Psmith

Psmith

Rupert Psmith (or Ronald Eustace Psmith, as he is called in the last of the four books in which he appears) is a recurring fictional character in several novels by British comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, being one of Wodehouse's best-loved characters.

The P in his surname is silent ("as in pshrimp" in his own words) and was added by himself as he considers himself to be too remarkable to be a mere "Smith". A member of the Drones Club, this monocle-sporting Old Etonian is something of a dandy, a fluent and witty speaker, and has a remarkable ability to pass through the most amazing adventures unruffled.

Origins

Wodehouse based Psmith on Rupert D'Oyly Carte (1876–1948), the son of the Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, as he put it "the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a silver plate with watercress around it". Carte was a school acquaintance of a cousin of Wodehouse at Winchester College, according to an introduction to Leave it to Psmith. Rupert's daughter, Bridget D’Oyly Carte, however, believed that the Wykehamist schoolboy described to Wodehouse was not her father but his elder brother Lucas. Lucas was also at Winchester.

Appearances and names

Psmith appears in four novels:

  • Mike (1909) (originally published as two separate serials, Jackson Junior, set at Wrykyn school and not featuring Psmith, and The Lost Lambs, set at Sedleigh and introducing Psmith. The Lost Lambs was later republished as Enter Psmith (1935) and Mike and Psmith (1953).)
  • Psmith in the City (1910)
  • Psmith, Journalist (1915)
  • Leave it to Psmith (1923)

All these works also feature Mike Jackson, Psmith's stolid, cricket-playing friend and sidekick, the original hero and central character of Mike and Psmith in the City, until eclipsed by Psmith's wit and force of personality.

In his first appearance (in Mike, Enter Psmith or Mike and Psmith, depending on edition) he introduces himself as Rupert. He is also referred to as Rupert twice in Psmith in the City. In Leave it to Psmith, however, he introduces himself as Ronald Eustace. This is perhaps because Leave it to Psmith contains another character named Rupert, the efficient Baxter; Wodehouse presumably thought having two Ruperts would be confusing for readers, and since Psmith is generally referred to by his surname only, it was not unreasonable for Wodehouse to assume that the change would go largely unnoticed.

In the U.S. version of The Prince and Betty, essentially a reworking of Psmith, Journalist, relocated to New York and merged with some elements of the U.K. The Prince and Betty, the Psmith character is replaced with one Rupert Smith, an American and alumnus of Harvard, who retains many of Psmith's characteristics, including the monocle. A Prince For Hire is another blending of these stories.

Leave it to Psmith differs somewhat in style from its predecessors. While Mike is a school story along the lines of much of Wodehouse's early output, and Psmith in the City and Psmith, Journalist are youthful adventures, Psmith's final appearance fits the pattern of Wodehouse's more mature period, a romantic comedy set in the idyllic, invariably imposter-ridden Blandings Castle, where Psmith fulfils the role of ingenious, unflappable fixer, a part taken elsewhere by the likes of Gally, Uncle Fred, or indeed the mighty Jeeves, and finally shows a romantic streak of his own. Though predating both Jeeves and Uncle Fred by some years, Psmith seems to be a combination of both characters, on the one hand imbued with Jeeves' precision of speech and concern for being well turned out, and on the other hand replete with Uncle Fred's humorous self-expression and insouciant attitude, in which Jeeves would never indulge.

Life and character

We first meet Psmith shortly after he has been expelled from Eton, and sent to Sedleigh, where he meets Mike, and their long friendship begins. As tall and thin a boy as he will later be a man, he is even then immaculately dressed, and sports his trademark monocle; his speech is fluid and flowery.

The “Psmith” name, he admits from the start, is one he has adopted that morning, as there are too many “Smiths”. His father, Mr Smith, is a fairly wealthy man, although a little eccentric, who lives at Corfby Hall, Lower Benford, in Shropshire, not far from Crofton where his friend Mike grew up; he later moves to Ilsworth Hall, in a "neighbouring county", mostly to find better cricket.

Not the most active of youths, Psmith spends much of his time at Sedleigh lounging in deck chairs. His most notable talent, even at this age, is a remarkable verbal dexterity, which he uses to confound and confuse boys and masters alike; with his sombre, still face, it is often impossible to tell if he is being serious or mocking. This skill frequently comes in handy, to get himself and his friends out of difficulty. In such circumstances, he is even known to move fairly quickly too.

While at Eton, he was a competent cricketer, on the verge of the first team - a slow left-arm bowler with a swerve, his enormous reach also makes him handy with a bat when some fast hitting is required, such as in the match between Sedleigh and Wrykyn at the climax of Mike and Psmith.

After Sedleigh, Psmith goes to work at the New Asiatic Bank, having annoyed his father's schoolfriend John Bickersdyke. After a time there, he persuades his father he should study to become a lawyer, and goes to Cambridge, accompanied as ever by his friend and companion Mike.

During the summer after their first year, Psmith travels to New York, accompanying Mike, who is on a cricketing tour with the M.C.C. There, he gets involved with the magazine Cosy Moments, befriending its temporary editor Billy Windsor and helping in its crusade against slum housing, which involves clashes with violent gangsters. We discover in the last chapter, when the head editor returns, that Psmith has persuaded his father to let him invest some money he has inherited from an uncle and now, in fact, owns the magazine.

After university, his father dies, having made some unsound investments. As a result, Psmith must work for a time for an uncle in the fish business, something which repels him. He leaves the job shortly before meeting and falling for Eve Halliday, who he follows to Blandings Castle. Despite having entered the castle claiming to be Canadian poet Ralston McTodd, he is eventually hired as secretary to Lord Emsworth, who knew his father by reputation.

In a preface to the 1953 version of Mike and Psmith, Wodehouse informs us that Psmith went on to become a successful defence lawyer, in the style of Perry Mason.

Psmith is a somewhat selfish young man; however, he is generous towards those he likes. In a typical example from Leave it to Psmith, he perceives Eve, trapped by the rain under an awning, and decides, chivalrous gentleman that he is, to get her an umbrella. Unfortunately for Psmith, he does not, in point of fact, possess an umbrella. He solves this problem by appropriating another man's umbrella; when confronted by the umbrella's owner, Psmith attempts to comfort him by saying it is for a good cause, and, later, when relating the story, says, "Merely practical Socialism. Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it. (Another of Psmith's quirks is his penchant for nominal socialism, observed mostly in his casual use of "Comrade" as a substitute for "Mister.")

See also

References

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