Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Leave It to Psmith makes no profound statement about life, art, or morality. It is a book that takes itself seriously only as entertainment, rather like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895), which exists as a well-designed play glorifying the absolutely trivial. To the extent that Leave It to Psmith pokes fun at the stolid upper class, it is something of a satire on a life-style quickly fading out of existence.

Yet the book’s central purpose is not so much satirical, since the tone and direction of the plot avoid anger and righteous mockery, both indispensable to the satiric technique. Rather, the novel is a finely wrought comedy of style and rhetorical punctiliousness, a sort of literary cassation or divertimento, elegantly designed, without the slightest vulgarity and with no jarring unpleasantness. A tone of amiable, old-fashioned chattiness, not mockery, adds to the pastoral, good-natured quality of the humor, as if the events and the characters existed in a world immune to violence and void of peril and indecency.

Like the best of musical comedies, of which P. G. Wodehouse wrote several, Leave It to Psmith makes the romantic real. The result is a sort of mythical comedy of bumbling lords, debonair aristocrats, and pretty heroines in a never-never land of estates, gardens, and moonlit terraces.