Update: The first edition signed copy of The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse sold for $1,950.
What you see: A first edition signed copy of The Pothunters, P.G. Wodehouse’s debut novel. Freeman’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.
Who was P.G. Wodehouse, and why does his work still resonate today? First, I should say, because I know it’s a pet peeve with collectors, it’s pronounced “Woodhouse”. When you’re talking with serious collectors and you say “Wodehouse,” they’ll shut you down immediately. Wodehouse is an English author, and he really is from another era. He was 20 when Queen Victoria died. When he realized he was a good writer, he became diligent about how he worked. He agonized over a sentence until he got it right. From a technical standpoint, he’s not dated–100 years later, the jokes are still funny.
That’s a good point. Why are P.G. Wodehouse’s jokes still funny? Good material is good material. Whether you like it or not, it’s just good writing.
The upper class, luxurious English-centric world that P.G. Wodehouse describes in his novels… he’s evoking a world that never really existed, strictly speaking. Certain things are real–the schools, the mansions, the cars–but it didn’t literally exist the way he imagines it. You’re right, it’s an imaginary place, except for the fact–and this is my interpretation–what I’ve learned is all his books and characters are his life experience, and it’s his life experience between the ages of 10 and 25. You could argue that every character is pastiche and parodies. Downton Abbey covers the same timeline as those books. If it took a comedic turn instead of a dramatic turn, you’d have it [Wodehouse].
How does The Pothunters fit in to P.G. Wodehouse’s world? The Pothunters is his experience. He went to a school like St. Austin’s. He knew those boys and those masters. It’s a tiny portion of English society, and there’s a lot of pain in that way of life–not in a depressing way, but it was what it was. To poke fun at it was a way of getting through it. I think the world of P.G. Wodehouse is [not dissimilar] to the way people talk about Tolkien and The Hobbit–he created a world and populated it. In his last books, it’s still basically 1919.
Why do you think Americans embraced P.G. Wodehouse’s books so firmly? He didn’t write down to anyone, ever. He did it respectfully, so the upper class laughed at themselves, and the lower class laughed, but not in a mean way. Never mean.
In thinking about why P.G. Wodehouse still hits the mark, I realized that most people know someone like Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s utterly obsessed with an obscure topic, or Tuppy Glossup, a nice-enough guy who has character flaws. So even if they’re running around in white tie and tails, they seem familiar anyway. I married a Brit, and I think I have a different experience of England than some of my friends do. I want to point out–it’s absurd but true–those people are out there. The people in the books–I’ve met them. I knew a friend who went to an English boarding school and university, and he speaks that way, like it’s 1905. He’s very modern in some ways, but he’s on an archaic trajectory. It’s like having a dodo bird in front of you. It’s fascinating to see it exist.
The Pothunters is P.G. Wodehouse’s first novel. How did its publication come about? Did he have a hard time selling the manuscript? It was published when he was 20, but he’d been writing since he was a teen. I don’t know if he had trouble getting it published. It was serialized in three installments and published in what would have been called a boys’ magazine. He wrote very much in the tradition of what he read as a boy–what the Brits call a “boys’ own book”.
What is The Pothunters about? It’s about a bunch of boys at an English boarding school not unlike the one he went to. A “pot” is what they call a trophy. The pothunters are trying to find pots that have been stolen from the school. He was writing in the style that he was reared in, and the subject matter was his own life.
What themes and tropes appear in P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters that recur in later Wodehouse books? The Pothunters is really the school story. You could say it launched his entire career.
Without The Pothunters, we don’t get Psmith, and we don’t get the background that many of the upper class characters share in the Jeeves and Wooster books. Exactly. You can argue that Wodehouse has characters in his canon in all age strata. Some of them grew up with him.
Over the last few days, my family and I have been watching episodes of the 1990s television series adaption of Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie… One of the lots for sale is a tweed waistcoat Fry wore in the series.
Seriously? Whoa. I’m a big fan of the show and a bigger fan of Fry and Laurie. It speaks to one thing I love about what I do–I can put on a Stephen Fry vest, and maybe you saw it last night. And I can hold this copy of The Pothunters, which P.G. Wodehouse had in his hands 100 years ago. There’s one degree between me and him. It never gets old.
Did you try on the Stephen Fry Jeeves vest? I put it on and jokingly said if it didn’t sell, I’d buy it.
Did it fit? It did! Dangerously, it did. My wife gave me a knowing look [as if to say] if it comes home, it’s OK.
To get back to P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, how good a debut novel is it? I’m not a critic, but it can be argued it’s a very, very good debut. It’s his style. It didn’t change. That book came fully equipped.
This P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters appeared in 1902. Does the copy predate the use of dust jackets? Or did it have a dust jacket and lose it at some point? Dust jackets were beginning to be a thing. As far as anyone knows, The Pothunters was issued without a dust jacket, but my feeling is it might have been. You can see others in the sale that are very much in the style of the period. The first edition we’re talking about is so clean, and the design is so simple, [I think] it had to have had a jacket.
Do we know how big the first edition of The Pothunters was? There’s no known quantities for the book. Wodehouse was paid a percentage on copies sold. I’d have to think closer to 500 than 5,000 were printed.
How often does a first edition copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters appear at auction? It shows up occasionally. If there are 50 copies of a Jeeves and Wooster online, there [might be] two Pothunters, and one will be a reprint and one will be a first edition.
This copy is signed by P.G. Wodehouse. How rare is his signature, and how rare is it to see one on a first-edition copy of The Pothunters? Wodehouse signed for friends and fans. He didn’t sign a ton. What’s really cool about this signature on The Pothunters is it’s in fountain pen, and if you look at the ink, it’s old and brown. It makes me think it’s early. And it just says “P.G. Wodehouse”. He often signed with his nickname, Plum, or signed “Plum–P.G. Wodehouse”. Because this just says “P.G. Wodehouse”, it says to me he was young and not confident enough that the world would know him as Plum. It’s a big difference from the 90-year-old Wodehouse signing in ballpoint pen.
P.G. Wodehouse signed this copy of The Pothunters closer to when the book came out. Exactly. It’s uncommon to find a P.G. Wodehouse book signed. To find a copy of The Pothunters signed contemporaneously–that makes it much more interesting. Looking at auction records, I couldn’t find another.
What’s the world auction record for a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, and what’s the world auction record for any P.G. Wodehouse book? The highest in general was 2013, at Bloomsbury in London, for The Globe By the Way Book, a 1908 collection of pieces he and a friend, Herbert Westbrook, published in The Globe. It’s one of the rarest pieces of Wodeiana. It sold for £26,840 ($42,192) against an estimate of £2,500 to £3,500 ($3,900 to $5,500), way more than ten times its high estimate. The record for The Pothunters was also set at Bloomsbury in 2014. It sold for £3,968 ($6,200) against an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800 ($1,900 to $2,800).
Was the record-setting copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters signed? It wasn’t. If we can beat $6,200, that would be fantastic.
What’s the condition of this first edition copy of The Pothunters? It was read. We’re lucky that it wasn’t abused. Its architectural parts are sound. If I had to distill it into two words: very good. The only thing that happened to this copy of The Pothunters over the last 120 years was that Wodehouse applied his name, which is a plus.
The first edition of The Pothunters is part of a larger single-owner P.G. Wodehouse collection that Freeman’s is offering on May 7. How well-regarded is the collection and its collector, William Toplis? He built the collection over 25 years and he had very high standards. There are no crappy copies. Everything is a home run. It’s a beautifully curated collection. The only thing that’s worth zero dollars is a copy of Big Money that he must have read at the beach.
How hard is it to build a P.G. Wodehouse collection such as this one? It’s difficult. Wodehouse is a popular subject to collect. He does have a following. This is a really good collection. Toplis was super-diligent. He knew what he wanted, he found it, and he paid for it.
Why will this P.G. Wodehouse first edition and this collection stick in your memory? I think it will stick in my memory because it was a collection. I never met Bill Toplis, but I feel I got much closer to him because I got the gift of handling his books. I saw where his heart was. These 190-odd items might go to 190 places, and Bill’s mojo is in them.
But isn’t it difficult to conduct and oversee the single-owner sale? I mean, you’re dismantling decades of work. In theory, yes. In practice, and this is going to sound corny, the collection is like a tree, and 190 acorns have come from it. Now they’re going back into the wild to seed 190 collections. It’s what I think should happen with beautiful things. They should move around, and lots of people should get to enjoy them.
Darren Winston appeared previously on The Hot Bid talking about a first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by Walker Percy.
Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.
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