RogerBW's Blog

Psmith in the City, P. G. Wodehouse 13 October 2017

1910 comic novel, compilation from magazine publication in 1908-1909. Mike and Psmith end up toiling in the New Asiatic Bank. This suits neither of them.

This was written only a year later than Mike, but Wodehouse's style has matured considerably; the Bank may be shown as something not entirely unlike a school, with department heads like masters having a largely unquestioned rule, but to some extent that was the point of the school setup, and while Mike is essentially interested in cricket and avoiding boredom Psmith has developed into a reasonably devious plotter, and largely the driver of the narrative even if it's primarily shown from Mike's viewpoint. On the other hand, this isn't full-bloom Wodehouse; for a start, there aren't any women in it, unless you count Mike's ephemeral landlady.

Their ongoing foe is Bickersdyke, the head of the bank, who's something of a cartoon villain (if there is a way he can act unpleasantly, he will reliably do so regardless of his own interests) and the main weak point in the narrative. Psmith takes against him for entirely sensible reasons at their first meeting, and later finding himself working for him proceeds to provoke him in such a way that Bickersdyke can't take any action against him; later he does more of this (including some minor blackmail) on behalf of Mike, but it's clearly something he feels like doing anyway.

One may reasonably speculate that the New Asiatic Bank was based to some extent on Wodehouse's own early experiences in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, but there's very little detail of the work (it seems to involve a lot of carrying of ledgers). Rather, it's there to set up problems for Mike and Psmith, so that Psmith can solve them and look good.

One can rather see the gears turning at times, but there's plenty of sparkling dialogue – well, monologue – and this is certainly now a different sort of beast from the school stories. Even if it's not clear yet just what sort of beast it's going to be. Followed by Psmith, Journalist.

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