Review by Val H.
Mike and Psmith is a hugely enjoyable, old-fashioned school story, with mischievous boys, bamboozled teachers and heroic stands at the crease. But it is much more than that. With Wodehouse, you get the comic timing and language and the touch of genius that is Psmith.
As a child, I loved school stories. I preferred ones about girls’ schools, but I knew, for example, Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter through a teacher who read aloud to us. He chose only stories for boys, although never any by P G Wodehouse.
P G Wodehouse is perhaps not the first author you think of in this context. But school stories were among his earliest efforts. He wrote seven in his 20s, as magazine serials later published in book form. Titles like A Prefect’s Uncle (1903), The Gold Bat (1904), The Head of Kay’s (1905) suggest the Edwardian golden age: comfort, security, privilege and Empire – the author’s own background.
You might argue that Wodehouse served his apprenticeship with these books, and that Mike and Psmith is his apprentice piece. Love among the Chickens (1906), which introduces Ukridge, has a claim to this but Wodehouse later said it was bad and re-wrote it.
The title and publication date above are misleading. Mike and Psmith was originally serialised as The Lost Lambs, then published in 1909 as the second half of Mike. It was split off again in 1935 as Enter Psmith (notice the changed focus from Mike to Psmith) and then in 1953 the two halves of Mike were re-published as Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith. Both characters, Mike and Psmith, also appear in Psmith in the City (1910), Psmith, Journalist (1915) and Leave It to Psmith (1923), when Psmith appears at Blandings.
Mike and Psmith meet as rebellious new boys at Sedleigh School, moved there by fathers unhappy with end-of-term reports. Mike is an average boy but a cricketing genius. Smith, as he is introduced, sets his character with almost his first words.
“…Sit down on yonder settee, and I will tell you the painful story of my life. By the way, before I start, there’s just one thing. If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty. The resolve came to me unexpectedly this morning. I jotted it down on the back of an envelope. In conversation you may address me as Rupert (though I hope you won’t), or simply Smith, the P not being sounded.” (p.18, Penguin 1990 edition).
Psmith is an unlikely schoolboy: he is witty, well-informed, quick-thinking, elegant, insolent and effortlessly superior. He and Mike form an alliance against Sedleigh but eventually settle, largely due to the civilising effect of cricket. Mike can win a game by himself and Psmith turns out to be an excellent slow bowler. Wodehouse loved cricket, of course, and perhaps used his own memories and dreams here.
Why is Mike and Psmith the apprentice piece? The prose does not reach the standard of the later novels. Nor does the episodic plot, which shows the burden of serialisation. Neither prose nor plot is bad, mind you, and episodes like the paint-spattered boot up the chimney (just read it!) are wonderful.
What makes the book is Psmith*. Every other character might appear in anyone else’s school story, but not Psmith. Wodehouse said he was based on one of the D’Oyly Carte family. Perhaps Mike and Psmith both represent Wodehouse himself – the ordinary boy he felt himself to be, but also the cricketing hero and confident boy he secretly wanted to be.
After 1923, Wodehouse never wrote again about Psmith, claiming that he couldn’t think of any more stories. Jeeves, who shares Psmith’s superiority if not his class, was well entrenched by 1923 and perhaps it suited Wodehouse not to have an upper-class rival. Wodehouse wrote of his later and much older character, Uncle Fred, that he was “a sort of Psmith” (p. 141, Yours Plum, ed. Frances Donaldson. London, Penguin, 1992) in terms of resourcefulness and imperturbability; and this is also said of Galahad Threepwood. In P G Wodehouse (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), Frances Donaldson calls Psmith a “bridge…between the youthful period…and the humorous stories” and says that by 1923 Wodehouse “had outgrown the romantic notions of his youth and learned that his strength lay in fantasy of a humorous kind” (p.91).
* Benny Green in PG Wodehouse: a Literary Biography (Oxford, OUP, 1981) took a different line. He said Mike “went benignly wrong”, unbalanced by the introduction of Psmith (p.25). He mentions Richard Usborne calling Psmith Wodehouse’s first adult hero.
I read this book years ago, and enjoyed it, even though it does not feel like Wodehouse has yet reached his best work. I have not read Mike at Wrykyn, but Mike does seem a bit of a dull character. It is Psmith that makes this book, and to read a book with only Mike’s adventures sounds like it could be dull, even for a cricket fan like myself.
I think you make a good point. The effect of Psmith is to over-balance the book, and Mike suffers in comparison. My view is that Wodehouse succeeds in Mike and Psmith, but it’s a close-run thing. Mike alone, in Mike at Wrykyn, is much less dull and gets into mischief on his own account. It’s enjoyable as a school story. But it is not the mature, familiar Wodehouse.
The two books arrived in the junior branch of my local library in the mid-fifties, and I thought them glorious – ‘Mike and Psmith’ especially. They made me a Wodehouse fan for life.
‘Mike’ is much more of a conventional school story, but ‘Mike and Psmith’ (or ‘The Lost Lambs’ as it originally was) now seems to me Wodehouse’s first attempt to write indirectly about the crash in his own fortunes, when his father’s financial situation made it impossible for him to go to Oxford like his older brother, and he was sent to work in the uncongenial surroundings of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company (HSBC today).
When Mike is thrown out of paradise into a dull crammer’s, his salvation comes in the discovery of Psmith, who triumphs through sheer chutzpah and verbal exhilaration. Mike and Psmith are like the two halves of Wodehouse – the rather conventional sports-mad public schoolboy and the fantasist whose skill with language lifts him above the mundane cares of the world. It was by cultivating the Psmith within him that Wodehouse liberated himself from captivity in the bank.
I agree with Ed that this does not yet have the finished quality of the best mature Wodehouse – but it’s much more like classic Wodehouse than are the stories he was writing at the time for adult audiences.