RogerBW's Blog

Mike, P. G. Wodehouse 24 January 2017

1909 school stories, compilation from magazine publication in 1907-1908: Mike Jackson, youngest of five cricketing brothers, goes first to Wrykin and then to Sedleigh. Also republished in separate parts later, as Mike at Wrykin and Mike and Psmith; the latter also as Enter Psmith.

Taken as a school story, Mike is largely unremarkable. Mike is a cricketing prodigy, even more so than his brothers; he gets peripherally involved in various scrapes, but sticks largely to the paths of virtue. The plots are fairly standard school-story plots, though well-written and with a leavening of humour; and an entire chapter dedicated to a cricket match is written so as to be interesting even if (like me) one is not a fan of the game. However, it's clear that Wodehouse is getting bored with school stories; he embarks on self-parody even as he makes sure the story works on its own terms.

It was evident from the way he shaped that Marsh was short of practice. His visit to the Infirmary had taken the edge off his batting. He scratched awkwardly at three balls without hitting them. The last of the over had him in two minds. He started to play forward, changed his stroke suddenly and tried to step back, and the next moment the bails had shot up like the débris of a small explosion, and the wicket-keeper was clapping his gloved hands gently and slowly in the introspective, dreamy way wicket-keepers have on these occasions.

Then in the second part, a year later in the original serialisation and three years in narrative time, Psmith enters the stage. At this point Mike is still the hero, but Wodehouse clearly has much more fun writing Psmith ("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.") There's a great deal of studied insolence while remaining within the technical forms of politeness, which fits Psmith better than it does some of Wodehouse's later characters to whom it's also ascribed; Psmith has after all been at Eton, before (like Mike) he is sent to Sedleigh for the final term before university entrance in the hope that he'll buckle down and do some work, and a certain amount of arrogance is practically expected from people who've been turfed out of the place. In later books, of course, Mike becomes practically a background character against whom Psmith can coruscate.

Both parts, by nearly ignoring academic work, put great emphasis on the role of the (pre-Great-War) school in teaching boys how to be members of society – more in the first part than the second, which has masters primarily as obstacles and figures of fun. But if one already knows about that, the books are interesting mostly for the view of Wodehouse in transition from the straight school stories of his early work (most obviously exemplified in Tales of St Austen's) to the more grown-up comedies for which he would become famous.

Followed by Psmith in the City.

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