Look, on some days it is necessary to write about Psmith.
Among many people of my generation or older, there’s a sense of P.G Wodehouse as a tradition, as much as an author. Our copies of his books are inherited; when they have to be replaced (because our cruel parents have demanded them back, or because old age and ill-use have caused them to fall apart) we bemoan the passing of those far superior older editions with the nicer cover art. Wodehouse isn’t generally considered a children’s writer (though his excellent school stories are unfairly overlooked) but so many of us read him as children that he might as well be.
Earlier this week was Wodehouse’s 131st birth anniversary. 131 is not a particularly important milestone, but I chose to grab hold of it as an excuse and spent the evening reading Leave it to Psmith.
It is sometimes hard to keep track of what happens in which of the novels; after a point many of the plots blur into an amorphous mass of thefts (pigs, necklaces, cow creamers), imposters, broken engagements and undesirable articles of clothing. Occasionally one of these tropes appears in particularly elevated form – as when the titular character of Piccadilly Jim is forced to pretend to be himself. One doesn’t look to Wodehouse for originality of plot any more than one looks to him for social realism. What one does look for is happiness.
Everyone, presumably, has their favourite Wodehouse moment. For many it’s the speech that an inebriated Gussie Fink-Nottle gives to an auditorium full of schoolboys in Right Ho, Jeeves, and I’m willing to accept that this is among the finest scenes in all of English literature. But at a more holistic level the perfect Wodehouse novel must be Leave it to Psmith.
Leave it to Psmith is set in Blandings Castle; alas, before the arrival of its famous porcine resident. Lady Constance Keeble has invited two poets to stay at the castle. Unfortunately one of these poets is also a professional thief, and Lady Constance is in possession of a rather expensive necklace. Meanwhile, the enterprising Psmith has met and fallen in love with Eve Halliday, who has been hired to catalogue the Blandings library. Psmith comes to Blandings under false pretences and soon finds himself embroiled in a plot to steal the jewels as well. Everyone’s after the necklace, no one is who they say they are, and true love triumphs in the end.
On the surface, then, we have all the elements of the Wodehouse novel. Impostors, jewel-theft, young couples thwarted by their elders – Lady Constance does not approve of her step-daughter-in-law’s marriage). There are even memorable clothes. Emsworth’s secretary Baxter spends a significant portion of the novel in lemon yellow pyjamas.
Psmith himself (“The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in pthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) was first introduced in Wodehouse’s school story, Mike and Psmith. He strolls into that novel, mocking the genre conventions of the school story even while living in them, and from that point on he always strikes the reader as being in control of the situation. In his speech he comes closer to the Wodehouse narrator than any other character, which only adds to the impression that he is in some way outside the story – and the only person in any situation who knows what’s really going on.
Wodehouse’s romantic heroes tend to be rather helpless. But Psmith is the sort of man who can be relied upon to steal an umbrella for his lady friend when one is required (surely there is no greater test of worth). Eve too is intelligent – and if necessary, criminal. Perhaps it’s the sheer novelty of seeing a Wodehousean romance take place between two competent people. Perhaps it’s the umbrella scene, or Psmith’s proposal in which he hopefully lists his skills at animal impersonation, card tricks and poetry recitation. Either way, Leave it to Psmith achieves a sort of perfection of form that is hard to resist.