P.G. Wodehouse: The Gold Bat (1904), The Head of Kay’s (1905) and The White Feather (1907)
Book review by Chris Hopkins.
Each of these early Wodehouse school-story novellas was first published by A&C Black, and all are now available separately in various editions. However, Penguin did readers a great service when it re-published the three together in 1986 as The Gold Bat and Other School Stories. I first read these stories in that edition in about 1990, and I have enjoyed all three enormously again at a second reading three decades later. For readers used to classic Wodehouse, their most striking feature is that they are not in the main funny (which is not to say they lack all humour), but on the contrary take their topics very seriously indeed. This is a fictional world where the public-school life of boys (in this case) aged eleven to eighteen seems to be the supreme experience of life. Amazingly, the reader (or anyway this reader) is instantly immersed in this perspective from the very first scene of The Gold Bat, though this is only about who gets first turn in the insufficient bathrooms after a rugby match at Wrykin School.
It is a world where the attitudes to games, to the honour of the House, and in effect right behaviour by a certain code are so evidently the supreme values that only a ‘slacker’ could not hold them at the centre of everyday life. There is some awareness that there is life after school – but mainly in the form of references to Old Wrykinians, who naturally make sure they return as often as possible to play Old Boys V. the School matches and generally to continue to support the school. Here is our introduction to the hero of the story, after he has emerged from the bath:
Trevor did not take long to resume a garb of civilisation. He never wasted much time over anything. He was gifted with a boundless energy, which might possibly have made him unpopular had he not justified it by results. The football of the school had never been in such a flourishing condition as it had attained to on his succeeding to the captaincy. It was not only that the first fifteen was good. The excellence of a first fifteen does not always depend on the captain. But the games, even down to the very humblest junior game, had woken up one morning […] to find themselves, much to their surprise, organised going concerns. Like the immortal Captain Pott, Trevor was ‘a terror to the shirker and the lubber’. (p.16)
The quotation is from a song sung by the ‘immortal Captain Pott’ who is an apparently indefatigable character in the musical comedy, The Messenger Boy, which was a London theatre success from 1900 to 1902, and so reasonably likely still to be in readers’ minds (see: The Messenger Boy – Wikipedia). Trevor is indeed a model for his house and an inspiration for the whole school.
This all sounds perfect – but of course the story needs a complication or two or there will be no story to tell. The complications to Trevor’s life arise from two different causes which soon become hopelessly intertwined. The first complication is the golden bat. At some stage, an Old Wrykinian philanthropically replaced the school’s unimpressive cricket cup with a new and more splendid one. The ‘Field Sports Committee’ decides in its wisdom to have the old cup ‘melted down in a fiery furnace and thereafter fashioned into eleven little silver bats’ (p.19). These will be awarded each year to be kept in trust by the members of best house cricket team in the school, who will hand them over the next year unless they repeat their triumph. The only hitch with this plan is that the old silver cup proves to have only enough metal for the town jeweller to make ten silver bats. The then headmaster steps in and commissions one further miniature bat, made of gold and to be awarded to the best team’s captain each year. Naturally, at the beginning of the story, Trevor holds the golden bat, but he has lent it to O’Hara over the holidays so that he can prove to his family that it is no mere myth.
O’Hara is a friend in another house, but a very different character from Trevor. Though O’Hara cannot resist disobeying any rule just because it is a rule, Trevor regards him as a good sort nevertheless in all fundamental ways. However, when Trevor goes to retrieve the gold bat, O’Hara realises it is no longer in his pocket. Not only that but he soon concludes that he has unfortunately mislaid it while up to what the school will regard as a ‘sacking offence’ (that is, deserving of expulsion). O’Hara is a proud Irishman. The local (clearly Tory and Unionist) MP has recently written an article in the local newspaper which O’Hara is sure is offensive to all true Irishmen. He has therefore recently tarred and feathered the statue of the aforesaid MP which stands in the local town park. O’Hara and Trevor conclude that somewhere near that statue must be the missing gold bat. If it is found, there will be consequences for Trevor, but he is determined not to betray O’Hara.
The second complication is the revival of an underground organisation in the school called the League. Though originally founded to make sure communal justice was done when the school authorities had failed to see things in their true light, it had afterwards declined into an arbitrary instrument which only defended its members’ self-interest. The revived League has adopted the latter rather than original identity. Their main tactic is to wreck an opponent’s study, leaving a note signed ‘the League’ with a warning about what their victim should do to avoid further retribution. One of the League’s current missions is for initially mysterious reasons to prevent Trevor from fielding a new forward, Barry, in the school rugger team to replace the disappointing, indeed, slack, performance of Rand-Brown. Well, this is eventually all neatly resolved without involving the masters or breaking the school’s codes, and through Trevor’s own judgement, courage, and activity.
While the three stories all present a similar school world and have shared interests in ensuring that decent behaviour prevails over bad, each has its own kind of issue to work through (I meant to leave an interval between reading each story, but in fact read them all straight through and found them nicely varied). The Head of Kay’s has as its central problem the misguided behaviour of a house-master, Mr Kay, and its effects on the senior boys who he has put into positions of responsibility and leadership. Though he has a very capable head of house, a boy called Fenn, who, like Trevor, is a superb all-round sportsman and much admired in the school, Mr Kay continually undermines his authority in front of his fellows by intervening needlessly. The reader can soon see just how bad My Kay is when we also learn that he takes no interest in house-games, and does not even seem to know that Fenn is a cricketing genius. The first chapters of the novella are set very close to the end of the school-year and the absolutely fed-up Fenn cannot resist answering Kay back when he reprimands Fenn for not keeping order among the boys when in fact they are cheering Fen for his brilliant performance in the penultimate cricket-match of term.
At the beginning of the new year, Fenn is no longer head of Kay’s, but has been replaced by another senior boy, Kennedy, who has been borrowed from another house – Blackburn’s. Kennedy, who has been happy in a happy house, is made miserable by this news, for several reasons: Fenn had been a friend, and Kay’s is an unruly and unhappy, indeed a slack house, mainly because Mr Kay produces the determining bad conditions. While Kennedy is depressed, he nevertheless approaches his situation as a leadership problem, and gradually begins to think through and act out a way of changing the morale and behaviour of ‘Kayites’, despite the continued sabotage of Mr Kay himself. Kennedy’s plan could be a case-study in good leadership, and he turns things round in the end (partly drawing on his boxing skills – something which seemed slightly surprising at first in a book by Wodehouse). The reader may be reassured to know that Mr Kay leaves the school in the end and is replaced by the more reliable Mr Dencroft, in a chapter called ‘Kay’s Changes its Name’.
The third story is again set at Wrykin, but has a central character who seems very different from Trevor or Fenn or Kennedy. He is Sheen and he is not an all -round athlete – indeed he is not an athlete at all:
On the afternoon following the Oxford A match, Sheen, of Seymour’s, was sitting over the gas-stove in his study with a Thucydides. He had been staying in that day with a cold. He was always staying in. Everybody has his hobby. That was Sheen’s. … He was bad at cricket, and had given up football by special arrangement with Allardyce [his head of house], on the plea that he wanted all his time for work (p.18 – unusually, but helpfully, each story in this Penguin collection has self-contained pagination – each story begins on its own page 1).
Sheen is determined to win the Gotford scholarship to university, and thinks he has a good chance. However, he has few friends since ‘he has retired from public life’. He also has no enemies. He is though soon caught up in a situation where he has to take a part in school-life – and where he fails in everyone’s eyes, including his own. There is a running feud between school and town, sparked off by a local election and political rivalries between Radicals and Conservatives. The School supports the Conservative candidate (the father of a member of the school), while the town’s ‘gangs of youth’ support the Radical, leading to frequent ‘frakkuses’ (p.30). The town’s champion fighter is Albert. Sheen and almost his only friend Drummond are in town to take tea and cakes, but come across a pitched battle between Albert and supporters, and members of their own house. Drummond runs towards the fight; Sheen walks away. He immediately becomes completely isolated and utterly miserable, as he is sent to Coventry by the entire school.
Sheen regrets his action – inexplicable even to himself – and tries to redeem himself by taking on Albert single-handed. Predictably this does not go well, but he has one piece of luck as a passer-by intervenes and effortlessly defeats Albert with great professionalism. He turns out to be Mr Joe Bevan, who is distinguished both by being a retired boxing champion and by an ability to quote extensively from the works of Shakespeare (whom Joe believes to be an excellent guide to good boxing form as well as all else). The remainder of the story you can probably guess – Mr Joe Bevan teaches Sheen to box like a professional and Sheen redeems himself in every possible way, including by winning the boxing cup at the annual Aldershot public schools competition.
Each of these stories is in the classic public school story tradition, but they are compelling. Through his precise writing and plotting, Wodehouse makes the fate of the characters and the outcome of their ethical dilemmas and choices matter – just as he does in the very different worlds of his later comic masterpieces.