Students of the canon will remember a Wodehouse character named Albert Pease-march in The Luck of the Bodkins. He is a ship's steward, and a social critic of strong views and an entertaining way of stating them. "If you ask me," he says of England's public schools, "they don't learn the little perishers nothing." P. B. Shelley of Eton might well have agreed with him, but P.G. Wodehouse of Dulwich would have given him an argument. (Make that Sir Peegee. He was knighted shortly before his death last February.) Dulwich is a school in a part of London also called Dulwich; in Wodehouse's young day it was practically out in the country, and it still retains a certain village charm. He was a pupil there around the turn of the century, happy with all he learned. He learned how to play cricket and rugby football with skill enough to earn his school colors in both games. He learned how to write Latin verse, but sensed early on that the market for it was shrinking and that English fiction would go down better with the crowd.
His first book, a novel called The Pothunters, was published in 1902 when he was 20. Its setting is a public school and its plot has a lively, though not exclusive, sports interest. It has been back in print since 1972, when it was reissued in England by Souvenir Press, along with four other books from the same period—three novels and a collection of short stories. Titles: A Prefect's Uncle, The Head of Kay's, The White Feather and Tales of St. Austin s. They can be bought at the British Book Center, 153 East 78th Street, N.Y.C. or ordered through any large bookstore ($4.95 apiece). All appeared originally in magazines for boys. These are diverting works in their own modest right, and for unnumbered admirers have a kind of retroactive merit in the hint they hold of the great comic writer Wodehouse was to become.
The school stories were written to the formulas of the market Wodehouse was out to crack. But he was convinced, having been a schoolboy so recently himself, that the lads who read the magazines were not the backward lot the publishers took them to be. A kindly young man, he wanted to please everybody and hoped that if he played his cards right the cloth heads among the subscribers might not even notice how well he wrote. Besides, he liked the formulas himself, a liking he shared with old pros like Shakespeare and Dickens. He knew that every school story must have at least one set piece describing a game or contest. In The Pothunters the requirement is generously met. It opens with boxing matches at the annual public schools competitions at Aldershot, the military training center in Hampshire. The bout in which a main character of the story is a contestant is reported in all the detail the fight fan craves, missing no body blow or uppercut. In a later chapter the same detailed attention is given to an intramural track meet, known at English schools as the Sports, almost as though there were no other. Another staple of the formula is the Unjust Accusation. Wodehouse gives this one the works: the school's athletic trophies are stolen from their display places, a schoolboy is wrongly suspected, and the main business of the story is to track down the culprit and get the cups back—hence The Pothunters.
In The White Feather another chestnut is polished up: the Coward Redeemed. A boy runs out on a fight between town roughnecks and his schoolmates and so is sent to Coventry. He secretly takes boxing instructions from a pro and eventually wins a championship match for the school at Aldershot.
October 19, 1975
Here and there in these and other early stories, a touch of gentle derision begins to show between the lines. Wodehouse the parodist is getting restive. If a chap is stuck with a formula, why not get some fun out of it? In 1909 came Mike, which George Orwell long afterward called "perhaps the best light school story in the English language." It is here that Psmith makes his first appearance, the initial P silent as nothing else about him is silent. He even had his monocle then, and the devious mind that makes him a pleasure to follow through all the rannygazoo of the later novels when he is, in a manner of speaking, grown up. The games are not shortchanged. Mike Jackson, the hero, is a champion cricketer, from a family of champion cricketers. When his father, displeased by Mike's poor showing as a scholar, transfers him to a smaller school, Mike in pique refuses to play cricket at all. It is at the second school that he meets Psmith, who is also boycotting athletics of any kind. The pair of them are eventually brought to see—a bow to the formula—that it is wrong to Let the Side Down. The whisper flies round the clubs: Psmith is an athlete. Psmith of the Drones Club who has been known to wear lavender gloves? You must be joking, lad-die. No, dash it, he plays cricket and jolly well, too.
Mike was reissued in England by Herbert Jenkins in 1953, in two separate volumes: Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith. With luck, prowlers of secondhand stores might pick them up under the usual nondescript heaps.
The cricket sequences are splendidly baffling. Disaster lurks at silly mid-on, and here and there a batsman is yorked. And yet to the educated ear something is missing: nobody ever seems to bowl a googly. It's almost a dereliction of duty for the man who made fond use of boomps-a-daisy and tinkerty-tonk to pass up a nice nutty word like googly.
All of these works are also perhaps marred a little by the jingo spirit of their era and an occasional Kiplingesque haughtiness toward lesser breeds without the law. But who reads Sir Peegee for guidance on politics or sociology? He was 93 when he died. How sad that the gallant old cricketer did not reach his century.