The Eccentric Mister Psmith

Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse, was first published, in book form, in 1910. The story had earlier appeared as a magazine serial.

According to Wikipedia, Rupert Psmith (the P is silent) is the eccentric friend of cricket enthusiast Mike Jackson. Rupert Psmith was born Rupert Smith, but later changed the spelling of his name because there are too many Smiths in the world. He is a recurring character in a series of  four books (Psmith in the City is the second book), and several magazine stories. He’s a bit of a dandy, and often wears a monocle. Psmith was originally Mike’s sidekick, but eventually became the central character.

I downloaded Psmith in the City from the Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone.

Psmith in the CityMike Jackson is playing on a cricket team run by Mr. Smith (Psmith’s father). Mr. Smith is a “man of hobbies”, and is as eccentric as his son. Earlier, Mike and his chum Psmith had been discussing their plans for ‘Varsity. Mike wants to attend Cambridge.

“Between ourselves,” confided Psmith, “I’m dashed if I know what’s going to happen to me. I am the thingummy of what’s-its-name.”

(Like most of this book, I easily got the gist of what was going on, even when I understood neither the slang nor the cricket terms.)

During the match, some lout walks behind the bowler’s arm, causing Mike to lose the game with ninety-eight runs – just two runs shy of achieving a century. After calling this fellow an idiot, Mike learns that the gentleman’s name is John Bickersdyke, and that Mr. Bickersdyke went to school with Mr. Smith.

Mike is in a foul mood after losing the match, but his life is about to get worse. Mr. Jackson informs his son that he has lost a very large sum of money, and can’t afford to send Mike to Cambridge. Mike and his brother Bob will have to start earning their livings. Mike is disappointed, but faces the challenge like a sportsman.

An opportunity opens for Mike at the New Asiatic Bank, in London. He travels to the city by train.

Mike, on his own for the first time in his life, finds a cheap furnished apartment in Dulwich, near the college and cricket field. He reports for work in the Postage Department of the New Asiatic Bank.

The bank manager, by the way, is Mr. Bickersdyke – the same idiot who caused Mike to lose the match.

After Mike has settled into his new position, a fellow walks into the department. To Mike’s surprise, it’s Psmith. Mr. Rossiter, the head of the department, asks this fellow who he is, and Psmith launches into a lengthy and detailed family history. Mr. Rossiter is able to interrupt him enough to learn that Psmith is a new employee, reporting for duty. Psmith adds that his name is no longer important, since he is now proudly a cog in the machinery of industry.

Psmith’s enthusiasm for his new assignment is so great (promising at one point that the partnership of Jackson, Rossiter, and Psmith will make the Postage Department one that people will travel from America to tour) that it leaves Mr. Rossiter dazed.

But why, Mike asks over lunch, is Psmith working at a bank and not perusing ‘Varsity? Psmith explains how a casual remark was seen as an insult to Mr. Bickersdyke, who exclaimed that if Psmith were working at his firm, he’d teach him some manners. Psmith mistook that as a personal invitation to work at the bank. Mr. Smith, ever the hobbyist, went along with a whim, sending Psmith to work at the bank.

Psmith, full of self-importance, invites Mike to move in with him – as a paid assistant. Mike resists, at first. It’s tough to resist Psmith, however. Besides, Mike’s Dulwich apartment is miserable, and he doesn’t like his landlady, who he refers to as “a pantomime dame”. Mike moves in with Psmith.

Psmith in the City follows the various adventures of Mike and Psmith as they work at their careers in the New Asiatic Bank. Mike simply wants to earn a paycheck, keep his head low, and avoid being dismissed. Psmith has loftier goals.

Psmith, in fact, has a grand scheme in mind – one involving exploiting the weaknesses of Rossiter and Bickersdyke in order to “pacify” them. Psmith may be eccentric, but he has an excellent understanding of his fellow man (when his inflated self image doesn’t get in the way, that is).

But Mike Jackson is going to need Psmith’s help if his going to make a go of life in the city.

Psmith in the City is delightful, clever, witty, and hilarious. I loved it.

I had no trouble jumping into the story without having read the first book. (I chose to read the second book, because in the first one, originally named Mike and later renamed Mike and Psmith, Psmith doesn’t show up until well into the second half of the story.)

I made frequent visits to the internet as I read this book, searching Google for British slang, and searching YouTube for “how to play cricket”. I learned a lot while reading this wonderful book.

  • A book with an eccentric character