chapter  3
22 Pages

Before Jeeves

Impudence in P.G. Wodehouse’s Novels, 1909–23
WithMichael T. Williamson

Until he settled into the charmed, comic pastoral country house world of Blandings and his Jeeves and Wooster fiction, P.G. Wodehouse carefully structured his earlier novels around scenes of brazen, shameless defiance of authority. In contrast to the comical system of feudal honour and mock Christian grace that insulates Jeeves and Bertie from the consequences of time’s ravages, Wodehouse’s novels published between 1909 and 1923 offer readers uninsulated worlds dominated by threats of humiliation that require the assertion of emotional and linguistic independence. This assertiveness is clearest during scenes in which characters impudently refuse to bow to the authority of their strangely humiliated social superiors. In Lost Lambs (1909, also published as Mike and Psmith), the self-possessed Psmith refuses to let his form master search his room for a shoe that has been stained red. In Psmith in the City (1910) Psmith openly chides the owner of a bank at his father’s dinner table for walking across a cricket field, and in Psmith, Journalist (1915) he brazenly defies New York’s coalition of organized crime and their political cronies. In the last novel in which he appears, Leave it to Psmith (1923), he triumphs over and thwarts the organizing powers of the English equivalent of the Soviet commissar, the ‘efficient Baxter’, a country house secretary. In The Adventures of Sally (1922), Sally impudently refuses to defend her virtue in front of her fiancé the morning after she has pledged her love to his cousin and has let her drunken former fiancé spend the night in her flat; in Jill the Reckless (1921), Jill argues for the value of the work of the chorus girl and leads a strike against the theatre manager whose sexual advances she has rebuffed; and in Something Fresh (1915) Joan Valentine refuses to forfeit her ‘independence of action in return for chivalry’ (208) while openly admiring the muscular physical presence of the man whose chivalric claims she rebuffs. In these dramatic moments of impudent defiance, Wodehouse interrupts anxious narratives of downward class mobility in order to ward off the encroaching threats of shame, humiliation and resentment that attend the loss of class status. Whereas Bertie Wooster’s forbearance and forgiveness in the face of insult and affront is redemptive in its emphasis on ‘universal human silliness’ and ‘unwitting saintliness’ (Thomas Edwards 69, 77), and whereas Jeeves and Bertie’s energies are spent creating narratives and dramas that preserve Bertie’s intellectual, emotional and sexual virtue, Wodehouse’s earlier impudent characters inhabit 52high-stakes worlds of heightened emotion, worlds of consequential victories and defeats. If they carry off a scene, their impudence breaks down barriers of class prejudice, confounds authoritarian masculinity, and changes the fates of other people. If resentment and self-pity get the better of them, however, their failed impudence becomes disgusting, both to themselves and to others. Impudence’s shamelessness is thus a form of economic, psychic, linguistic and even sexual disruption (Thomas Edwards, Vesterman).