P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the school stories

Admiration for the works of P.G. Wodehouse is not a competitive sport. The merest whiff of appreciation for The Code of The Woosters, one of Wodehouse’s most popular novels, will be sufficient for other Wodehouse fans to scoop you lovingly into the fold. For as Wodehouse once wrote:

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

Strychnine in the Soup

However, a knowledge of Wodehouse’s school stories – written, as the name suggests, for younger readers — will set you apart as a more serious enthusiast.

These books can be read in any order. If you’re not a fan of the genre, I suggest starting with Mike and Psmith, starring Mike Jackson and Rupert Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent as in pshrimp). I love this story so much that I included it in my top five Wodehouse books.

Wodehouse school stories reading list

*Serialised in the ‘Chums’ between 1908-1909, but not published in book form until 1997.

Notes on the series

P.G. Wodehouse began his writing career at a young age. By his own account:

From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)

 Over Seventy

As a student at Dulwich college, Wodehouse edited the school magazine, The Alleynian, and received his first payment for writing in 1900 from Public School Magazine for a piece on ‘Some Aspects of Game-Captaincy’.

Wodehouse’s early fiction reflects the public-school life he knew well, and clearly enjoyed. The stories are set mostly in fictional boys’ schools, and expose the various shenanigans and maneuverings of the inmates. Wodehouse included occasional female characters, often as sympathetic letter writers, and wrote several stories about a plucky cricket enthusiast called Joan Romney.

Wodehouse fans will detect a hint of the autobiographical, even in these stories.

It is a splendid thing to be seventeen and have one’s hair up and feel that one cannot be kissed indiscriminately any more by sticky boys and horrid old gentlemen who “knew you when you were that high, my dear,” or who nursed you on their knees when you were a baby. When I came down to dinner for the first time in a long frock and with my hair in a bun there was a terrific sensation. Father said, “My dear Joan!” and gasped. The butler looked volumes of respectful admiration. The tweeny, whom I met on the stairs, giggled like an idiot. Bob, my brother, who is a beast, rolled on the floor and pretended to faint. Altogether it was an event. Mr. Garnet, who writes novels and things and happened to be stopping with us for the cricket, asked me to tell him exactly how it felt to have one’s hair up for the first time. He said it would be of the utmost value to him to know, as it would afford him a lurid insight into the feminine mind.

I said: “I feel as if I were listening to beautiful music played very softly on a summer night, and eating heaps of strawberries with plenty of cream.”

He said, “Ah!”

The Wire-Pullers (A Cricket Story)

Wodehouse’s knowledge of sports and literature, popular culture, history and classics is evident throughout the early stories – and is worked into his writing with the same seamless genius we associate with his classic works.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

Mike and Psmith

In the context of a long literary life, Wodehouse’s school-story period was short-lived. His first novel for adult readers, Love Among the Chickens, was published in 1906 and introduced his most scandalous ‘old-boy’, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge. Wodehouse’s transition from writing school stories to writing for adults included novels featuring Mike Jackson and Psmith as adults, and using a boys’ school as the setting for The Little Nugget (1913).

Some critics have argued that Wodehouse and his writing, never ‘grew up’ at all — that the characters in his stories think and behave much like school children in adult clothing. As George Orwell put it:

Mike Jackson has turned into Bertie Wooster. That, however, is not a very startling metamorphosis, and one of the most noticeable things about Wodehouse is his lack of development.

George Orwell In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse:

There’s some truth to this, but rather than a point of criticism, I believe it’s one of the magic ingredients that make’s Wodehouse incomparably special. Despite becoming a master of his craft, Wodehouse’s writing is never weighed down by seriousness — he never loses the youthful spring in his step. In a life that was not without its hardships, this is remarkable, and wonderful.

The school stories are an important part of understanding Wodehouse’s place in the world of literature, as well as enjoyable reading. I recommend them highly.

Many can be viewed in their original magazine format via the excellent Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums, a site devoted to the early works of P. G. Wodehouse.

More in this series:

HP

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21 thoughts on “P.G. Wodehouse reading list: the school stories

  1. I must say that Orwell proposal, “Mike Jackson has turned into Bertie Wooster”, must rank as one of that usually perceptive writer’s sillier arguments. Other than both being English, male, and public school-educated products of broadly Edwardian vintage, what do they have in common? Class comes into it: Mike is upper-middle, Bertie upper; Mike tending to the taciturn, and reticent, Bertie (except when squashed by aunts or intimidating young ladies) chatty and outgoing; Mike indicating absolutely no interest in clothes, Bertie fascinated by same; Mike required to work for his living, Bertie not; and above all – Mike is a cricketer of quality, where Bertie’s exploits in that direction go no further than breaking the odd window. I rest my case.

    1. Sorry, I hit reply too soon and interrupted myself… I was agreeing with you on this. Psmith is too intelligent (and again, has to work for a living) to make a reasonable Bertie comparison either.

      I think there’s something in the general principle though, that many of his adult characters are much like boys (or girls) in long trousers.

      1. Orwell made an ass of himself with those comments. Maybe only an Eton boy could miss the point like that. I’m afraid, however, I can’t read the school stories. I’ve tried but couldn’t cop them. Probably read too many such books when I was a youngster — loved them then, Frank Richards et al. I don’t know whether I read any PGW then.

      2. I’m sorry to hear it, Noel.
        I recall reading somewhere (my books are in storage so I can’t check) that Wodehouse was one of the first authors to write school stories for young readers’ pleasure alone — rather than some beastly moral purpose.

        If my daughter’s curriculum is anything to go by, there are still plenty of writers using fiction as a means to push particular values on the kiddies today. Some of it is well written, covering important ‘themes’, but … it’s hardly surprising that children are reportedly turning away from fiction when they have this kind of thing thrust at them from a young age (even picture books are at it now), even if the writing quality is good, and the moralising more subtle than the stuff being churned out by the Victorians.

        Fortunately, I got my daughter interested in books and reading for pleasure before she started school, so she knows there’s more to books than moralising on important themes. And the world of modern children’s fiction is actually wonderful — diverse, funny, gripping — I’m quite jealous. The trick is getting the kids to read beyond their assigned school reading and experience reading for pleasure alone.

        I know this is diverting from your comment, but your remarks reminded me of this point. I can certainly understand why readers might be wary of the genre or find it difficult to enjoy as an adult. I’m pleased that Wodehouse was firmly on the side of writing for his readers’ pleasure.

  2. Excellent, as always! Thank you so much for this entertaining and enlightening post. And also for the Madame Eulalie link! I had no idea such a thing existed. I hope to begin rounding out my love of all things Wodehouse immediately.

  3. George P. Smith

    I’ve read A Prefect’s Uncle and The White Feather in Italian (1930 some edition) and (I’m sure mainly for the poor translation, especially of sport related words) I would say I’m very grateful that our beloved Master enjoyed some kind of evolution towards maturity that gave us all the masterpieces we love so much.

  4. I’ve always thought that Wodehouse was writing about himself when he created Charteris. (And also wish he’d written more Joan Romney stories) I still love those books (and learnt that there was such a thing as jellygraphing).
    And with reference to Frank Richards, I’m pretty sure that Wodehouse read the Magnet. The Luck Stone (which you’ve left out here?) is clearly influenced by the Billy Bunter stories – crime, Maharajas,even an Indian student called Ram…

    1. Yes — The Luck Stone! Thanks for that. I had only been looking at stories published in book form during PGW’s lifetime. This little nugget escaped my notice. I shall put matters right and edit the piece accordingly.

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