Sense and Nonsense about Wodehouse

It’s good to see an article in this week’s Times Litt Supp celebrating the centenary of Psmith in the City, which first made it into hard covers in 1910 (though it had been serialised in The Captain the year before).

D.J. Taylor’s article is rather good on the way that the novel combines elements of autobiography (his father’s financial failure meant that Wodehouse was forced into a banking job, when he had dreamed of going to Oxford) with wish-fulfilment fantasy. The glorious Psmith, of course, unafraid, unprincipled and totally himself,  is the agent of fantasy, the means by which Mike achieves revenge, happiness, and cricketing glory.

But half way through the piece, the excellent account gives way to a kind of  nonsense that is only too typical of  literary academics and journalists.  D.J. Taylor quite rightly notes the novel’s political theme. The book’s ogre, Mr Bickersdyke, is both a  bank manager and an aspiring Conservative M.P., and much of the novel’s fun centres on the election campaign in which he competes with some other rather absurd characters. Taylor bemoans, however, that ‘Psmith in the City’s “politics”, such as they are, turn out to be only a kind of Conservatism by default,’ condemns Wodehouse’s ‘rentier attitude’, and ticks off the book’s central character for not subjecting the economic system of the day to a properly Marxist analysis:

The idea that the capitalist banking system is a sort of licensed swindle, predicated on the willingness of thousands of worker drones to be exploited, never strays across Mike’s mind.

The implication here, I suppose, is that a non-capitalist system would not exploit the worker drones, an idea which would probably get a big laugh from any of the TLS‘s readers who have ever had experience of a socialist bureaucracy.
Taylor wrote a biography of Orwell, and maybe here is trying to extend Orwell’s method of political-literary  analysis to Wodehouse (though Orwell himself, in his celebrated essay, saw Wodehouse as completely non-political). He is doing so, however, by telling us what the book is not doing, rather than by examining what it is maybe trying to do. No, it is not asking for root and branch revolution, and destruction of the existing social framework. One has only to read the school stories Wodehouse wrote before Psmith and the City to see how much he valued social frameworks, even when his sympathies were largely with the rebels. In The Lost Lambs, for example, the serial that introduced Psmith, Mike and Psmith define themselves as outsiders at what they see as an inferior school. Very like Kipling (a crucial influence on the Wodehouse of the school stories, and sometimes later Wodehouse, too) the story explores the dialectic between rebels and establishment. The Lost Lambs (like The White Feather, too)  shows the conflict between institution and outsider resolved not by the vistory of one over the other, but by the triumph of both, and a mutually satisfactory resolution.

The theme of Psmith in the City is survival in adverse circumstances.  The destruction of the capitalist system would not have rendered Mike’s situation less onerous. In fact, it might well have made it worse. Mike’s opportunity of going to Oxford was based on his father’s wealth. In a totally just system, would he have made the grade? His talents would be  more evident on the cricket field than in an  academic tutorial, one suspects.

But I mustn’t be too grudging. It’s good to see the centenary of so splendid a book celebrated, whatever the politics.

One question that D.J.Taylor doesn’t raise, though, is the issue of what Oxford would have done to Wodehouse.

Forced into the uncongenial world of banking, he wrote his way out of it. He studied the market, played to his strengths, and made an immense impact in the world of school fiction, while still very young. Later, of course, he made even more of an impact within the domain of fiction for adults (and we mustn’t forget that the shows he wrote with jerome Kern and Guy Bolton were the groundbreaking works of twentieth-century musical comedy).

But if his father had not gone bust, if  PGW had gone comfortably to Oxford, and if had not felt the fierce financial  spur that impelled him to seek out the high-paying popular markets –  would he still have become a writer?  If so, would he have been the same sort of writer? Or do we owe Jeeves and Lord Emsworth to the early catastrophes that he later fictionalised in Psmith and the City?

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