Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #36: The Pothunters

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It's a Happy New Year here at A Wodehouse a Week, so let's celebrate with A Month of Firsts—an entire double-fortnight of famous premieres in the Panoply of Plum. Stay tuned this month for first appearances of Wodehouse's most famous characters! And what better place to start than with his first published book, The Pothunters, which was originally released in (take a deep breath) nineteen-oh-two. Golly. That's (does some quick calculations on my hooves; takes off my socks to count a little higher) over twenty years ago! And y'know, it's as fresh as today, a reference to jellygraphing or two aside.

The Pothunters is a school story, like Wodehouse's other early books, populated with quick and clever young lads attending St. Austin's public school—many of the same cast of characters Wodehouse later used in Tales of St. Austin's, which I reviewed back in September. Unlike that collection of school short stories, The Pothunters is a novel—although the individual chapters can be read separately (and in fact were first published in British boys' magazine The Captain that way), there's a continuing plot here of the theft of two sporting prize trophies (the 'pots' that are hunted) from the school, plus the disappearance of two pounds. Consternation uproar! Such an event would, in a different author's work, set Boy Wizard™ and his pair O'Pals® snooping about Chambers of Secret and the like, but the boys of St. Austin's are happy to sit around their rooms, making toast and tea and chatting wittily:
'Now we're complete,' said Charteris, as Jackson presented himself. 'Gentlemen—your seats. There are only four chairs, and we, as Wordsworth might have said, but didn't, are five. All right, I'll sit on the table. Welch, you worm, away with melancholy. Take away his book, somebody. That's right. Who says what? Tea already made. Coffee published shortly. If anybody wants cocoa, I've got some, only you'll have to boil more water. I regret the absence of menu-cards, but as the entire feast is visible to the naked eye, our loss is immaterial. The offertory will be for the Church expenses fund. Biscuits, please.'

'I wish you'd given this tea after next Saturday, Alderman,' said Jim. Charteris was called the Alderman on account of his figure, which was inclined to stoutness, and his general capacity for consuming food.

'Never put off till tomorrow—Why?'

'I simply must keep fit for the mile. How's Welch to run, too, if he eats this sort of thing?' He pointed to the well-spread board.

'Yes, there's something in that,' said Tony. 'Thank goodness, my little entertainment's over. I think I will try one of those chocolate things. Thanks.'

'Welch is all right,' said Jackson. 'He could win the hundred and the quarter on sausage-rolls. But think of the times.'
Gosh. My tummy is rumbling just reading that, which shows how well Wodehouse knew his audience: schoolboys obsessed with rich, filling tuck. Not to mention sport, of course, and the mystery comes into it later, but quite by accident: one boy sneaks into the scene of the crime to retrieve his schoolbook; another accidentally discovers the pots in a hollow tree in the off-limit woods, and poor Thomson is falsely accused of the theft—but while a the forefront of the goings-on, the mystery is almost always secondary to other activities: running races, sneaking out of bounds, publishing a clandestine school literary journal. And betting, betting, betting.
'Shouldn't wonder, you know,' said Dimsdale, one of the two School House fags, judicially, 'if the kid wasn't telling the truth for once in his life. Those pots must be worth something. Don't you think so, Scott?'

Scott admitted that there might be something in the idea, and that, however foreign to his usual habits, Robinson might on this occasion be confining himself more or less to strict fact.

'There you are, then,' said Robinson, vengefully. 'Shows what a fat lot you know what you're talking about, Morrison.'

'Morrison's a fool,' said Scott. 'Ever since he got off the bottom bench in form there's been no holding him.'

'All the same,' said Morrison, feeling that matters were going against him, 'I shan't believe it till I see it.'

'What'll you bet?' said Robinson.

'I never bet,' replied Morrison with scorn.

'You daren't. You know you'd lose.'

'All right, then, I'll bet a penny I'm right.' He drew a deep breath, as who should say, 'It's a lot of money, but it's worth risking it.'

'You'll lose that penny, old chap,' said Robinson. 'That's to say,' he added thoughtfully, 'if you ever pay up.'
I'm only a schoolbull and not a schoolboy, but gosh by golly, I think I'd love to go to St. Austin's (or Wrykyn, Wodehouse's other series school) even more than Hogwart's. More sausages, less chance of being zapped clean through by a Death Eater.

It's very early in Wodehouse's career and while the prose is clever and polished, it's by no means as lyrical and elegant as his later works, of course. It's very fast-paced and the dénouement comes a bit abruptly (the theft is solved off-screen, committed by a character we've never heard of before and never will again)—the later Wodehouse would have tied this all more neatly together to make as elegant a mystery adventure as his later romantic comedies are. But it's still bright and witty, and there's a few good chuckles in his early prose:
'We had a burglary at my place once,' began Reade, of Philpott's House. 'The man—'

'That rotter, Reade,' said Barrett, also of Philpott's, 'has been telling us that burglary chestnut of his all the morning. I wish you chaps wouldn't encourage him.'

'Why, what was it? First I've heard of it, at any rate.' Dallas and Vaughan, of Ward's, added themselves to the group. 'Out with it, Reade,' said Vaughan.

'It's only a beastly reminiscence of Reade's childhood,' said Barrett. 'A burglar got into the wine-cellar and collared all the coals.'

'He didn't. He was in the hall, and my pater got his revolver—'

'While you hid under the bed.'

'—and potted at him over the banisters.'

'The last time but three you told the story, your pater fired through the keyhole of the dining-room.'
I'm especially fond of droll, wisecracking student Charteris, who had some of the best lines in Tales of St. Austin's and provides a corker here during the search for a lost boy:
...after inviting them to step in, the servant disappeared, and the Babe came on the scene, wearing a singularly prosperous expression, as if he had dined well.

'Hullo, you chaps,' he said.

'Sir to you,' said Charteris. 'Look here, Babe, we want to know what you have done with Jim. He was seen by competent witnesses to go off with you, and he's not come back. If you've murdered him, you might let us have the body.'
And there's a touch of the later Wodehouse whimsy in this scene where the Headmaster confronts a troublesome student:
'Plunkett,' he said, suddenly, 'you are a School-prefect.'

'Yes, sir,' murmured Plunkett. The fact was undeniable.

'You know the duties of a School-prefect?'

'Yes, sir.'

'And yet you deliberately break one of the most important rules of the School. How long have you been in the habit of smoking?'

Plunkett evaded the question.

'My father lets me smoke, sir, when I'm at home.'

(A hasty word in the reader's ear. If ever you are accused of smoking, please—for my sake, if not for your own—try to refrain from saying that your father lets you do it at home. It is a fatal mistake.)
Like the best of school stories, it's educational too! There's an extensive section in which the boys are creating their secret school journal to sell and raise money for one of the other lads, and they work diligently throughout the night by candlelight inscribing the journal onto "jellygraph." Mmmmm, said I when I first read that, jelly! A quick trip to the not-around-in-1902 internet taught me, however, that a jellygraph is " is a printing process which involves transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame." I picture one of those ditto machines in my head, but I guess even messier, smellier, and more manual and complicated. I would have liked to go to school at St. Austin's, but I guess it would be difficult to blog on a jellygraph.

In the end, however, there's no real lesson or moral to be learned from The Pothunters except for the very simple one of stand by your mates. I can imagine that this made Wodehouse a very popular author indeed among the schoolboys of his time: no preaching, no parables, no moral lesson to be learned: just some Ripping Yarn-type adventure and brawling sport, followed up with a warm cup of tea and toasted sandwiches. There's a lovely bit about half-way through featuring two of the boys curling up with books:
'Half the staff have gone. Good opportunity for a chap to go for a stroll if he wanted to. Shall we, by the way?'

'Not for me, thanks. I'm in the middle of a rather special book. Ever read Great Expectations? Dickens, you know.'

'I know. Haven't read it, though. Always rather funk starting on a classic, somehow. Good?'

'My dear chap! Good's not the word.'

'Well, after you. Exit Livy, then. And a good job, too. You might pass us the great Sherlock. Thanks.'

He plunged with the great detective into the mystery of the speckled band, while Vaughan opened Great Expectations at the place where he had left off the night before. And a silence fell upon the study.
I think it's fair to say that many, many a schoolboy would rate a Wodehouse as just as much a rather special book—mere "good" was not the word to describe it. As an Old Boy himself, he knew his audience well.

All that reading by schoolboys in candlelight might account for how hard it is to find a mint copy of the first edition of this, Wodehouse's first book. I'm sure many of them were well-read and re-read and loved to pieces. Used first editions of this are of course not cheap. (Check it out!) No, I'll never own a first edition of this book, but I'm pleased to have picked it a remainder, no a 1985 Penguin paperback omnibus collecting this, A Prefect's Uncle, and Tales of St. Austin's in one handy volume. While you may not be able to buy it at the amazing low-low price of $1.98 that I got mine, a paperback edition is still incredibly affordable by clicking the handy Amazon link to the upper right. Or, if the Yule-tide credit card bills are landing on your doormat with a whack and a bang, why not opt for the free online text edition of The Pothunters and save your silver for a jam butty at the tuck shop instead? See, just like a public school boy, I'm very thrifty and wise with my pounds and pence.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


SallyP said...

Public School educations for everyone!

Monty Ashley said...

I love the school books, although I'm not sure how much education boys could possibly have gotten from spending all their time boxing, playing cricket, having tea, and occasionally translating Catullus.

These books (actually Tales from St. Austins, I think) taught me what Cricket is all about, which is mighty nice. I still don't know what's involved with playing Fives, though.