Magazine article The Spectator

The Shape of Things to Come

Magazine article The Spectator

The Shape of Things to Come

Article excerpt

Juliet Townsend


by P. G. Wodehouse

Porpoise Books, L25, pp. 323

Of all the famous first meetings in fiction, none, not even that of Holmes and Watson, was fraught with more farreaching consequences for its author than the moment when Mike Jackson wanders into the senior day-room at Sedleigh School to find

a very long thin youth leaning against the mantelpiece . . . He fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord and fixed it in his right eye... `Take a seat', said the immaculate one. `If you don't mind dirtying your bags. It looks to me as if they meant to use these chairs as mustard-and-cress beds. A Nursery Garden in the Home. That sort of idea. My name', he added pensively, `is Smith . . . 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.'

The scene occurs halfway through Mike, the last of P.G. Wodehouse's full-length stories, published in 1909. The first part of the book is typical early Wodehouse, in the manner of stories like The Gold Bat and A Prefect's Uncle, humorous, even jocular, but with feet firmly on the classroom floor, or, more frequently, the cricket pitch. It describes Mike's first term at Wrykyn, where he is the last of five famous cricketing brothers, and wins immediate fame as a batsman. The second half of the book, later published separately, first as Enter Psmith and more recently as Mike and Psmith, starts three years later, with Mr Jackson withdrawing Mike from Wrykyn because of a series of appalling reports and sending him to the minor public school of Sedleigh. It is here, on his first day, that Psmith strolls languidly on to the stage and takes his creator over, inspiring him to new heights of absurdity:

I should say that young Lord Antony Trefusis was in the soup already. I seem to see the consomme splashing about his ankles. Psmith is the link between Wodehouse the writer of school stories and Wodehouse the comic master. In the first of the four novels in which he appears, he is a schoolboy, albeit an unusual one. By the fourth he is visiting Blandings Castle.

It is indicative of the effect that the entry of Psmith has on the reader that Mike at Wrykyn is published under the children's Puffin label, whereas Mike and Psmith, the second part of the same book, appears as an adult Penguin. Both these editions were first issued in the early 1950s and continue unchanged, providing an object lesson on the folly of patronising editors who think they can tinker with a text to make it more comprehensible to modern readers. Thus in 1953, while the Penguin editors were still quite happy to leave in references to nigger minstrels and saw nothing odd in the popular song of the moment being Mr Godfrey Field's rendering of `The Quaint Old Bird', they expunged all references to C. B. Fry and other Edwardian cricketing giants in favour of May and Sheppard, presumably now equally remote from young readers who, if they recognise the names at all, must wonder what on earth they are doing in a story quite clearly set before the first world war.

The publication of Mike heralded six vital years in Wodehouse's development, starting with that excellent grown-up school story Psmith in the City in 1910 and culminating in the bumper year of 1915 which produced the first Blanding's novel, Something New, the final version of Psmith Journalist, and the debut of Jeeves in The Saturday Evening Post story `Extricating Young Gussie'. …

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