This February’s Great Wodehouse romances series continues with another guest author, K.V.K. Murthy, known to Facebook friends as James Joyce. His piece takes us on a walk through romantic literary history with Psmith and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith).
A note on the Psmith-Halliday romance
by K.V.K. Murthy
The question of favourites is mostly subjective, and Wodehouse’s vast canvas of miniature romances doubtless provides for each taste. The Gussie-Bassett, Tuppy-Angela, Bingo-Banks and others too numerous to mention are all miniatures :a concatenation (to use Jeeves’ word) of comical situation, Edwardian silly-assness and a bit of fat-headedness thrown in for seasoning. They are the staple of drawing-room one-act plays of a certain generation, given occasional revivals in schools to round off the Annual Day shindig. Barring minor changes in detail, they are all more or less cast from the same block. Wodehouse’s success with that block – or formula – lay in the plasticity of his language: in anybody else’s hands it would have spelt tedium, a tiresomely unfunny business.
But the Psmith-Halliday romance stands out, a class apart, with little in common with the other country-house capers. To begin with, this is not a miniature sketch: it is an epic, a work conceived on classical lines working on classical allusions (‘the fruit of an expensive education,’ as Psmith himself would say). If the whole comedy of errors is Bardic, Psmith’s first encounter with Eve, and his first act of devotion is pleasingly (and appropriately) Elizabethan: Eve’s hat, the rain, the hastily produced umbrella are nothing if not throwbacks to Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous act with his cloak for his Queen(Psmith indeed mentions this parallel to the unfortunate Walderwick).
Psmith’s courting is a stately progress, like a gavotte or apas-de-deux – matched perfectly by a languid stateliness of Wodehousian idiom absent from the miniature romances, which again underscores the Master’s fine ear for symphonic form (the book can actually be visualised as a symphony in four movements: a brief adagio, followed by an allegro ma non troppo, a longish andante, and a final presto).
If the romance begins on an Elizabethan note, it also seems to advance through epochs. In his initial moves to Eve, Psmith’s demeanour has faint courtly echoes of Andrew Marvell, although without the fatalistic overtones (in a bizarre coincidence there is even a Cynthia in one of his poems) – and with this we have stepped quietly and seamlessly into the Restoration. But we don’t linger long here.
Soon, Psmith and Eve decant us, seamlessly again, and charmingly – into the Regency. It doesn’t require too overwrought an imagination to see Psmith as a latter-day Beau Brummell – his fastidious appearance alone would have earned a hat doff from that laced and cravated dandy, to say nothing of his manner of speech- and Eve as a fine Belgravia belle (even if her origins in the book, though genteel, are decidedly not West End).
Whether Wodehouse saw these associations, much less intended them to be seen is a moot point. In any case it is only critics who look for them and find them, as this one did. And I’m sure the Master wouldn’t complain. But there is one other aspect which sets the Psmith-Halliday chronicle apart from all the others: its is a complete novel in the classical sense, in the elegant Jane Austen mould, a perfect marriage of form and content.
People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.
The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.
But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.
A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.
Reading suggestions for getting started
Jeeves and Wooster: Start with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor). See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.
Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.
The Inimitable Jeeves
Blandings: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).
‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.
Psmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories.
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)
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)
Uncle Fred: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.
I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.
(‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats)
Short Stories: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.
The Clicking of Cuthbert
The novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.
Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, but they should be able to order them for you –and if your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.
Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.
Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. And it’s helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.
In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.
The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.
N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook
On the 15th of October, 1881, P.G. Wodehouse was born in Guildford , England.
Coincidentally, 1881 was also the year in which Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. Their meeting was recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887).
Some years later, the young Wodehouse became an avid reader of these stories, and his early work is littered with Holmesian references. In The Adventure of the Split Infinitive , a 1902 short story published in ‘Public School Magazine’, Wodehouse sends Mr. Burdock Rose and his companion Dr. Wotsing to investigate a murder at St. Asterisk’s school.
“Anyone suspected?” I asked.
“I was coming to that. One of the Form, Vanderpoop by name, under whose desk the corpse was discovered, has already been arrested.”
“Did he make any statement?”
“Well, he hit the policeman under the jaw, if that could be called making a statement. He is now in the local police-station awaiting trial. Popular opinion is, I should say, strongly against him.”
“That I should think is in itself almost enough to clear him. Popular opinion is always wrong.”
Wodehouse’s wonderful school duo Psmith and Jackson bear some similarity to Holmes and Watson. Psmith is uniquely brilliantly, while his friend Mike Jackson is loyal and dependable. Psmith sees himself as a Holmsian figure and consciously uses Holmes-speak in conversation. It was Wodehouse’s Psmith, not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, who first used the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ — in Psmith Journalist (1910).
“Sherlock Holmes was right,” said Psmith regretfully. “You may remember that he advised Doctor Watson never to take the first cab, or the second. He should have gone further, and urged him not to take cabs at all. Walking is far healthier.”
Psmith Journalist (1910).
The language of Holmes and Watson was one that Wodehouse readers knew – then and now. Many Wodehouse enthusiasts today are fans of Conan Doyle, and much research has been done to find the Holmesian references in Wodehouse’s writing. An excellent list, compiled by John Dawson, is available from the Madam Eulalie website.
Another well researched piece by fellow blogger Shreevatsa reveals that Wodehouse wrote an introduction to a 1970s edition of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.
When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.
Wodehouse and Conan Dolyle also became friends. They shared a mutual love of cricket and played together for the Authors Cricket Club .
Wodehouse retained a love of detective stories throughout his life, and this was reflected in his work. He enjoyed entangling characters in a spot of light crime, and created numerous detectives to catch them at it –like Miss Trimble and Mr Sturgis (Piccadilly Jim), Percy Frobisher Pilbeam (Heavy Weather), and Maudie Stubbs née Beach (Pigs Have Wings). He even tried his hand at straight detective fiction, in The Education of Detective Oakes (Pearson’s Magazine, 1914), later republished as The Harmonica Mystery, and Death at the Excelsior.
Perhaps, if he had applied himself seriously, P.G. Wodehouse might have become a great crime writer. Happily for us, he didn’t — readers of detective fiction are spoiled for choice, but great humour writers are lamentably rare. The result was a happy one for his characters too. As a creator of comedy romances, Wodehouse’s detectives were permitted time off from the study of little known Asiatic poisons to relax at the Senior Bloodstain, and even to fall in love.
A hardboiled crime writer could never permit such diversions, as we learn from Wodehouse’s fictional crime writer, James Rodman, in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’.
He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.
While the great Sherlock Holmes remained a bachelor, Wodehouse’s Adrian Mulliner, detective with the firm Widgery and Boon, won the heart of Millicent Shipton-Bellinger after he distinguished himself in the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham (‘The Smile That Wins).
All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.
‘The Smile That Wins’ (Mulliner Nights)
No less stupendous, it seems, was Wodehouse’s life-long love for the genre. I can imagine him, even as a nonagenarian, clawing at the birthday gift-wrapping with indecent haste to get at the latest crime thriller inside.
Happy Birthday Plum!
Rupert (or Ronald) Psmith was one of Wodehouse’s earliest heroes. He made his memorable first appearance in 1908 in a school story serialised in The Captain as ‘The Lost Lambs’, better known to many readers under the 1953 title Mike and Psmith. Alongside his bosom school chum Mike Jackson, Psmith (the P is silent as in pshrimp) made a successful transition from school stories to adult fiction in two further novels, Psmith in the City (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), before his final appearance in Leave it to Psmith (1923).
It is clear from comments in the growing Wodehouse Facebook community that my own love for this character is shared by many others, so it seems apt that when Wodehouse cast him as a romantic lead, he created Eve.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair , her cheerful smile, and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gaiety, a sort of golden sunniness – accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black.
Leave it to Psmith
Aside from her outward charms, Eve Halliday is also an attractive character. She is one of Plum’s independent heroines, with no stern father or serious minded aunt to misguide her. The prospect of pinching Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace (in aid of a good cause) does not faze her. She also shows herself to be a loyal friend, with an intelligent mind and an elegance of manner that make her a fitting mate for one of Plum’s most beloved characters.
“This,” said Psmith, “is becoming more and more gratifying every moment. It seems that you and I were made for each other. I am your best friend’s best friend and we both have a taste for stealing other people’s jewellery. I cannot see how you can very well resist the conclusion that we are twin-souls.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“We shall get into that series of ‘Husbands and Wives Who Work Together’.”
At the end of Leave it to Psmith, the couple are engaged and Psmith is hired to replace The Efficient Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Although Wodehouse later adapted the story (with Ian Hay) for the stage, he never revisited the Psmiths after their marriage. One possible explanation for this, given by Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson, is that Wodehouse could not envisage Psmith without a substantial income. Donaldson also suggests that Leave it to Psmith was written ‘only after much badgering’ by Plum’s daughter Leonora, to whom the book is also dedicated.
Another explanation has been given, by some brainy cove whose name escapes me for the moment (I have a feeling it was Plum himself, but cannot find the reference), is that Wodehouse found it difficult to envisage suitable plots for Psmith after his marriage. Having found his niche as a writer of romantic comedies, Wodehouse had little use for a married hero (Bertie Wooster was kept notably single). Although we are treated to a few short stories centred on the married life of Bingo and Rosie Little, these are exceptions.
The fate of the Psmiths after marriage continues to be a topic for speculation among Wodehouse readers. We want more of them! I have often thought of writing a little homage myself – along the lines of Sebastain Faulks, but without the advance.
Perhaps like the Molloys (Dolly and Soapy, to their friends) the Psmiths might build on their early forays in the necklace pinching business and turn their capable minds to crime. They would excel I am sure, provided they could overcome any moral objections. I see their criminal activities confined to pinching only from those who have the stuff in piles, coupled with a propensity to share their ill-gotten gains with the needy, combining the debonair style of Raffles with the generosity of Robin Hood.
Perhaps more plausibly, I can also imagine the Psmiths entering the crime detection business. From almost the first moment, when Psmith meets Mike Jackson in the common room at Sedleigh, there is something Holmesian about him. Wodehouse was a great fan of Arthur Conan-Doyle, and it is Psmith, not Sherlock Holmes, who first utters the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (in Psmith Journalist). Psmith has the perfect partner in Eve, who promises to be every bit as capable as Agatha Christie’s delightful Tuppence Beresford.
Plotting out the next few chapters in their lives, I see Psmith becoming the unexpected recipient of a modest inheritance (a distant Aunt, or perhaps a rich Uncle in Australia) that would enable the Psmiths to purchase a detective agency. They would excel in the detection business, although they may have to fight off some underhanded skulduggery from a competing agency run by Percy Pilbeam.
Great wealth may never be theirs, unless the Psmiths have the good fortune to recover a Maharaja’s ruby, or compromising letters for a wealthy heiress. But they would have enough to secure a modicum of comfort and keep the wolves at bay. Even in tough times, one suspects the enterprising Psmiths have the necessary wherewithal to succeed in life without ever having to fall back on the fish business.
I started Bulldog Drummond keenly, anticipating a good, old-fashioned adventure with lashings of `derring do’. I’m a big fan of the genre, with John Buchan‘s The Thirty-Nine Steps and G.K. Chesterton‘s The Man Who Was Thursday among my favourites. As a further enticement, P.G. Wodehouse borrowed from the plot in one of my favourite novels, Leave it to Psmith.
When a reader embarks on a novel with as much good-will as I did, one is prepared to overlook minor issues of style, plot and characterisation. In the first chapter, I made `allowances’ for the patronising, simpleton dialogue given to Mr and Mrs Denny, Drummond’s servants. They at least fare better than the Germans in the novel, who are credited with little more than grunting speech and greedy expressions.
Understanding that Sapper wrote Bulldog Drummond shortly after the First World War provides some context for its anti-German sentiments (although many allied soldiers could empathise with their fellow foot soldiers in the opposite trenches). But my willingness to make allowances was seriously disturbed by a flashback to Dummond’s nocturnal adventures into no-man’s land, where he indulges a psychopathic enjoyment of killing. He continues to indulge his murderous urges throughout the peace-time events of the story. Most of the killings in the novel are unnecessary, and unnecessarily brutal.
The story has some exciting moments, but the plot is thin, and its purpose too obvious to be enjoyed. I’m curious about the film adaptations though. It might work better on the big screen, where an hour or two spent enjoying an implausible adventure is easier to justify. However I don’t think I’ll spend any more reading time with Sapper’s psychopath hero. Not when there is more Buchan and Chesterton to be had.
…a vacancy had been got for him in that flourishing institution, the New Asiatic Bank, and he was to enter upon his duties, whatever they might be, on the Tuesday of the following week. It was short notice, but banks have a habit of swallowing their victims rather abruptly.
from: Psmith in the City
P.G. Wodehouse experienced the world of banking at close range as a reluctant employee of The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank between 1900-1902. Some insight into Wodehouse’s experiences at the bank can be gleaned from Psmith in the City, in which young Mike Jackson, like Wodehouse himself, is launched unwillingly into a banking career by his father.
Wodehouse is pretty stern on the subject of bank managers.
They train bank clerks to stifle emotion, so they will be able to refuse overdrafts when they become managers.
But times, and banks, have changed since Wodehouse’s day. If reports from the world of finance are to be believed, the modern bank manger is an endangered species, more to be pitied than censured.