Blast From the Past: Psmith

My blog has been around for 2.5 years. I thought about doing a recap of some of the high points since the last retrospective, but that would be boring.

Instead, I will put up a little series of posts that I’m most proud of, which are my Psmith musings. If you ever notice my avatar in various places, it’s Psmith. As to why I identify with him… I don’t know, possibly I have the same ridiculousness about me. If you ever meet me in person, the first word that comes to mind is: ditz what uses fancy words.

Anyways. Here are the posts.

In the Beginning Was Psmith

How I got interested in Psmith, and why I like him.

He’s cheeky and dignified; selfish and generous; incorrigible trickster who’s one half Jeeves in his powers of manipulation and coolness, and one half Fred (another popular Wodehouse character) in his sending up of society and comical insouciance.

Schoolboy Days

Discussing the boarding school fiction of Mike and Psmith, drawing on some parallels with the Harry Potter series, then going into detail about the book itself.

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.

Work is a Mug’s Job

Discussing Psmith in the City, where Psmith gets a job, and it’s hilarious. Mike and Psmith in the workplace, with the concentration where it belongs on Psmith.

If he’s a less than ideal student for the school master who wishes to squash his friends, he’s an even less ideal employee for the manager who likes making his underlings’ lives miserable. Which is exactly what happens in Psmith in the City, when a wealthy and vindictive bank manager convinces Psmith’s father to put Psmith under his wing in the working world as opposed to sending him off to Cambridge for a law degree.

Reality Bites

Discussing Psmith, Journalist, which suddenly takes a turn for the serious. Also, there is unfortunately racism, and I unfortunately do not talk about it at all, except for a mention. Sigh. A coward is I.

Sadistically, because Psmith is so resourceful, cunning, arguably insane, and brave, Wodehouse decides to throw him into the deep end with the sharks of the New York underworld. The result is an unsettling hybrid of American violence, yellow journalism, upper crust corruption, lower class hell, and the understated British stiff upper lip—with Psmith’s distinct and unique touch.

Love is an Umbrella

Discussing Leave It to Psmith, written in Wodehouse’s more romantic comedy days. It’s amongst one of his best. And he’s also fairly sadistic, but only in how he thrusts Psmith into these situations (actually, come to think of it, that’s been the way ever since Psmith in the City, only it’s much worse here, because Screw The Rules, I Have Money is no longer in effect).

For the first time in the series, we see a Psmith who is not only vulnerable in the physical sense (we saw that in Psmith, Journalist) but also in the more intimate mindset sense. This may be why Leave It to Psmith is viewed by some as the weakest Psmith book, because he doesn’t come across as a force of nature—he’s “just” a very smart man. But in the sense of handling the personality of Psmith from all angles, Leave It to Psmith is the strongest Psmith book.

Love is an Umbrella: Acoustic Redux

Not part of the Psmith series, but talks a little bit about Marié Digby’s acoustic cover for the song “Umbrella”, which is my favorite cover, and reminds me more than any other performance of Leave it to Psmith.

Mike and Psmith, Psmith in the City Epub Versions

In celebration of moving my downloads over to WP DownloadManager, I decided to release Epub versions of Mike and Psmith and Psmith in the City. ETA: And also Psmith, Journalist. For more about Psmith, see my Kindle-licious series.

[download id="24,25,26"]

I’ve written this warning a few times before, but I might as well do it again:

Warning Warning Warning

The above texts are public domain only in the United States, anywhere with a Berne-convention-style copyright that expires 25 years after author death, and anywhere else without copyright laws.

If you live anywhere else, especially in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ireland, every country in continental Europe, almost every country in Asia, South America, and Africa—these are not legal for you to download, read, read aloud, print, or store on a computer or server unless it happens to be housed in the United States, etc etc etc. ((If you think this is ridiculous, join the club. I’m not against copyright in general—far from it—but the man’s been dead for over 25 years.))

For more information, see Copyright and Wodehouse.

End Warning

I wrote a few scripts to make the Epub process a snap for those of us working by hand. I’m not ready to release them, but here’s an example session (warning: extreme geek):

Continue reading

Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: Love is an Umbrella

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This is technically not a proper Kindle-licious review, since the only way (as of this writing) that you’ll be reading Leave It to Psmith on the Kindle is if you digitize the book yourself. However, this is the last Psmith book and it’s just not proper to review this series without it. If you desire a downloadable version, you can listen to the Audible.com unabridged audio book on your Kindle.

On to the review proper—

One of my first impressions on reading Leave It to Psmith is that this is Wodehouse in his prime, when he’s no longer trying ((From what you see in the book; Wodehouse is well-known for his thorough revision process)) to find his voice, discover his meter, or figure out Psmith. He now knows Psmith like the back of his hand, it seems, and as such he can not only present the character’s strengths, but also the character’s weaknesses. For the first time in the series, we see a Psmith who is not only vulnerable in the physical sense (we saw that in Psmith, Journalist) but also in the more intimate mindset sense. This may be why Leave It to Psmith is viewed by some as the weakest Psmith book, because he doesn’t come across as a force of nature—he’s “just” a very smart man. But in the sense of handling the personality of Psmith from all angles, Leave It to Psmith is the strongest Psmith book.

And no wonder. This is no longer the early Wodehouse, of boyhood adventures or American flash and daring; this is Wodehouse in his romantic comedy period, when the series he’s well known for these days are setting foot on ground—the Jeeves series, and the Blandings series. Leave It to Psmith is, in fact, a cross-over book between Psmith and Blandings, and is probably the best example of Wodehouse’s transition from his early work to his later work. (Which is also why no review series of the Psmith books can leave this one out.)

A few general things of note:

  • The first chapter is brilliant, because it sets into motion so many small details that will gain consequence and momentum through the rest of the book, and matter highly in the end. These range from characterizations to parts of the scenery almost ignored, but not quite.

  • In fact, Wodehouse does a better job of setting all variables into motion than most mystery writers. Everything that happens in the climax or the ending has had its initial roots set much earlier in the book; by the end of the book, any surprises that leap out at you can be extracted from the first half of the book, with most of the important events having long since had their causes introduced in the first chapter.

  • Wodehouse’s gift with words is in full swing (and his revision process figured out by this point), and just about every sentence is a delight, and no words are wasted. There’s no wonder that many people, on encountering Leave It to Psmith for the first time, end up reading it from start to finish quickly, a result that’s associated more with thrillers than with comedies.

  • Psmith’s role is more balanced in this book, appropriately so because Blandings is Wodehouse’s stage for weaving plot from the interactions of numerous characters. Whenever Psmith in a scene, there’s no doubt that he’s a strong, major character, but he doesn’t overwhelm everybody else.

Now for Psmith himself. We first see his presence in Leave It to Psmith not in person, but as an advertisement he’s put out in the paper:

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 T “R. Psmith, Box 365″
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH

which certainly sounds like the Psmith we know and love, but the details don’t strike us as all being right in the world.

One of the distinguishing parts of Psmith’s status in the earlier books was: he’s rich, and has a rich family. This allows for strong abilities like the secret buyings of newspapers in Psmith, Journalist, easing Mike’s life of pennilessness and even solving it in Psmith in the City, and of course having been at Eton in Mike and Psmith, and having the familial status to absolve the worst of falls he could have had in all the times he’s shielded Mike. Psmith is secure in a way other people aren’t, and on top of that has a strong and assertive personality.

Wodehouse probably wondered, “what happens if I destroy his wealth?” which just goes to show that it’s unhealthy to be an interesting character to your author.

So at the beginning of Leave It to Psmith, Psmith’s father is dead, the estate bankrupt and bought out, Mike’s secure job as estate manager thrown out by the new buyers, and Psmith himself penniless and working in the fish market for an uncle who, while offscreen, acts similarly to Mr. Bickersdyke in Psmith in the City. Sort of a Psmith nightmare come true. Mike himself has married, and his family is in trouble—and there’s nothing Psmith is able to do to help him this time. Which is, by the way, an interesting part of Psmith’s personality—you’d think that a young man who is otherwise so selfish would never spend so much effort being kind to a person he likes, with more effort than he puts towards himself. And yet that is so very Psmith. It’s also very Psmith to decide to market out that helpfulness to others.

And so, for the first time, we see him uncertain, even about his name, revealed briefly but definitely in his short conversation with the Jackson’s maid at Jackson’s run-down “new” house:

“Ah well,” he said, “we must always remember that these disappointments are sent to us for some good purpose. No doubt they make us more spiritual. Will you inform her that I called? the name is Psmith. P-smith.”

“Peasmith, sir?”

“No, no. P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the initial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“You don’t think,” he said anxiously, “that I did wrong in pursuing this course?”

“N-no, sir.”

“Splendid!” said the young man, flicking a speck of dust from his coat-sleeve. “Splendid! Splendid!”

Compare this to his introduction in Mike and Psmith, where he mentions “I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty….” It’s telling that the chapters in both works are entitled “Enter Psmith”.

If Psmith is this insecure with a maid (and throughout the book there are mentions where he hopes that the person in a scene will think there’s something special about him, something that’s never been obvious in previous books), I wonder how much it hurt when Mike called him an ass and meant it, which he has never done before in anything but jest. It’s never shown, but we know from the conversation with the maid several paragraphs previous that all is not quite right with Psmith.

In “Enter Psmith” in Leave It to Psmith, we also meet for the first time Eve Halliday, who will play an important role in Psmith’s life. She’s the first woman he ever falls in love with. And he would probably only have fallen in love if he were in this vulnerable state of mind that Wodehouse so thoughtfully plunked him in (I’ll note that it took a lot of doing on Wodehouse’s part to actually effect that in Psmith).

The next chapter, “Eve Borrows an Umbrella”, starts with one of the funniest first-meeting scenes in romantic comedy ever, when Psmith contemplates Eve across the street in the safety of his club, and, seeing that she’s marooned under an awning by an enthusiastic rainfall, thinks

Why, Psmith asked himself, was this? Even, he argued, if Charles the chauffeur had been given the day off or was driving her father the millionaire to the City to attend to his vast interests, she could surely afford a cab-fare? We, who are familiar with the state of Eve’s finances, can understand her inability to take cabs, but Psmith was frankly perplexed.

Being, however, both ready-witted and chivalrous, he perceived that this was no time for idle speculation. His not to reason why; his obvious duty was to take steps to assist Beauty in distress. He left the window of the smoking-room, and, having made his way with a smooth dignity to the club’s cloak-room, proceeded to submit a row of umbrellas to a close inspection. He was not easy to satisfy. Two which he went so far as to pull out of the rack he returned with a shake of the head. Quite good umbrellas, but not fit for this special service. At length, however, he found a beauty, and a gentle smile flickered across his solemn face. He put up his monocle and gazed searchingly at the umbrella. It seemed to answer every test. He was well pleased with it.

“Whose,” he inquired of the attendant, “is this?”

“Belongs to the Honourable Mr. Walderwick, sir.”

“Ah!” said Psmith tolerantly.

He tucked the umbrella under his arm and went out.

We’ll note that (a) Psmith doesn’t have an umbrella to loan Ms. Halliday, but (b) he doesn’t let that stop him, and (c) this is the first time we’ve seen Psmith be Psmith again, and also (d) it’s possible to come up with various metaphors about umbrellas and rain to Psmith’s assistance and the troubles of life. We’ll also additionally note that Psmith has good taste in a life partner, for Eve is not a doormat, nor vain, nor stupid, but a smart and enterprising woman who wants much out of life, not just an enterprising man (which we have no doubt that Psmith is).

After this catalyst, this motivator, Psmith has a purpose again (just as he was bored out of his mind in Mike and Psmith before encountering his protectee, Mike) and the book rolls on even faster forwards than it did before. It’s trivial to say, “Psmith takes a job to steal a necklace at Blandings Castle but also engages in the job at all because Eve is going to Blandings as a librarian, and we end up with several layers of imposter-ship and cross-purposes plotting at Blandings, which is pretty much the purpose of Blandings, and it’s all action and humor from here on out, and also there are flowerpots” but that doesn’t even begin to approach the story. You have to read it (or listen to it).

Everything ends well, eventually, for Psmith, who is finally able to help Mike again, and who also gets the girl (and a job).

And that closes the final chapter on Psmith’s story, although in a foreword to the original Mike and Psmith, Wodehouse notes,

If anyone is curious as to what became of Mike and Psmith in later life, I can supply the facts. Mike, always devoted to country life, ran a prosperous farm. Psmith, inevitably perhaps, became an equally prosperous counselor at the bar like Perry Mason, specializing, like Perry, in appearing for the defense.

For Mike, we learn that it’s most certainly true. For Psmith, we haven’t yet seen it, but I think we shouldn’t doubt it.

Of late, I have thought of this tune as, in some places at least, an appropriate ending track for Psmith, although it’s not for everybody.

Umbrella (excerpt) by Rihanna
Buy track from Amazon mp3 Downloads
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Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: Reality Bites

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The third Psmith book, Psmith, Journalist, spends most of its time answering the question:

How much flak could a Psmith flak, if a Psmith could flak flak?

We have at the very least the following answers:

  • Psmith can usurp a paper entitled Cosy Moments and turn it into a campaign against the landlords of the early 20th century New York tenement slums;

  • Psmith can defuse the temper of six self-entitled writers he let go upon becoming sub-editor of Cosy Moments;

  • Psmith can fuel the new audience for Cosy Moments by opportunities that others miss by way of being more sensible, i.e., find a young boxing prospect and turn him into a daily feature by allowing him to commit violence upon the art that is writing and publish it every day.

  • Psmith will not stand down when an emissary of the most unscrupulous and hidden financiers of “Pleasant Street” (where said slums are) visits him and attempts to bribe him into shutting down the slum lord articles;

  • Psmith will not flee like a sensible Cambridge student should when said financier starts paying underworld crime gangs to shut down the paper and its staff by any means possible;

  • Psmith runs into schemes more violent and deadly to any he’s ever been exposed to before, and still does not flee, in the end managing to (barely) not die.

A note: Psmith, Journalist has a little casual racist terminology mentioned in a few remarks in the opening chapter, as well as a scene in one of the last chapters, which dates it as a work from the first decades of the 20th century, and particularly that of a British man writing about a multi-cultural American city. Then again, it’s not like most of the American authors at the time did much better, and many much worse.

In his previous two books, Psmith was a force of nature, and here Wodehouse gives the spotlight fully unto him—this time, while Psmith tags along with Mike on his cricket team’s tour of America, Psmith stays behind in New York while Mike’s cricket team visits Philadelphia. Bored and lonely, Psmith decides to amuse himself with the challenge of turning a family paper into a real news sheet with a booming circulation number, taking temporary editor Billy Windsor (standing in for Cosy Moments‘ real editor, off taking some 10 weeks vacation of complete rest in the Appalachians) under his wing. Think Mike, but more cowboy-ish.

Sadistically, because Psmith is so resourceful, cunning, arguably insane, and brave, Wodehouse decides to throw him into the deep end with the sharks of the New York underworld. The result is an unsettling hybrid of American violence, yellow journalism, upper crust corruption, lower class hell, and the understated British stiff upper lip—with Psmith’s distinct and unique touch.

In the test to destruction that is Psmith, Journalist, one suspects as the violence escalates that Psmith, of England’s upper class, cosseted and unexposed to the darker underside of crime, will give it all up and head back to the safety of England. However, we find that apparently Psmith is made of sterner stuff.

In his previous encounters with those with whom fate had brought him in contact there had been little at stake. The prize of victory had been merely a comfortable feeling of having had the best of a battle of wits; the penalty of defeat nothing worse than the discomfort of having failed to score. But this tenement business was different. Here he had touched the realities. There was something worth fighting for. His lot had been cast in pleasant places, and the sight of actual raw misery had come home to him with an added force from that circumstance. He was fully aware of the risks that he must run. The words of the man at the Astor, and still more the episodes of the family friend from Missouri and the taximeter cab, had shown him that this thing was on a different plane from anything that had happened to him before. It was a fight without gloves, and to a finish at that. But he meant to see it through.

Things get worse, and worse, and worse. But in the end, Psmith, of course, manages to see it through, and not too much worse for the wear.

Psmith, Journalist is an unusual work in the Wodehousian canon, an odd bit of grittiness in American reality tales sandwiched between his early school stories and his later, more familiar Edwardian-age romantic comedies.

Will you be poorer for not reading it? I don’t think so. But it is an interesting contrast in the history of Wodehouse, and very nearly the last Psmith tale.

Thankfully, someone near and dear to Wodehouse wanted another Psmith story, and thus some years later the world was presented with Leave it to Psmith, a much better last curtain for the incomparable and incorrigible Psmith. Next time, we’ll explore the benefits of a more seasoned Wodehouse on the character of Psmith in one of the best comedic novels ever written.

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Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: Work is a Mug’s Job

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© cynical-c.com
used with permission

After the unappreciated carefreeness of school days, comes the unending weariness of work, if you’re like most of us. Especially if you live in the U.S. or Japan.

Then there’s Psmith. If he’s a less than ideal student for the school master who wishes to squash his friends, he’s an even less ideal employee for the manager who likes making his underlings’ lives miserable. Which is exactly what happens in Psmith in the City, when a wealthy and vindictive bank manager convinces Psmith’s father to put Psmith under his wing in the working world as opposed to sending him off to Cambridge for a law degree. It says unfortunate things for Mr. Smith’s attention span that he agrees to this proposition so easily.

Mike is along for the ride once more, as his family falls onto hard times, and he has to put in hours at a bank instead of going to University—and falls under the thumb of the same bank manager, who goes by the lovely name of Mr. Bickersdyke. There’s still some amount of Mike and cricket involved, but at the end it serves as a much better plot point than it did in Mike and Psmith.

In large part, however, the story is about Psmith sending up Authority while keeping himself and Mike amused and, later, out of trouble. There’s still a youthfulness in this adventure that recalls Schoolboy Days, as the first year of work invariably feels like. As a result, Psmith in the City is an enjoyable and irreverent romp that gives Authority the bird—and then some. It ranges from Psmith subtly pestering Bickersdyke at the club they share, with the most bang for the least energy from him:

Psmith found him a quarter of an hour later in the card-room. He sat down beside his table, and began to observe the play with silent interest. Mr Bickersdyke, never a great performer at the best of times, was so unsettled by the scrutiny that in the deciding game of the rubber he revoked, thereby presenting his opponents with the rubber by a very handsome majority of points. Psmith clicked his tongue sympathetically.

Dignified reticence is not a leading characteristic of the bridge-player’s manner at the Senior Conservative Club on occasions like this. Mr Bickersdyke’s partner did not bear his calamity with manly resignation. He gave tongue on the instant. “What on earth’s”, and “Why on earth’s” flowed from his mouth like molten lava. Mr Bickersdyke sat and fermented in silence. Psmith clicked his tongue sympathetically throughout.

Mr Bickersdyke lost that control over himself which every member of a club should possess. He turned on Psmith with a snort of frenzy.

“How can I keep my attention fixed on the game when you sit staring at me like a—like a—”

“I am sorry,” said Psmith gravely, “if my stare falls short in any way of your ideal of what a stare should be; but I appeal to these gentlemen. Could I have watched the game more quietly?”

“Of course not,” said the bereaved partner warmly. “nobody could have any earthly objection to your behaviour. It was absolute carelessness. I should have thought that one might have expected one’s partner at a club like this to exercise elementary—”

But Mr Bickersdyke had gone. He had melted silently away like the driven snow.

Psmith took his place at the table.

“A somewhat nervous, excitable man, Mr Bickersdyke, I should say,” he observed.

to… ah, this would spoil some surprises, but let’s just say that things escalate.

Wodehouse’s writing has stretched its humorous wings, touching upon other characters and actions with wry yet efficient descriptions that are at once both colorfully vivid and undeniably funny. I enjoyed, for instance, this description of Bickersdyke after Psmith’s subtle working-overs the night before:

Mr Bickersdyke sat in his private room at the New Asiatic Bank with a pile of newspapers before him. At least, the casual observer would have said that it was Mr Bickersdyke. In reality, however, it was an active volcano in the shape and clothes of the bank-manager.

It’s in Psmith in the City where Wodehouse’s talent for turning a phrase, one vital to the writer of comedy of any stripe, begins to truly bloom. One of my favorites is: “But, then, trouble is such an elastic word. It embraces a hundred degrees of meaning.”

In the battle between employee and manager, however, who’s going to win is not a question easily answered, even if one of the parties involved is Psmith, and the tension is tight throughout the book—tighter than it was in Mike and Psmith, not the least because Mike is a little more aware of the doom around him, which Psmith does a fair amount of shielding him from.

In large part, however, despite Psmith in the City starting with Mike, it ends strongly on Psmith’s side. At least the book is appropriately titled. But it’s obvious by now that the Psmith and Mike partnership falls strongly on Psmith’s side in every narrative way. By comparison, the Bertie and Jeeves relationship is much more balanced from a storytelling perspective, because the more powerful character works behind the scenes, while the less brainy character is more active in his own destinies (even if it’s mostly to screw things up).

This inequality did not escape Wodehouse’s notice, so the spotlight is unequivocally given to Psmith in the next book, Psmith, Journalist. And as we’ll see next time, now that Mike is not around anymore to be the author’s punching bag, Psmith meets with almost more trouble than he can handle.

Psmith Downloads
(where single quotes have been summarily dealt with)

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Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: Schoolboy Days

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.

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Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: In the Beginning was Psmith

psmith.jpg

Up until now, I’d never had a desire to read Wodehouse’s Psmith, much less create eBooks out of them. Then I ran into the double-header of a terrible Jeeves and Blandings rewrite and a dearth of P. G. Wodehouse public domain eBooks. The third out was the lack of even public domain Wodehouse in the Feedbooks library, since such eBooks must of necessity be stored on US servers—anywhere else and said servers can be seized.

There’s nothing like forbidden fruit to inspire desire. Fortunately, I live in the U.S., and so do the servers of my hosting provider.

After spending a full weekend researching, writing, and otherwise hacking some perl scripts together to process Project Gutenberg texts into something approaching nice HTML (and which have since come in handy for the conversion of other formats), I descended from the storm-ringed mountains of righteous anger to the placid green valley of “well, what now?”

So I decided to read some Psmith to convalesce and enjoy, for at least a little while, the fruits of my labors. (You know, up until I found out that a perl script of mine had not managed to root out all the stupid little single-quote-double-quote suckers in Psmith in the City.)

Ah, Wodehouse. Now I read Psmith and miss you all the more. Even when you weren’t perfect, and especially when you are.

The loose 4-book series of Psmith books is not a perfect shot, unlike most of the Jeeves run, in large part because Psmith was an earlier creation, around when Wodehouse was still finding himself and growing up (which is why three of the Psmith series are clearly public domain in the US). It’s in reading Psmith that we get to observe the fullness of Wodehouse’s development as a writer, from the beginning into his prime, as the Psmith books spread themselves out over years (which is why the fourth of the Psmith series is clearly not public domain), while multiple Jeeves stories and books occur within months of each other.

Psmith and Jeeves dovetail in an interesting manner; the third of the Psmith books, Psmith, Journalist, was published in 1915. Two years later, the very first Jeeves story, “Extricating Young Gussie”, was published—succeeded by 14 more Jeeves stories into 1923. The final Psmith book, Leave it to Psmith, was published a few months after the Inimitable Jeeves story collection, and is considered by many to be among the best comedic novels ever written. After that, Jeeves takes over.

Not that there is anything wrong with Jeeves taking the helm, since Wodehouse ended things so nicely for Psmith, when all is said and done. Psmith has an arc of sorts, and thus must end; Jeeves does not, and can go on forever (and ever and ever, through to 1974, a year before Wodehouse’s death).

What to say about Psmith himself, as a character? He’s cheeky and dignified; selfish and generous; incorrigible trickster who’s one half Jeeves in his powers of manipulation and coolness, and one half Fred (another popular Wodehouse character) in his sending up of society and comical insouciance. In other words, a powerhouse of a character, and one that the beginning writer may not fully appreciate at first. We’ll see this next time in the first Psmith book, Mike and Psmith ((Technically, Mike and Psmith is a later joining of a Mike book and Enter Psmith, but we’ll leave that information just between you and me, merry footnote reader.)) , where we learn that Rowling’s Harry Potter is definitely in fine tradition.

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Copyright and Wodehouse: The Suspicious Desert of Gutenberg Texts

When I wanted to suddenly dive into Jeeves and Wooster after nearly 10 years (damn you, Charles Stross!), the first place I looked was Project Gutenberg.

Where there was a suspicious dearth of Jeeves books. Or, indeed, a drought of Wodehouse works in general. Strange, since he was a most productive writer, with over 90 books alone to his name, and many more short stories. And there are so many Jeeves fans in the world, and so many of them are lit geeks—including Isaac Asimov—it’s practically a given that, were it legal, his works would have been scanned and proofed into Project Gutenberg long since its inception in 1989.

Not a good sign for those interested in creating eBooks for public domain Wodehouse works.

Copyright has always been a thorny issue. Not only does the length that copyright holds vary by country, but the ending criteria differ. Even within the same country, copyright laws have changed multiple times.

What does it mean? It means that many of Wodehouse’s works are not public domain in most countries, despite many of said works having been in existence for what most people think is “long enough” for copyright to expire. It also means that which works are public domain and which are not vary by the country you’re currently in.

Some examples of Wodehouseian copyrights in various countries:

  • All of Wodehouse’s works are still under copyright in Canada, where (as of this writing) copyright expiration is 50 years after death of author. P. G. Wodehouse died in 1975; the first time any of his works will be public domain in Canada is February 14th, 2025.

    Note that it doesn’t matter what the publication date of the work is; it could have been a pre-1910 short story, and it would still only expire in Canada in 2025.

  • All of Wodehouse’s works are still under copyright in the United Kingdom, where (as of this writing) copyright expiration is 70 years after death of author. The first time his works will be public domain in the U.K. is February 14th, 2045.

  • Ditto if your country is a member of the European Union.

  • Whereas if you live in the Republic of Seychelles, all of Wodehouse’s works have been public domain since Valentine’s Day, 2000—copyright expires a mere 25 years after death of author.

So what about the United States? The answer: it varies.

  • Wodehouse’s work published before 1923 has no copyright in the U.S. Which is why My Man Jeeves, published in 1915 in the U.K., is public domain in the U.S. and a very few other countries.

  • His other work may or may not still be under a copyright that will not expire until 95 years after its first publication in the U.S.

So what’s the “may or may not” for? That’s because for works published between 1923 and 1977, copyright had to be renewed before expiration. Sometimes people forgot, or perhaps wanted their copyrights to expire in due time rather than padding on more years; only 10% of such copyrights were renewed.

Thanks to the efforts of Project Gutenberg, Distributed Proofreaders, and Stanford University, the Copyright Renewal Database was born. It’s a resource for those of us trying to find books published between 1923 and 1977 that fell into public domain; if your target doesn’t turn up in this database, it’s public domain.

What does the Copyright Renewal Database say for Wodehouse?

Search Results

92 results found.
Modify search | Search within results | Printer friendly | Download
Renewal Id Title Author Registration Number  
RE173174
Bertie Wooster sees it through.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A177720
Long record
RE138400
Jeeves and the feudal spirit.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
AI-4370
Long record
RE099036
The Return of Jeeves.
P. G. Wodehouse [i.e. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A134807
Long record

… and it goes on for 7 straight pages of this …

Fortunately for public domain, if not for the Wodehouse estate, a few (very very few) Wodehouse books fell through the “cracks” so to speak. This is the reason why Right Ho, Jeeves is public domain in the U.S. while Carry on, Jeeves is not, despite both being published after 1923.

And this is why so little of Wodehouse’s work is present in, or even eligible for, Project Gutenberg.

For the record, I respect copyright. I am happy when copyright protects the work of a living author. I am happy when it covers their funeral costs and bereavement of their surviving relatives. I begin to worry about 25 years after the original creator is dead, though. But that’s just me. If Wodehouse wanted to extend his copyrights, which he apparently did since most of the renewals were in the 1950′s, I have nothing to say against that.

More links and resources:

From the eBookery: Right Ho, Jeeves!

Thoughts on Psmith: he’s alright, but really shines once you get into Psmith, Journalist in 1915.

Then in 1915 was born the brilliant character of Jeeves, who has since become iconic. It’s even arguable that Jeeves can be considered an archetype by now, albeit probably after a couple of beers.

Here’s the earliest second-earliest Jeeves novel, Right Ho, Jeeves, in Mobipocket format, edible to your Kindle or other Mobipocket-compatible reader. Remember, P. G. Wodehouse’s novels and stories are still in copyright in some countries, such as Canada and Britain, but the copyright has expired in still other countries, such as the U.S. Check before you download.

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And in case you wanted to explore the best Psmith as well, here’s the download link for Psmith, Journalist:

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You can find more P. G. Wodehouse eBooks on my downloads page, handily linked along the top of the website.

A Wodehouse Miscellany and Psmith Finals

I think this is the last of my Wodehouse jags for making eBooks for the time being.

First, the Psmith books are now vetted and their finals are here:

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Secondly, A Wodehouse Miscellany has now been done up as a nice Mobipocket as well. It contains articles, poems (poems!) and a few short stories.
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My favorite article in the Miscellany has to be “In the Defense of Astigmatism”, below the cut. I think Mr. Wodehouse would be proud today, since the Best-Selling Book Series evah was written by a British woman and features a boy with glasses.

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