A Commercial Adventure: Psmith in the City, PG Wodehouse (1910)

My paternal grandfather gave me this book when I was about ten or eleven. I had been reading a book that had belonged to my mother when she was a child (Susannah of the Mounties, IIRC) and he apparently didn’t think much of it, handing me this book from his shelf instead, (a 1924 edition) and saying it was “much better.” He was right. This is a treat of a book.

I hadn’t read it for some years, but was prompted to by noticing that Ian Hay and Wodehouse collaborated on a Psmith play at one point. There are scenes in here that have stuck in my memory for years – the ghastly bed sit in Acacia Road, Psmith’s monocle, and the fact that there was lots and lots of cricket (the only tedious thing about the book).

Like Ian Hay’s books it is written in omniscient third with a very present narrator. This seems to be a feature of this type of humorous fiction, and there are incidents in the book that made me laugh out loud. Sad to say, I haven’t read much Wodehouse, apart from a couple of Bertie Woosters that I read in my teens, and which I never found to my taste, but I liked this.

The novel is obviously a sequel; there are references all through it to incidents that occurred in the previous book, which I have never read. This does make for slightly irritating reading, as I think it’s unnecessary – the book stands well enough on its own as a narrative.

I won’t bother repeating what Wikipedia has to say about Psmith, or indeed about this book, but what I found interesting about it, reading it now, are the descriptions of life at the New Asiatic Bank – which Wodehouse clearly based on his own at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, although one hopes they are an exaggeration. Mike, the sidekick and putative hero, is paid the princely sum of four pounds ten shillings a month to stick stamps on letters and take them to the post office. Compare this with the slog the heroine has to undertake to scrape a living in Louise Gerard’s Life’s Shadow Show, which I will eventually post about.

The descriptions of the Kenningford by-election are also interesting, not least because ‘Comrade’ Bickersdyke, the Unionist candidate romps home after the opposing candidate is discovered to have been educated in Germany, and, shock horror, spent two years at Heidelberg University.

“These damaging revelations were having a marked effect on the warm-hearted patriots of Kenningford, who were now referring to the candidate in thick but earnest tones as ‘the German Spy’.”

Needless to say, all ends happily – for Mike and Psmith, if less so for Comrade Bickersdyke, who exits, stage left, fuming.

I couldn’t find any contemporary reviews online, but there’s a general review of Wodehouse in the Guardian.

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3 responses to “A Commercial Adventure: Psmith in the City, PG Wodehouse (1910)

  1. Wodehouse’s contemporary readers wouldn’t have been offended by the references to earlier stories – in fact, they’d probably have expected them. This was originally the third serial that PGW wrote about Mike Jackson for The Captain, a boys’ paper. The first two were collected together in the volume called Mike. It was the second of these serials that introduced Psmith, who is the bridge between Wodehouse’s writing for boys and his writing for adults. The final Psmith story (Leave it to Psmith) actually starts the Blandings series.

    In his biography of Wodehouse, Benny Green sees this as one of the most personal of PGW’s books, reflecting his miserable time in a bank after leaving Dulwich College. It’s in tribute to his school that he gives Mike digs near Dulwich.

  2. I think what I was trying to say, is that in a modern sequel, there would be a ‘catch up’ paragraph at the start, and if reference had to be made to events in a previous novel, they would be explained. Here, I felt, the assumption was that the reader would already have read the previous novel(s), a practice discouraged by modern publishers. I wondered if this was general, or perhaps an indication that Wodehouse was already pretty popular.

  3. Are either of you still around? I have a question regarding this

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