Like most other English gentlemen and wizards in literature, Psmith got his start in boarding school.
Or rather, Wodehouse at the time was writing in the YA sub-genre of English boarding school stories. Most share certain characteristics that you’ll also recognize in the early Harry Potter books:
The protagonist’s head of house is motherly (even if he’s a man), more than a little bit nerdy in some way or other, and all in all a good person. (McGonagall in Harry Potter is rather more assertive, but it boils down to the same thing, though the details are different.)
There’s a paranoid and arrogant head of another house who believes that the protagonist has done something nasty, even though he’s innocent, and will go to great lengths to prove that this is so, crossing the boundaries of the good head of house.
A main team sport at school plays a quite important role in the life of the protagonist. In Harry Potter it’s Quidditch; in Wodehouse’s stories it’s cricket. (At least you get an explanation of Quidditch in the Harry Potter stories; cricket leaves this American quite lost.)
The captain of the team sport at school is extremely passionate about his school winning. Indeed, he dreams about it and lives in constant hope of it, and will attempt to draft the protagonist. He’s usually the equivalent of a goalie.
Said captain leads the underdog team (whether the school itself is just the underdog, or if it’s a particular house that happens to be the underdog) and it’s the protagonist who makes the difference.
There’s a pair of boys on the team who just aren’t that serious, though they are good chaps in the end, and encourage sanity on the part of some insane schedule brought on by the team captain.
About five minutes after he steps onto the school grounds for the first time, the protagonist makes an enemy in the form of an opposing student who has a gang of not-very-intelligent followers. (In Mike and Psmith, eventually the hatchet is buried; in Harry Potter, not so much.)
The protagonist himself makes close friends with one or two intelligent and/or very loyal students who play an important role in getting him out of sticky wickets.
The final confrontation tends to involve the headmaster and the evil teacher and the nasty trick that the protagonist is being framed for, but cunning and luck wins the day. (Of course, there are much higher stakes in Harry Potter.)
And finally… the protagonist is a bit dim but a good, kind-hearted boy.
The above doesn’t seem to fit good old Psmith, does it? Was he perhaps rough in the beginning days?
Why, not at all. In the beginning days he’s just as much of a scheming, insouciant dandy as he is in later books. In fact, in Mike and Psmith, Psmith was not the protagonist at all, but a supporting character who plays at a mix of Ron and a less awkward Hermione—Mike Jackson was the star of the show. Or so Wodehouse wrote it. Or at least attempted to write it.
The problem with crafting fiction is that sometimes a character who’s strong enough will run away with the story. And that’s what happens here, from the first time Mike meets him:
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hello,” he said.
He spoke in a tired voice.
“Hello,” said Mike.
Psmith presents an unusual picture for a young man in a boarding school (about 17 years of age or so), and his mannerism is quite odd. His sarcasm can be cutting and delivered so deadpan, that you don’t know if he seriously believes what he’s saying, or if he’s mocking something. For instance, when he asks Jackson,
“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”
“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”
“The boy—what will he become? Are you new here, too, then?”
“Yes! Why, are you new?”
“Do I look as if I belonged here? I’m the latest import. Sit down on yonder sette, and I will tell you the painful story of my life. By the way, before I start, there’s just one thing. If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty….”
If you remember Harry Potter’s first meetings with Ron, with Hermione, and even with Draco, you’ll notice that his partner in the scene never dominates in the way Psmith dominates Mike. And Psmith isn’t just limited to Mike in this manner, but tends to plough over all in his path. Maybe an hour after meeting Mike, he
steals appropriates another student’s study room for the two of them—an older and burlier student at that.
“What the dickens,” inquired the newcomer, “are you doing here?”
“We are having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey. Come in and join us. We keep open house, we Psmiths. Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson. A stout fellow. Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us. I am Psmith. Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chitchat over the teacups.”
“My name’s Spiller, and this is my study.”
Psmith leaned against the mantelpiece, put up his eyeglass, and harangued Spiller in a philosophical vein.
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,” said he, “the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ Too late! That is the bitter cry. If you had torn yourself from the bosom of the Spiller family by an earlier train, all might have been well. But no. Your father held your hand and said huskily, ‘Edwin, don’t leave us!’ Your mother clung to you weeping, and said, ‘Edwin, stay!’ Your sisters—”
“I want to know what—”
“Your sisters froze on to your knees like little octopuses (or octopi), and screamed, ‘Don’t go Edwin!’ And so,” said Psmith, deeply affected by his recital, “you stayed on till the later train; and, on arrival, you find strange faces in the familiar room, a people that know not Spiller.” Psmith went to the table, and cheered himself with a sip of tea. Spiller’s sad case had moved him greatly.
And yes, Psmith is sending up just about every other Boy’s Boarding School story ever. And it’s more or less the case that whenever he speaks, his dramatic and serious recital, contrasted to its ridiculous content, generates at times an absurd amount of humor.
His tendency to dominate a scene also extends to the adults. Here, Psmith, Mike, and Spiller see their head of house, Mr. Outwood, to settle the matter of the ownership of the study:
“Ah, Spiller,” [Mr. Outwood] said. “And Smith, and Jackson. I am glad to see you have already made friends.”
“Spiller’s, sir,” said Psmith, laying a hand patronizingly on the study-claimer’s shoulder—a proceeding violently resented by Spiller—”is a character one cannot help but respect. His nature expands before one like some beautiful flower.”
Mr. Outwood received this eulogy with rather a startled expression, and gazed at the object of the tribute in a surprised way.
“Er—quite so, Smith, quite so,” he said at last. “I like to see boys in my house friendly toward one another.”
“There is no vice in Spiller,” pursued Psmith earnestly. “His heart is the heart of a little child.”
“Please, sir,” burst out the paragon of all the virtues, “I—”
“But it was not entirely with regard to Spiller that I wished to speak to you, sir, if you were not too busy.”
“Not at all, Smith, not at all. Is there anything…”
“Please, sir—” began Spiller.
“I understand, sir,” said Psmith, “that there is an Archaeological Society in the school.”
Mr. Outwood’s eyes sparkled behind their pince-nez. It was a disappointment to him that so few boys seemed to wish to belong to his chosen band. Cricket and football, games that left him cold, appeared to be the main interest in their lives.
I did mention Psmith was manipulative? And did I mention he has no fear, not even of the token paranoid master of an opposing house who wishes to do his friend, the protagonist, and all who stand in his way, ill? One of the best scenes in Mike and Psmith starts with said master, Mr. Downing, demanding that Psmith show him around Mr. Outwood’s house rooms:
“With acute pleasure, sir,” said Psmith. “Or shall I fetch Mr. Outwood, sir?”
“Do as I tell you, Smith,” snapped Mr. Downing.
Psmith said no more, but went down to the matron’s room. The matron being out, he abstracted the bunch of keys from her table and rejoined the master.
“Shall I lead the way, sir?” he asked.
Mr. Downing nodded.
“Here, sir,” said Psmith, opening the door, “we have Barnes’s dormitory. An airy room, constructed on the soundest hygienic principles. Each boy, I understand, has quite a considerable number of cubic feet of air all to himself. It is Mr. Outwood’s boast that no boy has ever asked for a cubic foot of air in vain. He argues justly—”
He broke off abruptly and began to watch the other’s maneuvers in silence. Mr. Downing was peering rapidly beneath each bed in turn.
“Are you looking for Barnes, sir?” inquired Psmith politely. “I think he’s out in the field.”
Mr. Downing rose, having examined the last bed, crimson in the face with the exercise.
“Show me the next dormitory, Smith,” he said, panting slightly.
“This,” said Psmith, opening the next door and sinking his voice to an awed whisper, “is where I sleep!”
His remarks are not much appreciated by Downing. But they are appreciated by us.
Psmith proceeds to shield Mike in all manners cunning and humorous—though he isn’t perfect, which naturally proceeds to cause more complications. Mike, meanwhile, wanders about in earnest cluelessness as the nets close on him, not even suspecting until about two chapters from the end what, exactly, is afoot. The fallout is bally fun, so to speak, and at the end it’s Psmith who has the cathartic talk with the headmaster—although, this being Psmith, it’s a somewhat unusual one.
When I read Mike and Psmith, I find it easiest to ignore anything from <cricket> to </cricket>, to read Mike’s wanderings because they are the plot, and to fall over laughing over everything involving Psmith.
Still, this is school. Ragging on school masters is different from ragging on, oh… an employer. Not like that stops Psmith in Psmith in the City, which we’ll look at next time.
Posts in this series: