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Life before Jeeves
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The Times 15 September 2010

Life before Jeeves

A celebration: one hundred years of Psmith in the City

D. J. Taylor.

Rupert, subsequently Ronald, Psmith – the “P” silent as in psychic, ptarmigan and psithisis – made his fictional debut in 1908 in “The Lost Lambs”, a serial for the boys’ magazine The Captain and the source of the novel Mike and Psmith (1909). There were later, more adult versions of Psmith – the New York magazine proprietor of Psmith Journalist (1915) and the masquerading poet of Leave it to Psmith (1923), but experienced Wodehouse fanciers generally agree that his most spectacular flowering comes in Psmith in the City, as “The New Fold” again written for The Captain between 1908 and 1909 and first published in volume form by A.&C. Black on September 23, 1910.

In later life Wodehouse was keen to play down Psmith’s appeal. Questioned by a Paris Review interviewer not long before his death in 1975, he acknowledged that “people sometimes want to know why I didn’t go on with Psmith”, while insisting that he “didn’t think the things that made him funny as a very young man would be funny in an older man”. Among the characteristics that Wodehouse professed to dislike was “a very boring sort of way of expressing himself”, in particular Psmith’s habit of “calling everybody comrade and that sort of thing. I couldn’t go with him”.

In fact, this attempt to undermine Psmith’s status in the Wodehouse pantheon is faintly disingenuous. As Robert McCrum shows in his excellent biography Wodehouse: A Life (2004), until at least the mid-1920s it was Psmith, far more than such later staples of the canon as Jeeves (first appearance 1916) or Lord Emsworth on whom his reputation depended. As late as 1936, for example, he could be found telling his friend Bill Townend, in relation to some future project, that “Psmith is a major character . . . . If I am going to have Psmith in a story he must be in the big situation”.

But what sort of a comic character is Psmith? Based, as Wodehouse later admitted, on his friend Rupert D’Oyly Carte, he is a kind of supercharged, upper-class version of the “masher” or “knut” of the Edwardian comic paper, the suave expositor of a style to which his debased provincial cousin, H. G. Wells’s Arthur Kipps, with his vertiginous collars and his curly-brimmed hat, can only dowdily aspire. Tall, monocled, sauntering through London clubland in the “faultless evening dress of which the female novelist is so fond”, inexpressibly pained by solecisms of speech or dress (“Comrade Bannister has blown into the office today in patent leather boots with white kid uppers, as I believe the technical term is”), a repository for every choice expression known to the pre-First World War slang dictionary, Psmith is also a tough customer, a sharp operator, and most of the humour comes from the succession of adversaries – schoolmasters, bank managers, gangsters – who, whatever their claims to status and superiority, are simply not up to the Old Etonian’s fighting weight. Even more significant, and another source of comic tension in a novel built on the public school codes of Wodehouse’s days at Dulwich College, Psmith is, at heart, fundamentally immoral, never afraid to hit below the belt if the situation demands it and capable of breathtaking feats of subterfuge and duplicity.

In his essay “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse” (1945), written to rebut the allegations of treachery that followed Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts on Berlin radio, George Orwell described Psmith in the City as “psychologically the most revealing book of Wodehouse’s early period” (Orwell sent a copy to his first wife, Eileen, as she lay in hospital awaiting the operation that would kill her: she reported that she “laughed out loud”). The revelation lies in Wodehouse’s trick of transferring his own late-teenage experiences as a bank clerk to Mike Jackson, previously an ornament of the Wrykyn First XI, now set to work as an office boy at ?54 a year. Like Mike, who is pitchforked into the postal department of the “New Asiatic Bank” by a financially embarrassed father who can no longer afford to send him to university, the eighteen-year-old Wodehouse had spent two years in the Lombard Street branch of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank – not a complete throwing over of family tradition (Wodehouse pere was an old colonial hand) but no kind of destiny to a boy who had set his heart on Oxford.

Although Wodehouse later claimed to have enjoyed his time in Lombard Street (“I liked the companionship – we had an awfully nice crowd”), much of the novel burns with a wholly unmediated sense of personal hurt. The bank itself is a “blighted institution”; the business transacted there is “irksome” and the monotony “appalling”. And this is not simply Wodehouse being funny: McCrum notes the profound sense of alienation that hangs over Mike’s early days in the Square Mile, and there is a queer little passage towards the end of the book which imagines commercial life in straightforwardly mechanistic terms. “After all, most people look on the cashier of a bank as a sort of human slot-machine. You put in your cheque, and out comes money. It is no affair of yours whether life is treating the machine well or ill that day.”

All this gives Psmith in the City a terrific air of authenticity. To at least one reader (my father, who started working for the Norwich Union Insurance Company in the 1930s at a salary even feebler than Mike Jackson’s), it was the only novel to give an accurate picture of what working in an office was like from the angle of the ground-down clerk: the protocols of arrival and departure, the pettifogging regulations, the routine subservience to tedious officialdom, above all the sense, common to a junior staff plucked from cricket fields and study-bedrooms, that the future has stopped being a roseate blur and become sharp, hard and tangible. A future, more to the point, in which any kind of rebellion is doomed to failure. As Mike puts it:

"What I mean to say is, it isn’t like a school. If you wanted to score off a master at school, you could always rag and so on. But here you can’t. How can you rag a man who’s sitting all day in a room of his own, while you’re sitting at a desk at the other end of the building?"

From the moment that Mike looks up from his letter-strewn desk to find his old school chum (dispatched to the bank on a parental whim) tapping him on the shoulder, Psmith in the City pursues a curious kind of double life: on the one hand a scrupulous piece of early twentieth-century social realism, in which a lonely and potentially mutinous adolescent is forced to get to grips with some of the realities of commerce; on the other, a glorious exercise in wish fulfilment in which the pair set about getting their own back on stately Mr Bickersdyke, the bank’s exacting manager. In much the same way, when building up the novel’s atmosphere, Wodehouse follows two distinct chronological lines. Some of the supporting detail, naturally, comes from his memories of labouring for the Hong Kong & Shanghai in 1900–02. Rather more, with an eye on the topicality demanded by readers of The Captain, is taken from the late Edwardian era when the novel was being written.

At one point, determined to conciliate the Manchester United-supporting Mr Rossiter, the postal department’s somewhat irascible head, Psmith sets out to acquire a working knowledge of Association Football. “By the end of the fortnight he knew what was the favourite breakfast-food of J. Turnbull; what Sandy Turnbull wore next to his skin; and who, in the opinion of Meredith, was England’s leading politician.” These are respectively Jimmy Turnbull, his celebrated namesake Sandy, scorer of the goal that saw off Bristol City in the 1909 FA Cup Final, and the flying winger Billy Meredith, and their inclusion establishes the novel’s absolute up-to-dateness in the minds of its first batch of readers. Jimmy Turnbull, for example, arrived at Old Trafford in 1907, while Sandy’s annus mirabilis was the season of 1907/8 in which his twenty-five goals helped the club secure the First Division championship.

The same attention to detail shines off the repeated references to variety hall entertainers. At the political meeting at “Kenningford”, where Psmith goes to heckle Mr Bickersdyke, an aspiring Tory MP, the opening speaker is a Scots peer whose accent reminds the crowd of Harry Lauder. (“They invited him to be a pal and sing ‘The Saftest of the Family’. Or, failing that, ‘I Love a Lassie.’ Finding they could not induce him to do this, they did it themselves.”) Lauder’s signature tune, “I Love a Lassie”, was first aired in 1907. Again, the supporting detail comes not from the years in which Wodehouse laboured in Lombard Street but from the time in which he sat down to remember it.

Nowhere is the eye for minutiae, and for particular sub-strata of Edwardian bourgeois life, more marked than in the chapters that cover Mike and Psmith’s dealings with the shy but amiable head cashier, Mr Waller. Unlike his erstwhile chum Bickersdyke, who has risen in the world and forsworn the radical opinions of his youth (information Psmith is pleased to secure), Mr Waller is a secret Socialist. Persuaded by Psmith that he, too, is a worker in the cause (“Yours for the Revolution?”), Waller invites the pair of them to hear him address the Sunday afternoon crowd at Clapham Common. The scenes that follow, both at this suburban version of Speaker’s Corner and afterwards at supper chez Waller, are sharply realized: not bringing the eye that a Wells or, a little earlier, a Gissing would have brought to them, but leaving the reader in no doubt that at some point in his life Wodehouse had sat in something very like Mr Waller’s frigid drawing room with a keen anthropological interest.

A novel which features, among other things, a Socialist harangue on Clapham Common and a bank manager’s attempt to enter Parliament might be expected to have some kind of political underpinning. But Psmith in the City’s “politics”, such as they are, turn out to be only a kind of Conservatism by default. At one level, all political activity, whether Mr Waller’s savage oratory (“Well, I am perhaps a little bitter . . . A little mordant and ironical”) or Mr Bickersdyke’s pompous lectures to his constituents, is simply grist to Wodehouse’s mill. At another, however unobtrusively, vested interests are undeniably at stake. Wodehouse, for example, has the proper rentier attitude to the rowdier element among the free and independent electors of “Kenningford” (which looks like an amalgam of Kennington and Deptford): “These looked on elections as Heaven-sent opportunities for making a great deal of noise. They attended meetings to extract amusement from them; and they voted, when they voted, quite irresponsibly”.

Again, when Mr Bickersdyke, slyly interrupted by Psmith, falters in his speech, Wodehouse notes that he had “lost his audience. A moment before he had grasped them and played on their minds (or what passed for minds down in Kenningford) as on a stringed instrument”. Psmith, too, is at his most unaffectedly snobbish when en route to Mr Waller’s Sunday entertainment (“The first thing to do is to ascertain that such a place as Clapham Common really exists”) and, arguably, worse on the journey back (“Do you realise, Comrade Jackson, the thing that has happened? I am riding on a tram. I, Psmith, have paid a penny for a ticket on a tram”). What undermines this, and to a certain extent redeems it, is the public school insistence on “fair play”. Listening to the head cashier speak, Mike is outraged by the jeering of the crowd and, when the Edwardian equivalent of a hoodie throws a stone, wades in on his boss’s behalf and is narrowly rescued from a baying mob. In a similar act of quixotry, Mike opts to carry the can when Mr Waller is threatened with the sack for cashing a forged cheque.

It is not true, on the other hand, to say that Wodehouse has no political awareness at all, for a part of him sees very clearly the kind of low-level corruption and petty conspiring on which so much of Edwardian life is based. There is a rather significant scene, for example, in which Psmith, having sprung Mike from the mob and on to the waiting tram, matter-of-factly bribes both the conductor and an investigating policeman to silence. To Wodehouse this seems the most natural thing in the world, as well as an excuse for comic remarks about “the slight softening of the frigidity of the constable’s manner”. The scene’s wider implication – why is it that a couple of well-bred young men should be able to evade a police inquiry simply because they have money? – hardly occurs to Wodehouse, or, if it does, only as a source of humour. It is the same with Mr Bickersdyke and his ambitions. The idea that the capitalist banking system is a sort of licensed swindle, predicated on the willingness of thousands of worker drones to be exploited, never strays across Mike’s mind. If pressed, he would probably say that bank managers should be just a little less Olympian, a little less vindictive, or – Mr Bickersdyke’s particular crime in the novel’s opening pages – a little less prone to walk behind the bowler’s arm when the batsman is two runs short of his century.

What allows Wodehouse to get away with these evasions, it might be argued, is that his comedy is essentially a matter of technique, practically an exercise in pure form, like a clerihew or an Edward Lear limerick. The jokes may rely on questions of status or self-aggrandizement, but at their core generally lies only an extravagant delight in repartee, in language used for no other purpose than to demonstrate the kind of effects of which language is capable. Possibly the funniest line in the novel comes when Mr Bickersdyke upbraids Psmith for spending his evenings haunting the corridors of the “Senior Conservative Club” where the bank manager goes to dine and play bridge. “I can only assume that you are not in your right mind”, Mr Bickersdyke deposes. “You follow me about in my club.” “Our club, sir”, Psmith murmurs in response. Or there is the pacification of Mr Rossiter, by way of feigned enthusiasm for Turnbull J. and S., and Billy Meredith: “By kindness . . . By tact and kindness. That is how it is done. I do not despair of training Comrade Rossiter one of these days to jump through paper hoops”.

Psmith in the City ends back in fantasy land, with Mr Bickersdyke effectively blackmailed by Psmith’s acquisition of the record of the “Tulse Hill Parliament”, the scene of his youthful indiscretions, Mike summoned to play cricket for his county at Lord’s (where he scores a century) and Psmith senior consenting not only to send his son to Cambridge but to take Mike on board as a kind of upmarket factotum. Looking at Psmith’s later incarnations, one sees Wodehouse’s point about the difficulty of transporting him beyond Edwardian late-teendom. The detail in Psmith Journalist is taken not from personal experience but from New York newspaper cuttings. Leave it to Psmith is a country house novel in which Mike turns out to be married and Psmith about to follow him down the same implausible primrose path. Only as schoolboys, or as apprentice bank clerks, do they allow Wodehouse really to feel comfortable with them, or to have enough of an emotional connection with their predicaments to make their adventures convincing.

Wodehouse’s great achievement in Psmith in the City was to harmonize the two sides of his early creative temperament – the wishfulfilment side and the one rooted in bitter, personal experience – in a way that allows the comedy to exist alongside a species of realism that is otherwise largely absent from his work. Behind its jokes and its closing of ranks against the aitch-dropper and the patent boot-wearer can be glimpsed the materials for a different kind of book – more downbeat, less supremely confident of the ability of fresh-faced public schoolboys to carry all before them, haunted by the ghosts of Arnold Bennett and Wells. Of all Wodehouse’s novels it is the one in which he can be detected writing against the grain of his nature, with all the incidental friction that such exercises imply.

D. J. Taylor is the author of Orwell: The Life, which won the Whitbread Prize for Biography in 2003. His recent books include Bright Young People: The rise and fall of a generation 1918–1940, which appeared in 2008, and a novel, Ask Alice, 2009.

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