Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: The Pothunters by P. G. Wodehouse

My reading of Wodehouse has been haphazard up till recently. I devoured the Jeeves and Wooster books when I first discovered them, then set about reading whatever turned up at the used bookstore: a Blandings novel here, a Psmith there. It occurred to me at some point that reading all of Wodehouse’s 90-or-so books is something I’d very much like to do before I die, so I’ve begun reading them in order of publication to fully appreciate his evolution as a writer.

I didn’t originally plan to review each novel, which is why you may have already read my reviews of Tales of St. Austin’s (his third published book, though the stories included were among his first written fiction) and William Tell Told Again (his fifth book). I’m backtracking now, in the interest of ultimately having a complete set of Wodehouse reviews (provided I don’t get hit by a bus).

First edition of the Pothunters, 1902.

The Pothunters was Wodehouse’s first published novel, and it first appeared in serial form in Public School Magazine, a monthly publication read primarily by public school boys (keep in mind that, in England, “public school” refers to what most Americans would think of as private school). The serial version was cut short when the magazine ceased publication in March, 1902 (it was bought out by the publisher of a rival magazine, The Captain, for whom Wodehouse would later write stories). Rather than leave the story hanging, the last part of The Pothunters was summarized in the final issue, taking the form of a letter, in which one of the characters explained the gist of the plot’s resolution.

Adam & Charles Black published the complete story in book form in September of 1902. (As Wodehouse’s first publication, it is now highly sought after by collectors in the first edition, and commands prices of several thousands of dollars in average condition.) The book takes place at the fictional school of St. Austin’s, where most of his school stories are set (when they’re not at Wrykyn). Wodehouse himself attended public school and participated in a lot of the activities that turn up in the tales: cricket, boxing, working on the school magazine.

Wodehouse’s personal experiences might make for a realistic touch to The Pothunters, but it might come off as too real for those expecting latter-day Wodehouse shenanigans. There’s a quaintness, if not hilarity, to the book. The plot (which there’s not a lot of) concerns the theft of some sports trophies (the “pots” of the title) from the school pavilion, along with some petty cash. A student, Jim, is in a bit of a bind for a couple of reasons. Not only did he break into the pavilion to crib some test notes, but the amount of money taken is the same amount he lost betting on boxing. While students, teachers, and even the police try to solve the case, Jim spends most of the novel worrying about winning his lost money back by winning at sports.

While there’s a bit of a crime here, don’t expect Wooster and the cow creamer. Wodehouse’s first effort lacks the master plotting and subplotting he’s known for. It also lacks the characterization. I found the boys difficult to keep straight, and not just because instead of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Pirbright we’ve got names like Jim and Tony—it’s the lack of any real, defining characteristics. It may have been Wodehouse’s intent to write about schoolboys that could be any schoolboys, but it leaves the reader with little to latch onto. In subsequent works, even minor characters are important threads in the plot, and often reappear in unexpected ways. Here, they meander onstage and are soon forgotten. 

Wodehouse as a young cricketer.

Of course, this is Wodehouse, so even if there’s a lot more room to breathe between jokes, he still tucks them in. A few plum lines:

“The first match he struck promptly and naturally went out. No first match ever stays alight for more than three-fifths of a second.”

“It seemed to Tony for the next half-minute that his cousin’s fists were never out of his face. He looked on the world through a brown haze of boxing-glove.”

“James, my son, if you will postpone your suicide for two minutes, I will a tale unfold.”

“ … in the centre of the ring the band of the local police force—the military being unavailable due to the exigencies of distance—were seating themselves with the grim determination of those who know that they are going to play the soldiers’ chorus out of Faust.”

“Parker made no comment. He stood in the doorway, trying to look as like a piece of furniture as possible—which is the duty of a good butler.” [Shades of Jeeves?]

At times, it’s easy to forget the era as the boys go about their studies and their cricketing, but the date becomes obvious when someone lights a candle at night, or when the boys duplicate the school rag via jellygraph. A reference to the “lamented Sherlock Holmes” makes the year even more apparent, as the fictional character was still dead in 1902, having apparently died in 1893’s  “The Final Problem,” and not to be resurrected until “The Adventure of the Empty House” in 1903.

In all, The Pothunters is on a whole different plane than Wodehouse’s later work. It’s clear that he was writing for a very specific audience (schoolboys) in a very specific time. While his later work very much has the feel of the era to it, the stories and the humor are timeless. For Wodehouse fans, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of the young writer before he perfected his craft. For those new to the author—well, your interest level might depend on your fondness for English public schools (and cricket).

Written for Friday's Forgotten Books. Pleas check out some of the other diverse entries.


  1. I got into reading the early Wodehouse recently. They're pretty comfortable reads, even if the humor isn't up to snuff. Comfort reads.

    1. It's the plot problems that bother me more than the lack of humor—I can read stuff that isn't funny. That said, yes, the early books are decent armchair reads if you're not feeling like a lot of dismal stuff. A good contrast to the more brutal crime novels I read.

  2. "Public School Magazine, a monthly publication read primarily by public school boys"
    It probably wasn't read primarily by public school boys in fact. but by other boys- see George Orwell's essay Boys' Weeklies. The stories bore very little resemblance to real public schools. While Wodehouse went to a public school (Dulwich College- as did Raymond Chandler) it was a day school so Wodehouse's depiction of boarding school life was unhindered by knowledge of its reality.

    1. Thanks for the info. I'm curious now about what aspects of the stories are not realistic, since they're somewhat mundane as it is.

  3. Nice review Kelly. I've read one Wodehouse (a Blandings one) and really enjoyed it. Will be reading more.

    1. He's got so much great stuff. You owe it to yourself to read at least one of the Jeeves and Wooster novels.

  4. Thanks Kelly, really enjoyed reading your post on this as it was all new to me. I love the Jeeves and Wooster stories (like everybody presumably) but have never strayed that far from there - and you're right, reading his entire corpus sounds like a jolly good idea!

    1. I've left a reply to this comment several times. I don't know what's up with Blogger. Anyway, there are SO many good things outside of J&W, so I hope you do stray at some point—though not necessarily for the school stories.

  5. I still haven't indulged in anything by Wodehouse. Add these to the billions of other books I've never read.

    Tossing It Out