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Psmith’s Art of Cool: War and Zen in P.G. Wodehouse

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Photo: Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936) – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s post was originally published by Marginalia, one of our LARB Channels. 

By Ted Scheinman

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse committed his first act of civil disobedience in the nave at Saint Nicholas’ Church, Guildford within six months of being born. The author’s account has sufficient zip that no elaboration is necessary:

If you ask me to tell you frankly if I like the names Pelham Grenvillle, I must confess that I do not. I have my dark moods when they seem to me about as low as you can get … At the font I remember protesting vigorously when the clergyman uttered them, but he stuck to his point. “Be that as it may,” he said firmly, having waited for a lull, “I name thee Pelham Grenville.”

— preface to Something Fresh (1915)

However much of this anecdote we choose to believe (I choose to believe all of it), P.G. Wodehouse would spend the subsequent ninety years populating the literary universe with characters whose names were even sillier than his own: Galahad Threepwood; “Puffy” Benger; “Beefy” Bingham; the Earl of Worplesdon; Gussie Fink-Nottle; Pongo Twistleton; Major Brabazon-Plank; “Catsmeat” Potter-Pirbright. There is even a rumor, initiated by me, that Wodehouse rejected “Benedict Cumberbatch” for a lack of pep.

This jolly tale of young Pelham’s outrage at the font captures the sense of mock-chivalric rebellion that would drive all real conflict in Wodehouse’s fiction. His characters’ revolutions are in general an act of wriggling. His antagonists are as stiff as an overstarched pair of spats. Where the self-interest of his characters meets the hypocrisies of the older generation lies the meadow where Wodehouse’s class-comedy makes camp.

Generational warfare is the basis for much comedy and almost all musical comedy, the latter being Wodehouse’s chief generic model for pacing, plotting, and imbuing the proceedings with what he called “ginger”: propulsive zest. (Wodehouse often referred to his books as “musical comedies without the music.”) In the novels, and especially in the Psmith tetralogy, an undercurrent of intra-class warfare is the source of the action. Unflappably mannered in his subversions, our hero Rupert Smith — like Wodehouse — finds his given name unsatisfactory. In Rupert’s case, the addition of a silent preliminary “p” exoticizes his otherwise milquetoast calling cards; he distances himself by orthography from his august ancestors even as he embroiders a richly spurious family history:

I shall be delighted to furnish you with the particulars of my family history… . Soon after the Norman Conquest, a certain Sieur de Psmith grew tired of work — a family failing, alas! — and settled down in this country to live peacefully for the remainder of his life on what he could extract from the local peasantry. (Psmith in the City, 1910)

The aspirational parody of English feudalism, like Psmith’s juicy description of fleecing the agrarian underclass, is something assumed or performed — this is a mock-epic mock-genealogy imbued with mock-hauteur — and though Psmith’s father, the latest Sieur (who of course spells it Smith), has a goodish pile, cash-wise, there is little indication that his ancestors were doing anything of note in 1066; Psmith, then, is ragging on the very fabric of English mytho-identity. As we come to know Psmith, we learn that his enthusiasms and affections are class-agnostic, and that, aside from his addictions to dandyism and expensive restaurants, Psmith surrounds himself with comrades from various strata, as long as they furnish him with amusing idiosyncrasy and Machiavellianutility. Psmith is the crypto-populist, half-performing a garrulous aristocratic sybaritism even as he champions the rights of tenement-dwellers in 1915 Manhattan (Psmith, Journalist).

Psmith’s first appearance in the corpus is near perfect. The man appears to have sprung fully formed from the head of his creator, a sparkling soul that distils itself in arch epigrams:

As Mike entered, [Psmith] 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 … ‘Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?’” — (Mike and PsmithNB to the New York Times — Psmith’s monocle was already a joke in 1909.)

In fact, Psmith had alit on the Wodehouse cranium purely by chance — the author calls Psmith his only character based on a single, clear referent. “Lord Emsworth, Jeeves, and the rest of my dramatis personae had to be built up from their foundations,” Wodehouse writes, “but Psmith came to me ready-made”:

A cousin of mine, who had been at Winchester, happened to tell me one night of Rupert D’Oyly Carte, the son of the Savoy Opera’s D’Oyly Carte, a schoolmate of his.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte was long, slender, always beautifully dressed and very dignified. His speech was what is known as orotund, and he wore a monocle. He habitually addressed his fellow Wykehamists as “Comrade,” and if one of the masters chanced to inquire as to his health, would reply “Sir, I grow thinnah and thinnah.”

In dress an Edwardian dandy, in speech some strange admixture of Socrates, Pseudolus, Swift, Keats, and Groucho Marx, Psmith fiddles on the idioms and cultural assumptions of the previous age in rhythms that baffle and thereby outmatch any members of theancien régime who stand between him and leisure — or who offer an irresistible target. By the time a schoolmaster, or a bank manager (Psmith in the City), or a Manhattan mobster (PsmithJournalist) has recovered from the intimidating distractions of Psmith’s mien, the battle is already won. It is nearly too fitting that Psmith’s model was a D’Oyly Carte, and thereby directly associated with the money and production-apparatus behind Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. Psmith mocks the Victorians by his very existence; he skewers them with a rapier as sharp as anything in the G&S armory.

Central to the essentially undercover role that Psmith plays (an Etonian Robin Hood) is the character’s stylized Bolshevism, an all-purpose ideology that allows Psmith to commandeer whatever the comedy requires.

“I am with you, Comrade Jackson. You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a Socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it. We must stick together.” […]

“That,” said Psmith, looking at himself earnestly in the mirror and straightening his tie, “is the exact programme. We must stake our claims. This is practical Socialism.” (Mike and Psmith)

Psmith’s convenient political affectations persist, to our continued delight, in each novel; 15 years later, by the time of Leave It To Psmith, our hero falls in love and does his wooing with a requisitioned umbrella:

Eve’s eyes opened wide
“Do you mean to say you gave me somebody else’s umbrella?”
“I had unfortunately omitted to bring my own out with me this morning.”
“I never heard of such a thing!”
“Merely practical Socialism. Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it.” (Leave It to Psmith)

Later, Psmith himself is “driven” into the world of finance (Psmith In The City, 1910),where he must essentially use his Etonian bullshit artistry to bring down the social hierarchy of a major merchant bank in order to trump his father. Inducing Mike to join the revolution, Psmith speaks like Sun Tzu with a cup of Earl Grey:

“The first principle of warfare … is to collect a gang, to rope in allies, to secure the cooperation of some friendly native. You may remember that at [school] it was partly the sympathetic cooperation of that record plitherer, Comrade Jellicoe, which enabled us to nip the pro-Spiller movement in the bud.” (Psmith In the City)

The idylls of the novels — “musical comedies without the music,” again, recalling G&S — might seem inauspicious ground for a literature of rebellion. Yet the very inertia of the novelist’s most cherished characters (and one can always tell), their all-eclipsing quest for pleasantness amid those who would take it from them, represents the longest sustained affront in English letters against the residual priggishness of Edwardian and Victorian mores.

Before middle age Wodehouse had become a caricature of the English Epicurus. His characters kept wearing tweed even as British soldiers changed to khaki and fatigues in the ’40s. His books were more English than England had probably ever been; this wax-museum mode of caricature was the Wodehouse specialty, but it was also a question of cash. As he wrote in a letter to Denis Mackail:

If only [my critics] would realize that I started writing about Bertie Wooster and comic Earls because I was in America and couldn’t write American stories and the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes. It’s as simple as that.

This passage aligns the frontier “dudes” of Zane Grey with Wodehouse’s cartoons of hapless Englishmen who seem to have misplaced the empire (one sometimes suspects that certain of his characters suffer from the side-effects of blue-blood inbreeding). Wodehouse had found a brand and an idiom — the über-English comic novel. He wasn’t writing westerns, but he revered the strict fences of genre-plotting, the idea of “musical comedies without the music.” His instinct, as he says, is “to split [a novel] up into scenes and have as little stuff between the scenes as possible.” He was from very early days a writer with the rare assurance that if a character pleased him, it would do for the audience as well, especially an American one.

Certainly Wodehouse’s boarding-school stories and country-house romps offered stateside fans a bit of class with their comedy: the Wodehouse mannerisms catered to a half-acid, half-aspirational Anglophilia that Christopher Hitchens would later identify as one of J.K. Rowling’s chief selling points in the US — “a little touch of Harry in the night.” Like Hitchens and Alistair Cooke, Wodehouse was a British man of letters who went public in America and would spend much of his life there. (That his novels continue to entrance readers in the UK is ample evidence, if any is needed, that his boyish, anachronistic subversions held no less appeal back home.)

Wodehouse was hardly born a pauper; his veins surged with some portion of noble blood traceable on his father’s side to the Earls of Kimberley, and thence to the Boleyn family. Yet Wodehousian class-comedy is softened only by the sense that his principal characters partake in a single grand cartoon. Despite a respectable lineage, the Wodehouse family was not always flush, and after a sunny spell at Dulwich (a formative secondary school for Ernest Shackleton, as well), Pelham forewent a university education to enter the merchant bank now known as HSBC. Wodehouse’s decision to leave the bank was in the end remarkably lucrative — and a nose-thumb at post-industrial Edwardian notions of “making oneself.” Wit and writing made his fortune. The author loathed dedications but could not resist lampooning entrepreneurial boilerplate in a prefatory note that followed an early hit:

To J. Alastair Frisby
Who
Told Me I Would Never Have a Book Published
And
Advised Me
To
Get A Job Selling Jellied Eels

With the help of Psmith, Wodehouse arrived at his guiding philosophy in 1909 and never really turned from it:

There are situations in life which are beyond one. The sensible man realizes this, and slides out of such situations, admitting himself beaten. Others try to grapple with them, but it never does any good. When affairs get into a real tangle, it is best to sit still and let them straighten themselves out. Or, if one does not do that, simply to think no more about them. This is Philosophy. The true philosopher is the man who says “All right,” and goes to sleep in his arm-chair. One’s attitude towards Life’s Little Difficulties should be that of the gentleman in the little fable, who sat down on an acorn one day, and happened to doze. The warmth of his body caused the acorn to germinate, and it grew so rapidly that, when he awoke, he found himself sitting in the fork of an oak, sixty feet from the ground. He thought he would go home, but, finding this impossible, he altered his plans. “Well, well,” he said, “if I cannot compel circumstances to my will, I can at least adapt my will to circumstances. I decide to remain here.” Which he did, and had a not unpleasant time. The oak lacked some of the comforts of home but the air was splendid and the view excellent. (Mike and Psmith)

George Orwell characterized this Wodehousian outlook in his thoughtful defense of the author in 1945, five years after Wodehouse had incensed many Brits by making several broadcasts under compulsion on Nazi radio. (My favorite line: “Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”) Orwell captures Wodehouse’s total lack of political engagement, his perennial self-insulation from the unpleasant demands of reality and war:

I have followed his work fairly closely since 1911, when I was eight years old, and am well acquainted with its peculiar mental atmosphere — an atmosphere which has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little alteration since about 1925.

The Wodehouse idyll, like the frame of a pastoral painting, does its best not to acknowledge the world beyond. Marriage and procreation, far from patriotic or familial duties, are merely a tax on one’s golf game:

“But, Ambrose, reflect. A golfer needs a wife, true. It is essential that he has a sympathetic listener always handy, to whom he can relate the details of the day’s play. But what sort of a life companion would a tennis player be?” (Nothing Serious, 1950)

There is a permanent adolescence in Wodehouse, adolescence itself being a daily rebellion against social strictures and top-down unpleasantness in general. At day’s end, it is Wodehouse’s central irony that the last wave of Victorians made this permanent adolescence possible. Psmith, in turn, maintains his signature cool by “never being surprised”: his mantra, requisitioned in true socialist fashion from Conan Doyle, is “never to confuse the improbable with the impossible,” and though Psmith enjoys describing his nervous constitution as “delicate,” it is this philosophical refusal of surprise that sustains him. Psmith and Wodehouse’s revolutionaries are not lobbing bombs or knocking down the Bastille. They are the blithe boys who never grew up, buoyed on imperial wealth and the residue from half-remembered codes — the “feudal spirit” and all that rot — who, barring the monsoon, buzz over to the Drones Club most days to play indoor cricket with yesterday’s bread rolls for balls.

Ted Scheinman is a writer based in North Carolina, where he is finishing a Ph.D. in 18th-century British literature. His essays and reporting have appeared in Slate, the Oxford American, the Paris Review, and a variety of other periodicals. His first book of nonfiction will appear via Faber in 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Scheinman


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