Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pothunters: Review

It's probably a misnomer to call this a review. That I would be able to properly review anything is unlikely having neither the expertise, experience, or inclination to do it right. With that disclaimer out of the way, onward!

The biggest problem with The Pothunters is that it's rather disjointed. There are a few plotlines and they never quite mesh fully. They're related and they interact, certainly, but there is a distinct lack of that seamless weaving of the threads of multiple subplots that will be such an important feature of Wodehouse's later work. There are amusing moments here too, but this book isn't written to be as comedic as most of his works and the jokes here are indicative of his later mastery. It's raw ore waiting to be refined; you can see the potential, but it's not realised.
That said, it's a perfectly serviceable boys' school story and probably better than a lot of what saw print in this genre at and around the beginning of the 20th century. The characters are distinct, the prose is light, and the overall effect is pleasing. No Psmith yet, but one sees elements of him in the character Charteris.

I'm going to venture on a digression here that I think is necessary as an informative note for anyone who is not familiar with the language of the period. There is a term that comes up multiple times throughout the story which will jolt the modern reader who is unprepared. At several points, some of the boys at the school are referred to as "fags". In modern American parlance, this, of course, is an abbreviation of a derogatory term for homosexuals: "faggot". In an all boys' school, particularly at the time of the book, this term used to describe younger students who are tasked to do minor services on behalf of the older might lead one to assume that there is an etymological connection. In fact, according to the OED, there is no connection.

The derogatory term is an abbreviation of the longer one, whereas the former term is believed to derive from the same word as a verb meaning to droop, tire, weary, etc. This in turn is surmised to come from a corruption of "flag" in the same sense. Conversely, the term "faggot" has the original meaning of a bundle of sticks and seems to have developed early on a use as a term of abuse for a woman, perhaps by indicating inert uselessness. After centuries of use in this sense, during the 20th century it appears to have been transferred to a derogatory descriptor of homosexuals because of the perceived connection of effeminacy.

All this to say, that though there may be no way to prevent the word from jarring the modern reader out of the flow of the narrative, you can at least be informed to know that it was not a term of abuse in the manner or meaning it has today. Wodehouse was not blithely scattering homosexual slurs throughout his book.