think of this?’ said Joe, exhibiting Mike, who grinned bashfully. ‘Aged ten last birthday, and playing for the school. You are only ten, aren’t you, Mike?’”
Best character Wyatt. “I want lunch for five hundred and fifty.”
Mike and Psmith
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1909 (as the second half of Mike); 1935 (as Enter Psmith); 1953 (as Mike and Psmith)
Best line “Psmith, in the matter of decorating a study and preparing tea in it, was rather a critic than an executant.” Or: “He was amiable, but patronising. He patronised fossils, and he patronised ruins. If he had been confronted with the Great Pyramid, he would have patronised that.”
Second-best character Adair.
Psmith in the City
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “By the end of the fortnight the flapping of the white wings of Peace over the Postage Department was setting up a positive draught.”
Second-best character Mr Waller.
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “Cosy Moments, as I have had occasion to observe before, cannot be muzzled.”
Second-best character Billy Windsor.
Leave It to Psmith
Author PG Wodehouse
Best line “I am your best friend’s best friend and we both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin souls.” Or: “Oliver Cromwell went through here in 1650. The record has since been lowered.” Or: “If you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!” You get the point.
Second-best character Eve Halliday.