The Times of London, 5 September 2002
The early genius of Wodehouse
For 70 years and more, critics have been outbidding each other in
praise of P.G. Wodehouse. Hilaire Belloc called him "the best living
writer of English". Evelyn Waugh described him as "a master". But
conventional wisdom is that his early school stories were nothing
As Waugh famously wrote: "It is impossible to discern in them any
promise of what was to come. Then in Chapter XXX1 of Mike...Psmith
appears and the light is kindled which has burnt with growing
brilliance for half a century."
But Waugh got it wrong. The reality is that the muse's wings are
fluttering away almost from page one of the first school story, which
appeared in book form exactly 100 years ago.
"On September 9, 1902, having to choose between The Globe and the
bank, I chucked the latter and started out on my wild lone as a
freelance. This month starts my journalistic career."
With ñ50 savings in his pocket and this note in his diary, Wodehouse
not quite 21 -began his life as a full-time author. His first piece
had been published in The Public School Magazine while he was still at
school, and in his two dreary years as a clerk in the City at the Hong
Kong and Shanghai Bank, another 80 articles had appeared in a wide
range of publications.
But September 1902 was the turning point in his life. A temporary
berth on a London newspaper gave him the confidence to quit the bank.
And his employers, who must already have come to the conclusion that
this gangly youth was not cut out to be a prince of their banking
empire in the East, were happy to see him go.
On September 17 his first article appeared in Punch, then unchallenged
as the nation's premier humorous magazine. And the following day A&C
Black published his first novel, a ripping schoolboy yarn called The
Pothunters. For the next 72 years, he was to be perhaps the most
prolific and certainly the funniest writer in English literature.
Right from the start, the gifts of a natural storyteller are obvious.
In The White Feather, for instance, you know that the hopeless Sheen
is bound to win the lightweight medal at the public school boxing
championships, but you long to know just how. And it is not simply
that the plot lines are somehow familiar: the mysterious disappearance
of silverware, odd noises in the shrubbery, escape routes being
blocked by unseen hands.
More than this, many of the half dozen school stories published before
Psmith's debut show the style, the unexpected images, the perfect
similes, the throwaway lines that make Wodehouse what he is.
The cat Captain Kettle, the Tabby Terror of St. Austin's, made his
appearance a full six years before Psmith:
'He (Captain Kettle) had been left alone that evening in the drawing
room, while the House was at church, and his eye, roaming restlessly
about in search of evil to perform, had lighted upon a cage. In that
cage was a special sort of canary, in its own line as accomplished an
artiste as Captain Kettle himself. It sang with taste and feeling, and
made itself generally agreeable in a number of little ways. But to
Captain Kettle, it was merely a bird. One of the poets sings of an
acquaintance of his who was so constituted that "a primrose by the
river's brim a simple primrose was to him, and it was nothing more".
Just so with Captain Kettle. He was not the cat to make nice
distinctions between birds. Like the cat in another poem, he only knew
that they made him light and salutary meals. So, with the exercise of
considerable ingenuity, he extracted that canary from its cage and ate
it. He was now in disgrace.' (Tales of St Austin's, 1903)
There are the first hints of powerful aunts:
'He was tall and dark and thin, and had a pensive eye, which
encouraged the more soulful of his female relatives to entertain hopes
that he would some day take orders.' (The Gold Bat, 1904)
We meet Miss Florence Beezley of Girton College, a direct forerunner
of Honoria Glossop and all those other bluestockings who were to give
Bertie Wooster such hell in years to come:
'She was intensely learned herself, and seemed to take a morbid
delight in dissecting his ignorance, and showing everybody the pieces.
Also, she persisted in calling him Mr MacArthur in a way that somehow
seemed to point out and emphasise his youthfulness. She added it to
her remarks as a sort of after-thought or echo.
"Do you read Browning, Mr MacArthur?" she would say suddenly, having
apparently waited carefully until she saw that his mouth was full.
The Babe would swallow convulsively, choke, blush, and finally say -
"No, not much."
"Ah!" This in a tone of pity not untinged with scorn.
"When you say 'not much', Mr MacArthur, what exactly do you mean? Have
you read any of his poems?"' (Tales of St Austin's, 1903)
There's the masterful use of the cliche:
'Kill my father and burn my ancestral home, and I will look on and
smile. But touch these notes and you rouse the British Lion.' (The
'The Head paced the room, something after the fashion of the tiger at
the Zoo, whose clock strikes lunch.' (The Pothunters, 1902)
And early attempts at what was to become one of Wodehouse's classiest
tricks: the bathetic use of Shakespeare. This pre-Psmith example
concerns a form master whose entire class has gone on strike:
'He reminds me of MacDuff. Macbeth, Act IV, somewhere near the end.
"What, all my pretty chickens, at one fell swoop?" That's what Shields
is saying to himself.' (Mike, 1909)
The Bible is plundered too:
'There would have been serious trouble between David and Jonathan if
either had persisted in dropping catches off the other's bowling.'
There are butlers:
'The first thing he noticed on reaching the School House was the
strange demeanour of the butler. Whenever Fenn had had occasion to
call on the headmaster hitherto, Watson had admitted him with the air
of a high priest leading a devotee to a shrine of which he was the
sole managing director. This evening he seemed restless, excited ...
'With an eager, springy step, distantly reminiscent of a shopwalker
heading a procession of customers, with a touch of the style of the
winner in a walking race to Brighton, the once slow- moving butler led
the way to the headmaster's study.' (The Head of Kay's, 1905)
And absurd images: 'By murdering in cold blood a large and respected
family, and afterwards depositing their bodies in a reservoir, one may
gain, we are told, much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of one's
crime; while robbing a church will get one cordially disliked,
especially by the vicar. But, to be really an outcast, to feel that
one has no friend in the world, one must break an important
public-school commitment.' (The White Feather, 1907)
Only Wodehouse could have come up with this perfect opening paragraph:
'The one o'clock down express was just on the point of starting. The
engine driver, with his hand on the lever, whiled away the moments,
like the watchman in the Agamemnon, by whistling. The guard
endeavoured to talk to three people at once. Porters flitted to and
fro, cleaving a path for themselves with trucks of luggage. The Usual
Old Lady was asking if she was right for some place nobody had ever
heard of.' (Tales of St Austin's, 1903)
One noteworthy feature of The Pothunters is the dedication, to Joan,
Effie, and Ernestine Bowes-Lyon. They were granddaughters of the 12th
Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and first cousins of the late Queen
Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Wodehouse was a friend of the family,
which tells you something about his social life in these early days.
Although he was already writing in every spare minute, he was not the
bashful, almost antisocial, figure of his later years. His writing
paper carried his name across the top in bold red type, together with
long lists of his published work.
One hundred years later, Wodehouse is still the author with the
greatest number of titles in print with Penguin, apart from Roald
Dahl: 48 individual titles, plus seven omnibuses. And there is still
brisk demand for the classics. The 1999 edition of Right Ho, Jeeves
has so far sold more than 12,000 copies, compared with 115,000 for the
edition sold from 1953 to 1999.
Of course none of the early school stories approaches the genius of
Wodehouse's finest work, The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938.
But it is plain that Waugh was talking through his hat. They are full
of early promise, or what you might call Joy in the Morning.