The story takes place shortly after the conclusion of Mike at Wryken. Mike has become increasingly proficient at cricket but, because of his poor school results, his father decides the best thing for Mike is to send him off to Sedleigh, a far smaller school, with a far lower-ranked cricket team. After meeting his Housemaster he meets a well-dressed youth with a monocle, another new student, who introduces himself as Psmith (formerly an Etonian) and, he says, a socialist.
“I am with you, Comrade Jackson. You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it […].” [Chapter 3]Mike and Pmith instantly become good friends and, even with their extensive cricketing experience, they decide to avoid playing cricket for the school and join the archaeological society. Mike, however, misses playing cricket and soon plays for a local team. The two participate in a number of troublesome but exciting adventures.
In this novel, Wodehouse introduces one of my favorite fictional characters, and one of the very few of his creations to be based on an actual person, Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Wodehouse later described Psmith as “the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a silver plate with watercress around it”. Psmith is one of Wodehouse’s finest characters. Psmith explains that the P in his surname is silent, “as in pshrimp” and was added by himself, in order to distinguish him from other Smiths, the sheer idea of doing something so simple yet so unheard of is nothing less than genius and is just one of the many points which make Psmith such a great character, that and the nonchalant way he insults the teachers without insulting them:
If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty. The resolve came to me unexpectedly this morning. I jotted it down on the back of an envelope. In conversation you may address me as Rupert (though I hope you won’t), or simply Smith, the P not being sounded. Compare the name Zbysco, in which the Z is given a similar miss-in-balk. See?”
Mike said he saw. Psmith thanked him with a certain stately old world courtesy. [Chapter 2]
He staggered back with the basket, painfully conscious all the while that it was creasing his waistcoat, and dumped it down on the study floor. Mr. Downing stooped eagerly over it. Psmith leaned against the wall, and straightened out the damaged garment. [Chapter 20]
“Sit down, Smith,” said the housemaster. “I can manage without your help.”
Psmith sat down again, carefully tucking up the knees of his trousers, and watched him with silent interest through his eyeglass. The scrutiny irritated Mr. Downing. “Put that thing away, Smith,” he said.
“That thing, sir?”
“Yes, that ridiculous glass. Put it away.”
“Why! Because I tell you to do so.”
“I guessed that that was the reason, sir,” sighed Psmith, replacing the eyeglass in his waistcoat pocket. He rested his elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands, and resumed his contemplative inspection of the shoe expert, who, after fidgeting for a few moments, lodged another complaint.
“Don’t sit there staring at me, Smith.”
“I was interested in what you were doing, sir.”
“Never mind. Don’t stare at me in that idiotic way.”
“May I read, sir?” asked Psmith, patiently.
“Yes, read if you like.”
“Thank you, sir.” [Chapter 21.]
“Be quick, Smith,” [Mr. Downing] said, as the latter stood looking at him without making any movement in the direction of the door.One of the things which make Wodehouse’s books so great is the amount of detail he puts into planning so his small characters are portrayed perfectly and, unlike so many authors—who come up with a good character then skimp on the rest of them with no character development, simply using a mere hollow husk of a creation with a generic name—Wodehouse properly plans his story so that even a seemingly insignificant line early in the story may be important later.
“Quick, sir?” said Psmith meditatively, as if he had been asked a conundrum.
“Go and find Mr. Outwood at once.” Psmith still made no move. “Do you intend to disobey me, Smith?” Mr. Downing’s voice was steely.
“Yes, sir.” There was one of those you-could-have-heard-a-pin-drop silences.
Psmith was staring reflectively at the ceiling. Mr. Downing was looking as if at any moment he might say, “Thwarted to me face, ha, ha! And by a very stripling!” It was Psmith, however, who resumed the conversation. His manner was almost too respectful; which made it all the more a pity that what he said did not keep up the standard of docility.
“I take my stand,” he said, “on a technical point. I say to myself, ‘Mr. Downing is a man I admire as a human being and respect as a master. In—”
This impertinence is doing you no good, Smith.” Psmith waved a hand deprecatingly. [Chapter 22]
This is a great read for anyone who is or isn’t already a fan of Wodehouse and will continue to amuse you after constant and repeated readings. I recommend reading Mike and Psmith at least twice to make sure not to miss an ingenious line from any one of the interesting characters.
9 out of 10
P.G. Wodehouse, Mike and Psmith (London, 2012)
Mike at Wrykyn first appeared in the magazine The Captain as a the first story in a two-part serial titled “Jackson Junior”, and published as a novel, Mike, in 1909; “Jackson Junior” was republished separately as Mike at Wrykyn in 1953. The second part of “Jackson Junior”, originally titled “The Lost Lambs” in The Captain, was released separately as Enter Psmith in 1935, and finally published as Mike and Psmith in 1953.