P.G. Wodehouse: Leave It to Psmith

I had never read P.G. Wodehouse before finally picking up Leave It to Psmith (1923).  A few months ago (crikey!  I mean six months ago—time flies!), John Self posted a picture of one (of many, I’m assuming) of his book shelves; on it were several Wodehouse titles (in the wonderful hardback collector’s edition available from Overlook here in the United States and Everyman in the United Kingdom—I highly recommend them!).  I asked where one would start reading Wodehouse for the first time.  See, I’d heard of Wodehouse, but with these authors who’ve written so many books, how does one know where to start?  I put it to the back of my mind until my wife was reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and kept telling me about Frankie’s ruminations on Wodehouse.  Alright—if Frankie was reading Wodehouse, it’s time I was reading Wodehouse!  No offense to this fictional teenage girl.

Leave-It-to-Psmith

I expected this book to be funny.  The first lines clued me in:

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

That made me chuckle in the bookstore.  Despite that, however, I did not expect to be incapable of holding in my laughter while on the train.  But I couldn’t help it when unexpected things like legs dangling through ceilings and flung flower pots pepper the pages.

The mood at Blandings Castle (a locale used in several Wodehouse stories) is sour this morning.  Lord Emsworth has lost his glasses and, to make matters worse, his sister Constance has invited more artists to the home.  All he wants to do is potter about in this garden, but with wealth come silly responsibilities.  Then there’s the matter of his bumbling son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who’s been pulled back home.  Good natured, Freddie accepts but hopes to escape this lot.  Here’s a good reason why:

He had a long and vacant face topped by shining hair brushed back and heavily brilliantined after the prevailing mode, and he was standing on one leg.  For Freddie Threepwood was seldom completely at his ease in his parent’s presence.

‘Hallo, guv’nor.’

‘Well, Frederick?’

It would be paltering with the truth to say that Lord Emsworth’s greeting was a warm one.  It lacked the note of true affection.

In other parts of the castle there are perhaps more serious matters causing a sour mood.  The wealthy Mr Keeble, Constance’s husband, would like to give his daughter, Phyllis, some money so she and her new husband can buy a farm.  Constance is a problem, however:

Her eyes were large and grey, and gentle—and incidentally misleading, for gentle was hardly the adjective which anybody who knew her would have applied to Lady Constance.

Phyllis, by marrying the wrong man, deeply wronged Constance.

Mr Keeble, whose simple creed was that Phyllis could do no wrong, had been prepared to accept the situation philosophically; but his wife’s wrath had been deep and enduring.  So much so that the mere mentioning of the girl’s name must be accounted to him for a brave deed, Lady Constance having specifically stated that she never wished to hear it again.

Fortunately for us readers, Freddie Threepwood overhears Mr Keeble’s futile attempt to wrest some of his money for his daughter’s benefit from his wife’s control.  Once Constance has left, Freddie comes in the window and suggests Mr Keeble simply steal his wife’s £20,000 diamond necklace and then get some money to buy her another.  Then when he gets the money for the new one, he can give Constance the same diamonds in a different setting and do with the £20,000 whatever he’d like.  Nothing bad has happened; just a minor readjustment in the bank account, loosening up some of the money for Phyllis.

‘Steal my wife’s necklace!’

‘That’s it.  Frightfully quick you are, getting on to an idea.  Pinch Aunt Connie’s necklace.  For, mark you,’ continued Freddie, so far forgetting the respect due from a nephew as to tap his uncle sharply on the chest, ‘if a husband pinches anything from a wife, it isn’t stealing.  That’s law.  I found that out from a movie I saw in town.’

Freddie offers to nick the necklace for Mr Keeble, but he gets cold feet, bringing us to the advertisement that introduces titular character:

LEAVE IT TO PSMITH
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!

While this is the fourth Wodehouse story to include Psmith, it feels like a first.  There is no necessary knowledge from the past stories to inform this text.  Wodehouse is even so kind as to have Psmith explain his name:

‘ . . . The name is Psmith.  P-smith.’

‘Peasmith, sir?’

‘No, no.  P-s-m-i-t-h.  I should explain to you that I started life without the intial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith.  But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced.  Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in front by means of a hyphen.  So I decided to adopt the Psmith.  The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan.  You follow me?’

The plot takes a strange turn here, adds a few more humorous characters, and doesn’t stop tying itself up until the pleasant ending.  There are mistaken identities leading to assumed identies leading to misunderstandings leading to tragic comedy.  All of the characters are wonderfully drawn up, making even the unbelievable predicaments logical extensions of their bizare yet believable personalities.

The humor comes in many varieties.  First, the plot itself is a good natured jewel heist in an old castle.  Then there’re the characters themselves, particularly Psmith and Freddie, who both have a charming way with words, though Psmith is witty and Freddie idiotic.  But then there’s Wodehouse’s own ability to strike humorous notes in his own comic ellaborations and understatements:

The Hon. Frederick Threepwood was a young man who was used to hearing people say ‘Well, Freddie?’ resignedly when he appeared.  His father said it; his Aunt Constance said it; all his other aunts and uncles said it.  Widely differing personalities in every other respect, they all said ‘Well, Freddie?’ resignedly directly they caught sight of him.

Wodehouse is also capable of including a bit of poetic prose as he advances the comedy to its next high point:

Day dawns early in the summer months, and already a sort of unhealthy palor had begun to manifest itself in the sky.  It was still far from light, but objects hitherto hidden in the gloom had begun to take on uncertain shape.  And among these there had come into the line of Baxter’s vision a row of fifteen flower pots.

If you also take John’s advice and start with Leave It to Psmith, you might be disappointed to find out that this was the fourth and final story featuring Psmith.  Not to worry: it is complete and self contained.  To worry: it perfectly sets up more adventures with the people that grew on me.  Not to worry: many of the characters come and go in several other Wodehouse novels and stories, and there are those three backlist Psmith books.

21 thoughts on “P.G. Wodehouse: Leave It to Psmith

  1. Trevor says:

    Meant to ask this in the main post, but:

    What are your favorite Wodehouse titles? I’ve got Code of the Woosters but would like to hear other favorites.

  2. I have not read Wodehouse but Mrs. KFC has (which — along with Stephen Fry — is one of the reasons I have not had to read him) and I will ask her to supply a recommendation.

    Frankie Landau Banks, on the other hand, I had never heard of. A quick skim of Chapters online shows the book gets 13 ratings, all five star. This one may require further personal investigation.

  3. Trevor says:

    I’ll let my wife talk a bit more on Frankie . . . because I have not read it either. It is a young adult book, but it’s gotten quite a bit of attention from very discerning critics. It was the only YA novel in the running for the “Best Book of 2008″ award that I mentioned briefly in the comments on Bolaño’s 2666 post. Frankie got ousted in the first round, by Shadow Country no less. Obviously, there are is ground to compare the two except reader preference. Frankie won the Cybils and was a finalist in the National Book Award category for Young Adult.

    I admit I’ve been a bit discriminatory in my YA reading, though my wife assures me this one is excellent. Perhaps soon I will get over my bias and read it, since doing that last year for Octavian Nothing turned out to be a good decision.

  4. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I can say that I loved Frankie. In fact I actually read it again. The first time I didn’t like the ending, but the second time (because I knew it was coming) I found it to be perfect.
    It is YA, which is something I read a lot of because I have aspirations to write in the field. E. Lockhart is one of the best I’ve read. She understands her audience without underestimating them and inserts a lot of material.
    What I loved about Frankie is how real it felt. Frankie reminded me a lot of myself in high school, particularly her struggles with feminism v. romance. The only difference being I employed the aggressive social tactics that Frankie despises.
    I don’t know how you’ll like it Kevin, but would definitely be interested in your thoughts on it. It isn’t of the same literary category as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Members of the Wedding as far as coming of age books go, but it has a more raw, realistic voice to it. Which I found enlightening and refreshing. Like hearing it from the source.

  5. I’ll admit I was joking in my original reference, but then got interested when I read about the book (let’s face it, I’m a couple of generations removed from being a target audience for YA books). I have also on hand and am looking for time to read All Souls, which was a Pulitzer runner-up to Olive Kitteridge and is set in a New York private girl’s school. While not described as a YA book, I wondered when the Pulitzer was announced how the book got there. So I’m thinking it would be worth my time to read both All Souls and Frankie, if only to expand my horizons a bit. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Sheila O'Brien says:

    Trevor: (this is Mrs KFC weighing in) I have read every one of Wodehouse’s books, most several times. I love his droll depiction of the effect of all that inbreeding on the English aristocracy, and his lovely sense of the ridiculous. So my recommendation: read them all and have a jolly good laugh.

    I presume you have read John Mortimer’s books, notably the Rumpole series? Given your interest in legal matters, and your enjoyment of Wodehouse, I highly recommend them as well, in case you haven’t yet found them.

  7. John Self says:

    I’m sure I have said this before, Trevor – on a blog in the last few days in fact; I’m convinced of it, but can’t think exactly where – but my personal method for choosing Wodehouse is generally to go for the books published in the 1920s and 30s, when Wodehouse was in his 40s and 50s. These seem to me the peak of his achievement. (Certainly, when I read a Jeeves book from the 1960s, I thought it very weak.) For specific recommendations, Laughing Gas is an interesting one, being the closest Wodehouse comes to science fiction, with a body-swap comedy!

    In fact I recall recommending the Mulliner books to you (at least I think it was you) a few days ago, so I definitely have said the above before. Sorry to repeat.

  8. John Self says:

    Oh and from those Wodehouses on my shelves in the pic you linked to, the only one I haven’t read is Uncle Fred in the Springtime, which when I checked at the weekend I was happy to see had been published in 1938 or so. I shall have to get around to it soon, perhaps on holiday next month.

  9. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Kevin, I eagerly await even your decision to read Frankie!

    Sheila, reading all of Wodehouse’s books is quite a respectable accomplishment! I wouldn’t mind following you on that, but it will be a while before I get even a quarter of the way! I know that Overlook/Everyman is planning on putting all of his books in the Collectors Set, so I hope to complete that some day. Also, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of John Mortimer though Rumpole sounds vaguely familiar. I will take your recommendation to heart. Thanks!

    John, you told me about your discrimination against Wodehouse’s pre- and post-1930s books on Facebook, but I’m glad you remarked on it here. I’d like to see if others agree or disagree. It is often the case, especially with such prolific authors, to have a golden period. Also, I’m glad you commented here because you’ve added a few specific recommendations. Thanks for the double-duty!

  10. Trevor says:

    Yet again, a question I should have included in my original post: Has this book ever been made into a good film? Or any Wodehouse novel for that matter? I know some have been made into films, but are they good?

    I’m not usually one to want to see a book on the screen, but this one was different. Perfect in book form, yes, but easy to see as a movie.

  11. The BBC actually had an entire Wodehouse Playhouse series for about three years which are available on DVD — I think we have six or eight which get popped in quite often when we are looking for light entertainment. He makes the transition quite well (although most of them are from short stories not novels) and, like most BBC productions, the actors are very good. Check out Acorn Media in the U.S. for the catalogue there — I’m not sure about full-scale films of novels.

    As for John Mortimer, you have a major treat awaiting you once you have finished Wodehouse — although again on the light side. Rumpole of the Bailey is his quite humourous reflection on his own legal career. Again, the source of wonderful British television which you might even want to visit before reading the books. We saw a revival of his autobiographical play, A Voyage Around My Father, in the West End a couple years ago and it was outstanding. A 1981 Thames televison production of it features Lord Olivier and Alan Bates, so again you can see that film of his work attracts outstanding authors. He was also credited as the screenwriter for the television adapatation of Brideshead Revisited but apparently all his scripts were rejected. He did write the screenplay for The Ebony Tower and Tea with Mussolini both of which I think you and Mrs. Berrett would enjoy (good costumes as well as good stories).

    Mortimer is sometimes wrongly credited with being part of the defence team in the obscentity trial of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Not so, but he did successfully defend the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn in their obscenity appeal: was on the losing side with The Little Red Schoolbook.

    Like Wodehouse, you are probably going to have to be selective, because he wrote a lot (and some of it is pretty marginal). But given your career and his work as both author and barrister, I would say developing a plan to dip into Mortimer’s work is well worthwhile. You may have a somewhat different agenda for him than most readers, but I am sure you will find him worthy of your time.

  12. I’ll let you know when I do get to Frankie — tentative plan is to explore it in conjunction with All Souls. Given my interest in various boys school books, this will be a case of dipping my toe into the water of upscale girl’s schools. Stay tuned.

  13. John Self says:

    I’ll go along with Mr and Mrs KFC on John Mortimer: I read the first few Rumpole books when I was in school, probably 20 years ago, and enjoyed them, though I don’t think they have Wodehouse’s delicious control of words. The Rumpole books are curious in that they are Mortimer’s ‘novelisations’ (actually collections of short stories) of his own scripts for the TV series which was popular in the UK in the 1970s and 80s. At least that’s the case for the first half dozen books or so: he did also write a couple of novels about Rumpole after the TV series had ended.

  14. I agree with John that the earlier Wodehouse’s are the better ones, the stuff from the ’20s and ’30s tends to be very strong. I don’t have a favourite, it’s too long since I read them all actually though I think I did read most of them, like many I have a preference for the Jeeves and Wooster stories though the Blandings stuff always had a certain appeal.

    Regarding Mortimer, again the earlier works are the better, by the time he hits Rumpole and the Angel of Death we’re in definite diminishing returns territory, more political comment and less humour. The earlier stuff though is golden, and well worth a visit.

  15. Forgot to add, Rumpole is huge fun and well worth reading, but he’s no Wodehouse. Wodehouse is a deceptively able writer, a real talent in my view, Mortimer is very funny and his work’s very enjoyable but I wouldn’t personally put him in the same level in terms of literary ability.

  16. I agree with Max. Wodehouse is an author whose work (especially Bertie and Jeeves) adapts well to television/film. Mortimer is a screenwriter (and playwright) who can turn that into enjoyable fiction, but it doesn’t have the literary quality of Wodehouse. Mortimer, on the other hand, does bring his legal career to his creative work — for me, that adds an interesting element.

  17. Nadia says:

    I love Wodehouse!! I crack up every time I read one of his books. Simply the best!

  18. Frances says:

    Mrs. KFC has a wonderful suggestion about John Mortimer. I love Wodehouse. My grandparents gave me a set as a teenager to keep me occupied one summer, and I have been hooked ever since.

    And while I am here, you are a winner in my Faber & Faber poetry giveaway. Congratulations! Will you email me your shipping address?

  19. Trevor says:

    Frances, I’m thrilled! I thought the books were beautiful and look forward to seeing them in hand. I hope to showcase the set here soon!

  20. Eliza says:

    Lovely review!

    I found Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books highly amusing! There are 10 others in the series which are also well worth the read (Summer Lightning is my personal favorite).

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