At some time in 1922 P. G. Wodehouse, acceding to persistent hectoring from within his own family, began planning a new novel. It was not an easy thing for him to do. He had no sooner got the enterprise under way when he received one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s peremptory telegrams demanding his presence at the impresario’s side, to complete book and lyrics of a Vincent Youmans musical which on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays was called Pat, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays was known officially as The Gibson Girl. Wodehouse obliged, only to find when he arrived that Ziegfeld was bivouacked in a Florida casino gambling with his usual recklessness in the hope of raising the production costs. But once Wodehouse had completed his chores, Ziegfeld suddenly became preoccupied with other matters, most of them to do with the confusion which at last resolved themselves into another musical called Rosalie. Wodehouse, finding himself momentarily free, returned to the novel, writing 40,000 words in three weeks and sending the bulk of the text to the Saturday Evening Post, whose editors promptly sent him a cheque for $20,000 for the serialisation rights. Wodehouse now split his time between the completion of the novel and the first drafts of yet another musical, this one called Sitting Pretty, with music by Irving Berlin. For the past ten years this had been the pattern of his professional existence, riding the twins steeds of musical comedy and light fiction. But the musical with Berlin, which eventually became the musical with Jerome Kern, proved to be almost the last in the succession. By the time the new novel was published, in London in November 1923 and in New York four months later, Wodehouse was in retreat from Broadway. The magnetism of Blandings Castle was becoming at last too strong to resist.
Wodehouse seems to have been aware that in completing Leave It to Psmith he was killing the thing he loved, assassinating one of his most memorable characters. For that is what Leave It to Psmith constitutes, the sad final parting of the ways between the master-mythologist and one of his greatest heroes. Persistent demands from his beloved stepdaughter pushed him into the enterprise, and nobody was surprised to discover that the setting for the story was Blandings Castle. Once upon a time, on the far side of Flanders fields, Psmith had flourished in the City and in the Bowery, but now, like all deserving Wodehouseans, he was to come home to roost in the Isles of the Hesperides, which, in the canon, bear the improbable disguise of an ancient Shropshire castle owned by a dotty, amnesiac blueblood called Clarence eighth [sic] Earl of Emsworth. Leave It to Psmith has all the essential Wodehouse elements: a handsome hero, a pretty heroine, a plot which convolutes itself through a labyrinth of mistaken identity, mutual misunderstanding and providential coincidence, and, at the very heart of the story, that classic fictional device, the Quest—in this case for a diamond necklace. As always, the reader is reduced, long before the end, to complete disarray by the ramifications of the plot, but is content to go limp in the arms of destiny confident in the knowledge that there is one man who has all the strings under control. That man is Psmith, which is to say, Wodehouse.
Where has he come from, this blithe, irresistible, engaging charmer with the brain of a great general and the body of a dancer, this dazzler whose effete surface so elegantly conceals a generous heart and nerves of steel? What are his origins? From the concavities of which armchair in which gentleman’s club has Wodehouse plucked him, and what, if any, is his deeper significance in the Wodehousean scheme of things? As it happens, we know more, perhaps, about Psmith than any other leading player in the works. For Wodehouse had already written copiously on the theme long before he concluded the epic in the volume which the reader now holds in his hands. If we look back across the abyss of the Great War to the balmy Never Never Land of Edwardian bliss in which most of the dialogue and all of the characters are so firmly rooted, we find, as we drift further and further into the past, that we have been privileged to make Psmith’s acquaintance more or less from the very beginning. Man and boy have we known him, as the saying goes. In Psmith, Journalist (1915), we find our hero waging a one-man war against the New York street gangs and winning with some style. His preparation for this test of character had been conducted in Psmith in the City (1910), in the purlieus of Lombard Streeet, where, under the green-shaded lamps of the New Asiatic Bank, he had shown himself once and for all not cut out for the mercantile life, and had whiled away his clerical hours by immersion in the duckpond of municipal elections, maintaining with true Wodehousean catholicity a genial disdain for all candidates whatever their political kidney. But Psmith has pegged out his territory much earlier than this. The trilogy comprising his adventures ending in marriage to the lovely Eve is preceded by the most significant of all the one hundred books of the oeuvre. Wodehouse had begun his authorial career by writing a succession of school stories loosely inspired by the idyll of his years at Dulwich College. Unlike almost all of his intellectual contemporaries, Wodehouse had had, educationally speaking, a very good war, and in later years seemed puzzled by what amounted to an aberration on his part […]
[Green then summarizes Wodehouse’s early school stories in comparison to similar literature of the day, declaring that Wodehouse’s approach was “a departure so heretical that nobody noticed.”]
It might be wondered what any of this has to do with Wodehouse, and more specifically, with Psmith. In fact, it was Wodehouse who put the old quadrangular pietism to the sword, and it was Psmith who was his deadliest weapon. […]
[…] Early in 1907, roughly concurrent with The White Feather, Wodehouse began working on a new Wrykyn tale, the serial which eventually became known as Mike. At first glance the book appears to belong with the earlier school tales. The setting of Wrykyn had already been made familiar in The Gold Bat and The White Feather, in which an unspecified Jackson had flitted intermittently across the landscape. The criterion of character was still purely sporting; young Mike Jackson is already of professional cricketing standard, and he at last shows his primacy to the world by transforming single-handed an obscure public school into a major cricketing force. But Mike went benignly wrong. The plot describes a congenitally unintellectual hero who is removed from Wrykyn by an irate father, and transferred to Sedleigh, a minor public school run on such eccentric lines that excellence at sport is sacrificed to the pursuit of knowledge. At first Mike sulks in his tend, but gradually he conceives the daring idea of building Sedleigh into a side so powerful that it can take on even Wrykyn. There is nothing in any of this which would seem out of place in the earlier books, but in the second section of Mike there suddenly looms out of the text the novelist of the future: Wodehouse the artist, Wodehouse the inspired adult comedian, Wodehouse the linguistic contortionist. On arrival at Sedleigh, Mike is confronted by a stranger. The moment is the most dramatic in Wodehouse’s long literary career, for up to now he has been exclusively a spinner of school tales whose romances were never intended for adult eyes at all, in which regard he was being more original than he knew. Kipling’s Stalky and Co. had been written for scouts at the Colonial Office, Farrar’s ecumenical extravaganzas for divines and pedagogues. Wodehouse was catering for the very types who featured in the text. The transition from juvenilia to the maturer moonshine of vintage Wodehouse may be seen happening quite clearly in the saga of Mike Jackson, in the moment when our hero meets the stranger […]
Here, for the very first time, Wodehouse is indulging freely in his gifts for pastiche and persiflage. For once, the plot is forgotten as the words begin to dance. Psmith, who has hardly drawn breath before launching a withering attack on the old pietistic attitudes of public-school fiction, starts to describe his past in terms of literary convention. It is a habit he will sustain for as long as Wodehouse can keep up with him as he flits lightly through the shires. When discussing his membership of the school Archaeological Society, he suggests to Mike that “we will snare the elusive fossil together”. When planning to attack the local wildlife, he says, “We’ll nose about for a gun at the earliest opp”. Not even the adult world has any defence against the dazzling legerdemain of his verbal resources; in defying instructions from a teacher he routs his adversary by bemusing him with sheer frenzied eloquence of his technique […]
It is clear enough what has happened. Into this world of half-developed humans, Wodehouse, all unwittingly, has flung a giant. For all his old school tie and his command of quadrangular politics, Psmith is a fully ripened adult obligated by circumstances to splash about for a while in the backwaters of school live—which is a perfectly accurate description of Wodehouse himself at the time he began writing the saga of Mike Jackson. Instinctively he had been threshing around in an attempt to escape the limitations of a genre no longer able to contain the repertoire of his comic effects. And now, with this bizarre boy-man, he had stumbled on the device he so desperately required. It is instructive to watch how, once Psmith makes his entry on stage, Wodehouse transfers his own persona from the games-playing, uncomplicated, unintellectual Mike Jackson to the insouciant idler Psmith, armoured against fate, just as Wodehouse was, by a panoply of literary allusion. From that moment when Mike is confronted by Psmith for the first time, his days as hero are numbered even as the days of boyhood are themselves numbered. Soon Psmith will begin to push Mike further and further into the wings. In Mike he plays second lead to the great schoolboy batsman. With Psmith in the City, not only does his name appear in the title for the first time, but his role in the story gives him co-starring status. When Psmith, Journalist appears, Psmith is the undisputed leading man, with Mike off-stage for most of the time in pursuit of that rara avis, the American cricketer. At last, with Leave It to Psmith, Mike, who once wore the mantle of hero, is a mere off-stage name never once partaking of the action [sic].
In the context of the school stories, that is where Psmith has come from—out of the corridors of Sedleigh School. But what are his origins in the deeper sense? Is he pure concoction, or do there resides within him some wisps of reality? It is clear enough that a clan like the Jacksons, composed in its entirety of cricketing virtuosi, owes much to the famous Fosters—six public-school athletes of startling gifts, the most talented of them, R. E. and H.K., being contemporaries of Wodehouse on the public-school circuit. In case anyone might feel that Wodehouse, in creating a brotherhood as prodigious as the Jacksons, was gilding the lily, it should be remembered that R.E. remains to this day  the only man ever to captain the full England side at cricket AND football, and that H.K., amateur Racquets Champion of England, is said to have declined an invitation to play cricket for his country because of a subsequent social engagement. So dominant were the Fosters in the process by which their home county of Worcestershire rose to first-class status that in their heyday the side was freely referred to as Fostershire. As for the genesis of Psmith, Wodehouse has this to say […]
[Green quotes Wodehouse’s account of hearing of Rupert D’Oyly Carte’s eccentricities.]
Young D’Oyly Carte’s mannerism of addressing the world as though it were standing at the barricades is whimsical enough for a Wykehamist, but what are the roots of such precocious political affectation? Wodehouse offers no explanation of the forces which transformed his cousin’s friend into so improbable a receptacle of revolutionary passion. It will be remembered that in the Mike Jackson stories, Psmith has embraced Socialism in a fit of pique following his father’s action in whisking him out of Eton and into Sedleigh, depriving him of the otherwise certain honour of representing the school against Harrow at Lord’s. One of the most eccentric demagogues of Victorian England, and a man whose reputation would certainly have been known to Wodehouse, was Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842-1921), founder of the Socialist Democratic Federation, the first Marxist group in English political life, and a man so fastidious in his dress that Bernard Shaw said of him: “He was a leading figure in any assembly and seemed to have been born into a frock-coat and top hat.” More to the point, in his youth Hyndman had been a considerable cricketer who scored two half-centuries for the Sussex county side and he went to his grave still smarting from an injustice visited upon him in his youth which altered his whole attitude to society:
He complained of the peculiarly British technique by which the ruling class absorbed rising labour leaders who proved only too willing to sell out to the dominant minority after they had “obtained their education from well-to-do Socialists who have been sacrificing themselves for their sake”. The tone suggests some justification for the friends who said that Hyndman, a cricketer, had adopted Socialism out of spite against the world because he was not included in the Cambridge eleven to play Oxford at Lords.
Even though this most significant fragment of English social history, unearthed by the American historian Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower (1966), is never so much as hinted at by Wodehouse, Hyndman as the inspiration for the subversive aspects of Psmith’s character seems irresistible. But Wodehouse, being a creative artist, has endowed his amalgam of Hyndman and D’Oyly Carte with a vital additional virtue, the power to improvise endlessly on a single conversational theme, an asset made possible through Wodehouse’s emergent mastery of a style of comedic expression depending for its effect on the contrast between the solemn correctitude of the form and the hysterical daftness of the content. Just as a limerick amuses by counterpointing the inscrutable logical rumpty-dump of its metre with the scatty senselessness of its message, so Wodehousean persiflage becomes effective by its apparent gravity concealing an adamant refusal to be serious about anything. It is this affectation of mock-solemnity which renders Psmith a lord of language. No wonder that from the very first words he utters, he begins to take Wodehouse from the safe harbor of schoolboy fiction out on to the high seas of adult fantasy.
In sticking to his story about the origins of Psmith, Wodehouse slips in another disingenuous claim regarding the genesis of his characters. One of the leading players in Leave It to Psmith is naturally Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, regarding whose birthpangs his creator has this to say:
The character of Psmith is the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a plate with watercress round it, thus enabling me to avoid the blood, sweat and tears inseparable from an author’s life. Lord Emsworth, Jeeves and the rest of my dramatis personae had to be built up from their foundations, but Psmith came to me ready-made.
Whatever the truth about Psmith, there is no question that Lord Emsworth, too, has sprung from the soil of reality, and in examining the matter it would be rash not to consider the case of the eighth Duke of Devonshire (1833-1908), who three times refused the office of Prime Minister, and once invited King Edward VII to dinner, only to nip out for a bite at the Turf Club, because the invitation had (like most other things not to do with pig-breeding) slipped his mind. Once, while serving in the cabinet of the Marquess of Salisbury, he walked straight past his lordship without recognising him. He was notorious for his mastery of the art of falling asleep at important junctures in public life, and claimed once, when the discussion turned to dreams, that he had had a nightmare in which he was addressing his fellow-peers in the House of Lords and awoke to find that he was. He kept twenty revolvers at his stately home of Chatsworth and mislaid them all, and, on days when he opened the house to the public, would conceal himself among the tourists and be guided round his own property:
He liked old, baggy, casual clothes, never took the slightest trouble with his guests, deliberately ignored those who might prove tiresome, and once, when a speaker in the House of Lords was declaiming on “the greatest moments in life”, the Duke opened his eyes long enough to remark to his neighbour, “My greatest moment was when my pig won first prize at Skipton Fair.”
The Duke, transmuted into the Earl of Emsworth, thereby achieved fictitious immortality, but real life, too, paid him the compliment of inducting him, at least vicariously, into the forces of make-believe when his grandson, the Hon. Charles Cavendish, did what so many Wodehousean heroes have aspired to do, and married a musical comedy star in the shape of Adele Astaire. But Psmith, too, had his brief hour on the London stage. In 1930 a West End production of Leave It to Psmith, adapted by Wodehouse and his old friend Ian Hay, had a successful run, it being a point of particular satisfaction to Wodehouse that the nets of contrivance were pulled even tighter around reality when the role of Psmith was given to Basil Foster, one of that dashing brotherhood on whom the Jacksons were based. It is greatly to Psmith’s credit, and an intrinsic part of his appeal, that he is joyously free of the cant of false modesty. Knowing himself to be a virtuoso monologuist, he never sees the need for concealing the fact, as when in conversation with the felonious Miss Peavey, he confesses that his friends “have frequently told me that when once I start talking it requires something in the nature of a cataclysm to stop me.” Even Freddie Threepwood, congenital idiot though he is, can grasp this simple truth about our hero, becoming so bemused by the tidal wave of epithet, simile, metaphor, litotes, and hyperbole that at last he cries out, “Don’t talk so much! I never met such a fellow for talking.” Nor has the reader, who has not been very long on the trail of Psmith before he realises that that remarkable young man can switch his frame of reference with lightning speed and fall into some wholly new set of allusions. In Chapter Five he delivers an extraordinary verbal concerto on the drawbacks of fishmongering as a career, but when he requests from the butler Beach a little cottage, throttled with honeysuckle, within whose humble walls he may compose poetry, he falls with effortless ease into the grisly clichés of Tin Pan Alley. He is also the supreme master of the old Wodehousean trick of insisting on the literal meaning of a word which is merely being deployed in the metaphorical sense, as when in explaining his financial embarrassment to Freddie, he claims to be “as broke as the Ten Commandment”. And yet in his encounters with his lordship, it is a question of Greek meeting Greek. Clarence may be an old duffer, but within his noble bones thoughts are stirring which Wodehouse will, from time to time, disclose to us. As Chapter Eleven draws to its dizzying close, Clarence is credited with a magnificent disquisition on aspects of hereditary insanity, reaching his climax with the revelation that one of his uncles had been in the habit of going about his daily affairs in the harmless assumption that he was a loaf of bread. We are, as Psmith would say, in deep waters, none deeper.
But why is this the last we shall ever see of Psmith? Having concluded this tale of the necklace and the bogus poets, Wodehouse went on to publish dozens more novels without ever ushering Psmith back on to centre stage. His followers sometimes reproached him for his, and the defence he offered is revealing:
The answer is simple. I can’t think of a plot. A married Psmith, moreover, would not be quite the same. But obviously a man of his caliber is not going to be content to spend his life as Lord Emsworth’s secretary. In what direction he branched out I can’t say.
Pressed on the point, Wodehouse mildly dropped a large stone into the placid waters of literary conjecture by suggesting that Psmith might have ended up as a judge, a suggestion so comically maladroit as to tempt that most scholarly of Wodehouseans, Owen Dudley Edwards, to refute it with mythology.
Psmith has the characteristics, not of a superannuated schoolboy, but of a god forced for a time to walk among mortals…At the end of his last adventure, he vanishes, taking his chosen bride with him. His disappearance from any subsequent reference recalls the god who, once departed, is by his own command forgotten.
There remains one other possible destiny for Psmith, one congenial profession which would have been open to him, which was ideally suited to his command of persiflage, and which would have afforded him endless amusement and a reasonable income. It may well be that one day, Psmith, having sauntered into Fleet Street, transmuted himself at last into his own creator. But whatever his fate, the last loving glimpse we are ever vouchsafed is of a lithe, blithe young man speedily, but not unkindly, dispensing with young Threepwood’s romantic pretensions before flitting away on to the castle terrace, there to resume his business with the lovely Eve.