It is always a surprise to find someone who dislikes PG Wodehouse. But, as the man himself once wrote of critics, “such men, I regret to say, do exist”.
Alan Bennett, like all sane readers, acknowledges the genius of the language. How many writers could pull off the heady combination of the precise and the absurd in Bertie Wooster’s description of his poor Uncle Tom as “a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow”? But Bennett finds the “relentless flippancy” of the books, their “general chappishness” and the “cricketing tendency” of their admirers to be “wearing and tedious”.
Readers with a secret sympathy for Bennett’s position should keep away from The Pothunters, Wodehouse’s first full-length book, published 120 years ago this September. Penguin will be marking the anniversary with a new edition. Apprentice work though it is, it has in common with Wodehouse’s better known work the qualities Bennett deplores: it is flippant, contains a good deal on sport, and is about as chappish a book as will be published this year.
The Pothunters belongs to what George Orwell, in an influential assessment, identified as Wodehouse’s “school-story period” of the 1900s, a couple of decades before he adopted the old-fashioned country-house farce as his preferred style and setting. Orwell notes correctly that despite the changes of setting, “one of the most noticeable things about Wodehouse is his lack of development”. The early boarding-school books “already have the familiar atmosphere”, the same jauntiness.
Wodehouse was only 21 when the first of them was published, but no reader need fear the embarrassments of Philip Larkin’s infamous lesbian school story, Trouble at Willow Gables (“Pam pulled Marie’s tunic down over her black-stockinged legs”, etc). Wodehouse’s world, like that of Gilbert and Sullivan before him, was effectively sexless. But the absence in his characters of anything one might call a “dark side” does not make the books boring.
Even Bennett might find something to love in these stories of boarding school life, set at a school roughly based on Dulwich College, where Wodehouse spent what appear to have been very happy years. The most perceptive critic to write about Wodehouse’s early works, Isabel Quigley, admires Wodehouse’s writing as much for its moral qualities as for its humour, its “amiability [and] lack of indignation”. Forgiveness came naturally to him and resentment not at all.
The Pothunters is an innocent work, like everything else he wrote, but it is not priggish. It was published when the boarding-school story was in its high noon. It was still possible then to write a story with public schoolboys as sympathetic protagonists rather than class enemies. But gone is the hearty moralism of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the evangelical fervour of the ghastly Eric, or, Little by Little. Instead, we have a set of loosely connected comic vignettes involving the same set of essentially likeable characters, originally written to be serialised in popular boys’ magazines.
Unlike that bona fide masterpiece of the genre published three years previously, Kipling’s Stalky & Co, Wodehouse had no interest in exploring the violence of school life. His schoolboys are, like him, human, capable of mischief but not of real spite. Their attitudes to their schools are unsentimental but affectionate. St Austin’s in The Pothunters is for its boys as Dulwich was for Wodehouse: a place for friendship and sport, and (to use words no schoolboy would use) creative expression and self-discovery.
Wodehouse writes to entertain boys, not to teach them anything. His boys are convincingly boy-like, especially in their mock-heroic banter: “Kill my father and burn my ancestral home and I will look on and smile. But touch these notes and you rouse the British lion.”
There is a hint of the anti-swot attitude common in many stories of the genre, as when one character is mocked because he “wears spectacles, and reads Herodotus in the original Greek for pleasure.” But the heartiness is balanced with the author’s evident affection for another schoolboy character who runs (as Wodehouse was supposed to have done at Dulwich College) an underground school magazine, plays the banjo and cheerfully mangles his classical quotations for comic effect.
The opening scene of The Pothunters is set at a boxing tournament in the late 1890s, “in the days before the Headmasters’ Conference had abolished the knock-out blow, and a boxer might still pay attentions to the point of his opponent’s jaw with an easy conscience.” That last phrase doesn’t yet have the glorious madness of the similes that make the “mature” Wodehouse style so recognisable (“like a tomato struggling for self-expression”). But the prose has a keen awareness of (and ability to avoid) cliché, and a lightly worn erudition that readers of the Jeeves books will instantly recognise.
Wodehouse began to write his school stories when he was barely out of school himself. He was bound for Oxford, on a partial scholarship, but when it turned out his father could no longer afford to stump up the remainder, he spent a few years working at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London. But the writing began to pay and he was able to persuade his father that capitalism and the empire would manage well enough without him.
The last, and finest, of the school stories, Mike, starts off as the story of a talented and rather dull schoolboy cricketer. But the book is transformed by the appearance in it of “Psmith”, a dandyish monocled figure from quite another world: “A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes”. The P he has added to his otherwise boring name is, he clarifies, “silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”.
Psmith, a self-declared (if unideological) socialist with a decided anti-establishment streak, is a character quite unlike anyone to appear in Wodehouse before. And it was with the Psmith stories that Wodehouse discovered what his prose and his plots could do. The school stories that made them possible are clearly apprentice work, but the apprentice work of a future genius.
The Pothunters is published by Hutchinson Heinemann at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books