Ted Scheinman, a few months back, penned a special tribute to Psmith, P.G. Wodehouse’s protagonist most notable for coolness and competence.
[T]he author calls Psmith his only character based on a single, clear referent. â€œLord Emsworth, Jeeves, and the rest of my dramatis personae had to be built up from their foundations,â€ Wodehouse writes, â€œbut Psmith came to me ready-madeâ€:
A cousin of mine, who had been at Winchester, happened to tell me one night of Rupert Dâ€™Oyly Carte, the son of the Savoy Operaâ€™s Dâ€™Oyly Carte, a schoolmate of his.
Rupert Dâ€™Oyly Carte was long, slender, always beautifully dressed and very dignified. His speech was what is known as orotund, and he wore a monocle. He habitually addressed his fellow Wykehamists as â€œComrade,â€ and if one of the masters chanced to inquire as to his health, would reply â€œSir, I grow thinnah and thinnah.â€
In dress an Edwardian dandy, in speech some strange admixture of Socrates, Pseudolus, Swift, Keats, and Groucho Marx, Psmith fiddles on the idioms and cultural assumptions of the previous age in rhythms that baffle and thereby outmatch any members of the ancien rÃ©gime who stand between him and leisure â€” or who offer an irresistible target. By the time a schoolmaster, or a bank manager (Psmith in the City), or a Manhattan mobster (Psmith, Journalist) has recovered from the intimidating distractions of Psmithâ€™s mien, the battle is already won. It is nearly too fitting that Psmithâ€™s model was a Dâ€™Oyly Carte, and thereby directly associated with the money and production-apparatus behind Gilbert and Sullivanâ€™s operettas. Psmith mocks the Victorians by his very existence; he skewers them with a rapier as sharp as anything in the G&S armory. …
There is a permanent adolescence in Wodehouse, adolescence itself being a daily rebellion against social strictures and top-down unpleasantness in general. At dayâ€™s end, it is Wodehouseâ€™s central irony that the last wave of Victorians made this permanent adolescence possible. Psmith, in turn, maintains his signature cool by â€œnever being surprisedâ€: his mantra, requisitioned in true socialist fashion from Conan Doyle, is â€œnever to confuse the improbable with the impossible,â€ and though Psmith enjoys describing his nervous constitution as â€œdelicate,â€ it is this philosophical refusal of surprise that sustains him. Psmith and Wodehouseâ€™s revolutionaries are not lobbing bombs or knocking down the Bastille. They are the blithe boys who never grew up, buoyed on imperial wealth and the residue from half-remembered codes â€” the â€œfeudal spiritâ€ and all that rot â€” who, barring the monsoon, buzz over to the Drones Club most days to play indoor cricket with yesterdayâ€™s bread rolls for balls.
Hat tip to Walter Olson.