Today we'll be looking at The Gold Bat. No, not this gold bat:
...nor this gold bat:
Much to your disappointment, I'm sure, we shan't even be discussing this gold bat:
No, no, no. None of those. This is P. G. Wodehouse's novel The Gold Bat (1904), his fourth book and the first in his Wrykyn boy's school series. Wrykyn appears in two other novels (The White Feather and Mike) and is most famous (or is that infamous?) as the alma mater of Ukridge, one of Wodehouse's earliest series characters. Like The Pothunters and Tales of St. Austin's, The Gold Bat is one of Wodehouse's earliest books and like most of those, one of the "school novels": high-adventure, low-romance, very-British teen boys at English private boarding school sagas. The sort of lad of that period who might call The Dangerous Book for Boys a "ripping good read" would be the sort who would have attended, like Wodehouse, one of those schools. Wodehouse provides a solid enthusiastic exploits for this audience, and if they are a little dated or mysterious in tone and lingo, well, it's a wonderful nostalgic look at a brightly colored world in which all that mattered was scoring at rugby and putting a trick over on the Latin master. Altho' they've fallen a bit out of fashion (and often have been out of print over the years), I very much enjoy Wodehouse's school novels and especially the Wrykyn books. Why Wrykyn? Can't explain it in definite terms except that even more than St. Austin's, Eckleton School or Beckford College, Wrykyn feels real and solid and more distinctly and colorful drawn: there are wonderful details of the school buildings, rooms, grounds, woods, and even secret passages (Hogwarts owes a lot to Wodehouse and his fellow writers of this genre) that seem to occupy a place of reality yet a pictured with a truly rosy enthusiasm and optimism. One reason for this might be that Wrykyn, while fictional, is probably the closest to a real place among Wodehouse's school stories. That real place? Wodehouse scholars generally agree it's Dulwich College.
Wodehouse attended Dulwich College himself as a teenager, and his (then-recent) memories of Dulwich are used to solid effect in the Wrykyn books. He held the college in high regard and they him (once he made his fame, of course). He's prominently celebrated as one of their most prestigious former students or "Old Alleyneans", which also include Raymond Chandler, C. S. Forester and Michael Ondaatje. Fine company indeed. Wodehouse's so revered there that there is a permanent display devoted to his life and works in the college's public library. Wodehouse later described his years at Dulwich (1894-1900) as "six years of unbroken bliss"which may be why, unlike the other schools, Wrykyn not only is more detailed and vibrant than the other school settings, but also has a life beyond the school novels as occasionally being mentioned in the later, more typical Wodehouse books. And it's to my great shame that despite it being just a short train hop from London, I've never visited Dulwich during one of my several trips to the UK. (Next time, I promise!)
The book itself? Well, it's a fairly straightforward fast-paced Ripping Yarn, concerned with sport, brewing sausages in school studies, playing tricks on the teachers and occasionally doing some schoolwork. I'm not entirely certain if the dialogue is authentic for the period, but it's one of those cases where fiction should be the truth. If all British turn-of-the-century schoolboys didn't talk like this, well, by gum, they jolly well ought to have done:
"Outside!"Golly. When I grow up, I sure hope I can go to a British public school.
"Don't be an idiot, man. I bagged it first."
"My dear chap, I've been waiting here a month."
"When you fellows have quite finished rotting about in front of that bath don't let me detain you."
"Anybody seen that sponge?"
"Well, look here"this in a tone of compromise"let's toss for it."
"All right. Odd man out."
All of which, being interpreted, meant that the first match of the Easter term had just come to an end, and that those of the team who, being day boys, changed over at the pavilion, instead of performing the operation at leisure and in comfort, as did the members of houses, were discussing the vital questionwho was to have first bath?
The light plot concerns a feat of minor, and much-lauded, vandalism: a small group of boys tar and feather the statue in the town square of the local Member of Parliament (rightfully so; he's a frightful stick-in-the-mud and prig). In the commission of this dire deed, one of the boys accidentally drops a watch-fob in the shape of a gold cricket bat, which he had borrowed from star athlete Dick Trevor. With the bat missing, it doesn't take the crime-investigating skills of a Batman or a Bulldog Drummond to link Trevor to the crime falsely. But who's got the bat now, and how will they use it to blackmail Trevor?
Meanwhile, the resurgence of a mysterious "League" threatens the comfort of our group of young heroes, when school studies are trashed in exchange for imagined wrongs:
"I tell you what it is, Trevor, old chap," said Milton, with great solemnity, "there's a lunatic in the school. That's what I make of it. A lunatic whose form of madness is wrecking studies."But in truth, that's only the plot. The main thrust of the bookand the part that takes over even from the adventure aspectis just the basic simple enthusiastic school life in which sport is king, and schoolwork a definite afterthought:
"But the same chap couldn't have done yours and mine. It must have been a Donaldson's fellow who did mine, and one of your chaps who did yours and Mill's."
"Mill's? By Jove, of course. I never thought of that. That was the League, too, I suppose?"
"Yes. One of those cards was tied to a chair, but Clowes took it away before anybody saw it."
Milton returned to the details of the disaster.
"Was there any ink spilt in your room?"
"Pints," said Trevor, shortly. The subject was painful.
"So there was here," said Milton, mournfully. "Gallons."
There was silence for a while, each pondering over his wrongs.
"Gallons," said Milton again. "I was ass enough to keep a large pot full of it here, and they used it all, every drop. You never saw such a sight."
Tuesday mornings at Wrykyn were devotedup to the quarter to eleven intervalto the study of mathematics. That is to say, instead of going to their form-rooms, the various forms visited the out-of-the-way nooks and dens at the top of the buildings where the mathematical masters were wont to lurk, and spent a pleasant two hours there playing round games or reading fiction under the desk. Mathematics being one of the few branches of school learning which are of any use in after life, nobody ever dreamed of doing any work in that direction, least of all O'Hara. It was a theory of O'Hara's that he came to school to enjoy himself. To have done any work during a mathematics lesson would have struck him as a positive waste of time, especially as he was in Mr Banks' class.In fact, as the omniscient narrator (Wodehouse himself?) opines, if you aren't interested in outdoor competitive games you're not respected, whether you're a boy:
"Hullo, Trevor," said Ruthven.
"Come over to the baths," said Trevor, "I want to see O'Hara about something. Or were you going somewhere else."
"I wasn't going anywhere in particular. I never know what to do in term-time. It's deadly dull."
Trevor could never understand how any one could find term-time dull. For his own part, there always seemed too much to do in the time.
"You aren't allowed to play games?" he said, remembering something about a doctor's certificate in the past.
"No," said Ruthven. "Thank goodness," he added.
Which remark silenced Trevor. To a person who thanked goodness that he was not allowed to play games he could find nothing to say. But he ceased to wonder how it was that Ruthven was dull.
...or even a master:
There is usually one house in every school of the black sheep sort, and, if you go to the root of the matter, you will generally find that the fault is with the master of that house. A house-master who enters into the life of his house, coaches them in gamesif an athleteor, if not an athlete, watches the games, umpiring at cricket and refereeing at football, never finds much difficulty in keeping order. It may be accepted as fact that the juniors of a house will never be orderly of their own free will, but disturbances in the junior day-room do not make the house undisciplined. The prefects are the criterion. If you find them joining in the general "rags", and even starting private ones on their own account, then you may safely say that it is time the master of that house retired from the business, and took to chicken-farming.In short, it's sport that makes the man. And it's sport that settles the differences between wholesome O'Hara and the sneak Rand-Brown: the two boys box it out in an exciting penultimate chapter in which, to put it kindly, Rand-Brown gets his knickers handed to him on a plate. As he does in several of his later, more mature novels, Wodehouse curiously tells rather than shows the bout: two younger students excitedly discuss the boxing match and its knockout finish as they rush to classes. At first this might seem to be a violation of fiction's rules of narration and pacing: after a book of firsthand observation, why switch to a third-person view? I like to thinkas Wodehouse did when he'd pull the same trick in later novelsthat he's commenting that the results of the competition are less important than the effect it has had on the rest of the school, and the breathless exhilaration of the retelling celebrates the grand tradition of storytelling and larger-than-life adventure that the book itself has been a part of. Or, maybe I'm just blowin' hooey, and Wodehouse was working fast on deadline and had to wrap up the book quick. The world may never know. But it's certainly a nice chapter that contains this exchange:
"What's up?"You said it, Renford.
"You mustn't tell any one."
"All right. Of course not."
"Well, then, there's been a big fight, and I'm one of the only chaps who know about it so far."
"A fight?" Harvey became excited. "Who between?"
Renford paused before delivering his news, to emphasise the importance of it.
"It was between O'Hara and Rand-Brown," he said at length.
"By Jove!" said Harvey. Then a suspicion crept into his mind.
"Look here, Renford," he said, "if you're trying to green me"
"I'm not, you ass," replied Renford indignantly. "It's perfectly true. I saw it myself."
"By Jove, did you really? Where was it? When did it come off? Was it a good one? Who won?"
"It was the best one I've ever seen."
Up until recently, The Gold Bat has been mostly unavailableas have been many of Wodehouse's earlier, non-romance or non-series books that were perceived to have less appeal to a modern audience. It was briefly reissued in the 1980s by Penguin in an omnibus edition of three of the school novels (also contained in this volume: The Head of Kay's and The White Feather); this is the edition I've got. If you've waited this long to read The Gold Bat, eee by gum, you're in luck, my lad. Not only has our good mate public domain brought it back into print through inexpensive and inelegantly designed editions like the Manor House paperback available from the Amazon link to the right, but, if you're as thrifty as a school lad and have spent all your shillings and pence on jam tarts at the tuck shop, well, then sprint over to your local Internet and find the full Gold Bat as an online e-text. It's a jolly right rag and spiffing rip. Whatever that means.
A Wodehouse a Week Index.