In the way of many of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, Mike and Psmith has a complicated history. In 1909, Wodehouse published a lengthy (some people *ahem* might call it overly long) novel entitled Mike. The first half detailed Mike Jackson’s entirely dull experiences as a school boy; the second half introduced the extraordinary Psmith, who made Mike’s remaining school days decidedly less dull. Wodehouse reissued the second half (with a few changes) as Enter Psmith in the 1930s. In 1953, the two parts of Mike were rewritten and reissued as Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith. For those of us who, though fond of Comrade Jackson, have no interest in his solo adventures, Mike and Psmith is an ideal distillation of the story begun back in 1909.
When his father pulls Mike out of Wrykyn after too many poor reports from his teachers, Mike is aghast. His dreams of captaining the cricket team have been shattered and it is with a heavy heart that he sets out for his new school, Sedleigh, determined to dislike it and to never play for its inferior cricket team. Almost as soon as he arrives, he meets the school’s other new arrival: the exiled Etonian, Rupert Psmith, who, as he tells Mike, has just decided that morning to distinguish his patronym with the addition of a silent P. Even as a youth, Psmith is deeply interested in those around him and within moments is attempting to discern Mike’s allotted role in the school:
“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”
“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”
The teenaged Psmith is already as elegant and composed as a statesman, comfortable leaning against the mantelpiece and admiring newcomers through his monocle. Already he is “…one of those people who lend dignity to everything they touch.” Within a few hours of his arrival, he has seized Mike as his boon companion, commandeered a study, and set up a retreat that sounds exceeding comfortable. He is much at home by the time the other students realise what has happened. Once they appear, Psmith is only too happy to host them:
“We are having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey. Come in and join us. We keep open house, we Psmiths. Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson. A stout fellow. Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us. I am Psmith. Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chit-chat over the tea-cups.”
Mike is rather swept along by the brilliance of Psmith, as Psmith thwarts pranksters, allies with influential school figures, and determines the best way to keep both himself and Mike from having to play school cricket. Mike, a cricket addict, sneaks off and plays for the village team; Psmith feels no such desire, though he is happy enough to watch. As he so beautifully puts it: “Cricket I dislike but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”
Psmith’s method of escaping school cricket is to sign up for the school’s archaeological club, run by his and Mike’s housemaster. Psmith is capable of cultivating an interest in anything and so it is with archaeology. Rather like a royal prince bound by duty to pretend an interest in the quaint hobbies of the peasants, Psmith throws himself into the club:
…Psmith followed his leader with the pleased and indulgent air of a father whose infant son is showing him round the garden. Psmith’s archaeological research struck a new note in the history of that neglected science. He was amiable, but patronizing. He patronized fossils, and he patronized ruins. If he had been confronted with the Great Pyramid, he would have patronized that.
I have just realised that my fondness for Tony Morland owes no smart part to his similarities with Psmith; namely, their amazing sangfroid, their passionate interest in other people and things, and their extraordinary gift for condescending to others. Fascinating.
Unfortunately, the book does rather revolve around cricket, which I have always found far too tedious to learn the rules of. All I know of cricket has been learned through the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne books and, as far as I am concerned, I know far too much. By the end of the book, both Mike and Psmith have proved themselves heroes on the cricket pitch. Before that can happen though, there are a few awkward moments when, with the school leaders hot on Mike’s trail after a misdeed, Psmith must do his best to confound their efforts. Of course, being Psmith, he does this by talking circles – of sense and nonsense – around everyone. Unsurprisingly, the headmaster finds it all a little bewildering:
The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding. He paused again. Then he went on.
“Er – Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you – er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any – er – severe illness? Any – er – mental illness?”
“There is no – forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject – there is no – none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I – er – have described?”
“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully.
For me, these exchanges are so far preferable to Wodehouse’s descriptions of incomprehensible sporting achievements. This is what Psmith does best (as can be seen in those other fine novels Psmith in the City, Psmith, Journalist, and Leave it to Psmith) and it is why he will always be my choice for fictional character I would most like to have with me in a troubling situation. Or, frankly, any situation. You can keep Uncle Fred and Gally, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth. To me, Psmith will always be Wodehouse’s greatest and most charming creation.