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Archive for the ‘Jean Webster’ Category

There have been many times in my life where I’ve thought that the world would be a better place if there were more Psmith books.  The four books P.G. Wodehouse gave us are not enough.  So imagine my delight when I picked up When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster and discovered that, miraculously, Webster had in her very first novel created in a female Psmith.

Published in 1903 (five years before Psmith made his first appearance), When Patty Went to College follows the irrepressible Patty Wyatt through her final year of college.  Though the school is “a modest and retiring institution craving only to be unmolested in its atmosphere of academic calm”, it is clear from Patty’s first appearance that she is incapable of adding to that calm.  She is a law entirely unto herself: clever, quick-witted, loathe to do any work she thinks she can avoid and unapologetically heedless of institutional rules (and other people’s property – especially the other girls’ reserves of alcohol).  When her roommate worries about changes Patty is proposing to make to their room and asks “Do you think they’d let us do it?” Patty scoffs at her friend’s conventionality: “It would never do to ask them.”  Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, except Patty rarely stoops to begging.  Instead she violates every rule her residence hall has – ripping up the carpet, studding the walls with hooks for curtains, painting the now-exposed floorboards – and when the despotic janitor uncovers the scene, charms him into not only waving the punishment she rightfully earned but also into setting up her illegal stove.  Psmith would applaud her as a true artist.

She is, like Psmith, given to making educational but condescending speeches for the benefit of her friends:

“When, as I say, you are out in the wide, wide world, making five-o’clock tea some afternoon for one of the young men popularly supposed to be there, who have dropped in to make an afternoon call – Do you follow me, young ladies, or do I speak too fast?  If, while you are engaged in conversation, the kettle should become too hot, do not put your finger in your mouth and shriek ‘Ouch!’ and coquettishly say to the young man, ‘You take it off,’ as might a young woman who has not enjoyed your advantages; but, rather, rise to the emergency; say to him calmly, ‘This kettle has become over-heated; may I trouble you to go into the hall and bring an umbrella?’ and when he returns you can hook it off gracefully and expeditiously as you have seen me do…”

But, again like Psmith, Patty does not always receive the attention or respect she feels such pearls of wisdom deserve.  As often as not, her friends tell her she is being insufferable, which is doubtlessly good for her character.

The book chronicles Patty’s (mis)adventures, as her need for excitement, penchant for invention, and aversion to hard work get her into one bind after the other.  In her fourth year, she has had time to study the ways of the college and its professors and knows exactly how to work each instructor to appear to best advantage in class.  For example:

Patty’s method in Romantic Poetry was to be very fresh on the first part of the lesson, catch the instructor’s eye early in the hour, make a brilliant recitation, and pass the remainder of the time in gentle meditation.

Occasionally though she forgets her own dictates.  This is when her genius for improvisation comes in.  She finds herself faking illness to get out of a test as well as physically hiding in class to avoid being called on by a favourite professor when she is unprepared.  She carries these schemes off beautifully – to the disgust of her friends – but inevitably feels compelled to confess her sins to her instructors, who are remarkably forgiving and admiring.  That again felt very Psmith-like: bad behaviour is always mitigated by honest contrition and charming apologies.

Still, she is a well-meaning young woman and when able to give assistance does her best.  She befriends a homesick freshman, encouraging the girl’s classmates to warm up to her as well, and when that girl does poorly on her exams, intervenes with the professors to prevent her from being kicked out.  There is nothing mean-spirited about Patty; she is always willing to put in the effort if she thinks the cause just.  There simply aren’t all that many instances where she feels the effort is worthwhile.

Rather disappointingly, the book ends on a moralising note.  Patty has skipped Sunday morning church service, preferring to spend the beautiful spring morning outside even though she has used up her allotted number of cuts for the term, but who should she run into but the bishop, who hurried away from the church as soon as he finished his sermon.  Patty, typically, confesses all, entirely unrepentant, and the two launch into a discussion of Patty’s character.  Patty, sighing heavily, finally admits that no, she really doesn’t want to be known as the woman who never tries, who resorts to “subterfuges and evasions” at every turn and, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, vows to turn over a new leaf.  It will doubtlessly make her a better person but a significantly less entertaining one.

Webster is rightly famous as the author of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy; compared to those classics, When Patty Went to College is insignificant as anything except her first novel.  But it is fun.  Some of the episodes drag (mostly the ones that focus on Patty’s interactions with her friends rather than her professors) but there is something bold and winsome about Patty that triumphs even in these lacklustre outings.

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