P.G. Wodehouse

 

The Head of Kay’s

 

Nowadays this one works as much as historical insight as light schoolboy story. Wodehouse gives a vivid if complacent picture of the concerns and activities of his turn of the (last) century British public school boys. You can sense how close he is to these sorts of events (only twenty-four at publication) – there is still something of the student’s pleasure in getting back at an unpopular master in highlighting all his shortcomings. This is also a morality tale about just how prefects and house heads should act: hardly a burning concern these days but something quite central to the boys the story was written for. You also get the impression he enjoyed his school days – there’s not a whiff of lonely or homesick young boys, and the bullying is largely checked or seen as warranted discipline. George Orwell (among other things a fantastic essayist) wrote with typical insight and clarity:

Wodehouse's attitude towards the English social system is the same as his attitude towards the public-school moral code -- a mild facetiousness covering an unthinking acceptance.

‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’

Absolutely – while he might mock someone who is a bit wet or overly-dignified, his heroes are all ‘decent chaps’ who clearly exhibit the good form of bending the rules without dreaming of challenging them.

 

We’re treated to all sorts of time-piece events along the way: school politics, holidays at a cadet army camp, an AWOL visit to a local drama, some class oriented crime, and, perhaps most centrally, sport (academe is given only passing reference, understandably given the juvenile target audience). Unlike many of his later works, this book isn’t charmingly hilarious and doesn’t stand as much on it’s own merit – at the time of publication there would be little reason to recommend it to anyone who couldn’t closely identify with the characters. The last few chapters offer an almost consciously summarised formulaic underdog happy ending. However a hundred years on (yes, it’s been that long) the attitudes and events are historically interesting. Particularly in what is assumed, whereas in today’s alternative morality much would have to be justified.

 

November 2007