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The early genius of Wodehouse
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The Times of London, 5 September 2002

The early genius of Wodehouse

Richard Lambert

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 special.

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 50 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 Pothunters, 1902)

Youthful similes:

'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.' (Mike, 1909)

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.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.