The master humorist’s letters tell a different kind of story

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“…It’s easy to think of Wodehouse (1881–1975) as the purveyor of literary comfort food. The flyleaves of Overlook Press’s Collector’s Wodehouse editions would make excellent wallpaper for a sanatorium, and simply seeing the spines on a shelf never fails to soothe me. A friend mentions that any random Wodehouse is his go-to subway reading—perfect for dipping into, no emotional commitment, it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish it. Indeed, you might have already finished it: The remarkable consistency and volume of his output means you can be pretty far into something before it dawns on you that you’ve read it before. Even his titles are designed to blur the lines. I couldn’t be trusted to tell you the difference between Mulliner Nights and Mr. Mulliner Speaking, Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning, Carry On, Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves, though I’ve read them all. (I think.) This is in fact a virtue of Wodehouse’s work, although as we learn in a new collection of his letters, the author was sensitive to accusations that he was continually raking over the same fictional ground. In 1932, Wodehouse grumbled about a review by J. B. Priestley, who “called attention to the thing I try to hush up,—viz., that I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations.”…”

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the P is silent, like the tomb

Mike (1909) Mike and Psmith, or Enter Psmith (1953)

Within the world of Wodehouse, Rupert Psmith (the P is silent, like the tomb) has always been my favorite character. Although Psmith is an adolescent, he is actually Wodehouse’s first adult character. With Psmith Wodehouse moved from the boy’s stories he had been writing into the adult comedies we now know and love such as Jeeves & Wooster and the Blandings stories. But Psmith was the first, and in my mind the best of his creations. Unlike Bertie Wooster and the Blandings crowd, Psmith is in no way a bumbler. He is very astute and sure of himself, and with good reason, since he is more clever and sly than anyone else around him. Psmith is such a forceful character that he starts as a sidekick to his school chum Mike, who is actually the main character in the first novel, which is really a boys story centered on cricket at the fictional public school of Wrykyn. Mike is quickly shunted to the wings (which in Wodehouse means he gets engaged and then married) in the successive stories until in the last, Leave it to Psmith, he makes only a cameo appearance for old times sake. With his immaculate wardrobe, his monocle, his money, his clubs and his mode of addressing everyone as “Comrade” coupled with his machine gun delivery of witty dialog, I find Psmith impossible to resist. Many name Leave it to Psmith as their favorite Psmith novel, but it is my least favorite book. In it Psmith has been stripped of everything that made him Psmith. Without his riches, which allow him to do as he pleases, Psmith loses some of his allure. Psmith, like Bertie, is not funny as a poor man. Although Psmith only appears in four novels, the last being a Blandings novel, he does seem to reappear later in the form of Uncle Fred, who for all intents and purposes is a grown up Psmith.

Psmith in the City (1910)
After Wrykyn, Mike and Psmith get roped into working at a bank with hilarious consequences. Battles with bank managers, Psmith’s battles with badly dressed co-workers, Socialist Workers meetings and cricket at Lords…
Psmith Journalist (1915)
While at Cambridge, Mike and Psmith take a trip to America over a summers holiday. Mike to play cricket for England and Psmith brings yellow journalism to New York City as he helps acting editor Billy Windsor change the image of Cosy Moments magazine and they are stalked by gangsters when their expose of slum tenements angers an unscrupulous landlord. Mike spends almost all of this book offstage playing cricket during Psmith’s adventures in NYC.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
The Hon. Freddie Threepwood is to make his debut as a jewel thief, but is not alone. Blandings is brimming with criminals and imposters, all intent on stealing Aunt Constance’s diamond necklace. It is left to the debonair Psmith, with his usual aplomb, to defeat the efficient Baxter and to discover the identities of one and all. Mike, married and working as the estate manager for Psmith’s family, loses his job when the Psmith fortunes turn south. He becomes a school master and makes a cameo appearance early in the novel. A funny book, but a penniless Psmith is just not the same. Psmith becomes engaged at the end of the story which we all know means the end of Psmith. Wodehouse does note in his introduction that he is sure that Psmith read for the bar, took silk and became a famous judge.
All of these novels are available in an omnibus edition as well. Highly recommended if you have not yet met Psmith. And if you have not…Why not?

Plums

Coming To Life

“…I remember when I was a kid at school having to learn a poem of sorts about a fellow named Pig-something – a sculptor he would have been, no doubt – who made a statue of a girl, and what should happen one morning but that the bally thing suddenly came to life. A pretty nasty shock for the chap, of course, but the point I’m working to is that there were a couple of lines that went, if I remember correctly:

She starts. She moves. She seems to feel
The stir of life along her keel.

And what I’m driving at is that you couldn’t get a better description of what happened to Gussie as I spoke these heartening words. His brow cleared, his eyes brightened, he lost that fishy look, and he gazed at the slug, which was still on the long, long trail, with something approaching bonhomie. A marked improvement…” – Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

Modesty

“…At this moment, a disembodied voice suddenly came from inside one of the bushes, causing Freddie to shoot a full two inches out of his seat. He tells me he remembered a similar experience having happened to Moses in the Wilderness, and he wondered if the prophet had taken it as big as he had done.
‘I’m in here!’
Freddie gaped. ‘Was that Prudence?’ he gurgled.
‘That was Prudence,’ said April coldly.
‘But what’s she doing there?’
‘She is obliged to remain in those bushes, because she has nothing on.’
‘Nothing on? No particular engagements, you mean?’…”

-“Young Men in Spats” (1936)