Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse (1923) Overlook Press (2003) 288 pp
I had never read P.G. Wodehouse before finally picking up Leave It to Psmith. 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.
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.
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.’
‘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.