Monday, November 19, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #30: William Tell Told Again

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Hi hi hi hi hi everyone! It's Marshall here presenting tonight's A Wodehouse a Week— yes, Marshall, Bully's kid sister and everyone's favorite tiny stuffed cow. Bully is very very very tired from being at the sales conference all last week (or so he says, looks like it was a lot of parties with his friends every night to me! Hmmmph!) so as he rolled over and yawned and hugged his teddy and snuggled under the sheets he asked if I could handle this week's Wodehouse. "Sure thing, big bro!" I said, enthusiastically, and ran to the big Wodehouse Shelf O' Books as fast as my tiny hooves could carry me.

Tonight's book is pretty apt for a tiny stuffed cow: it's p'raps Mr. Wodehouse's only real children's book, William Tell Told Again, alllllllll the way back from the year 1904. Golly! That's more than ten years ago. I think. Counting is quite difficult on hooves. Even tho' I am quite small, I don't only read children's books, oh no sirree. I am quite a big fan of Miss Jane Austen and Miss Agatha Christie and 'specially Miss Bridget Jones, who is a very good friend of mine in London who lets me read her diaries sometimes, even tho' I don't understand everything she's writing about sometimes. But I like when she counts her cigarettes.

Anyway, William Tell Told Again is 'xactly what it sounds like: a retelling (tee hee) of the famous story of Switzerland's most amazing national hero. He is sort of like Captain America, 'cept instead of a big shiny shield or even a Swiss pocket knife, he carries a bow and arrow. Oh, wait, maybe he's like Hawkeye. Without any unfortunate slang.

You all know the story: ruled over by the evil Austrian governor, the good Swiss folk and their threatened cheese must turn to the strong arm of the one man who can lead a rebellion against the evil Empire: a young farm boy known as Luke, wait, I got confused. The mighty bowman known as William Tell! Mister Tell's adventures in inspiring his people to throw off the oppressive rule make a good thrilling story, and even tho' this novella is originally written for kids, I think adults who are fans of Mister Wodehouse or even great swashbuckling adventure. While his early style is a little more straightforward and less whimsical than the later work Bully sometimes reads aloud to me, there's still flashes of Wodehouse wit poking through the story like edelweiss through mountain snow:
Gessler also taxed bread, and biscuits, and jam, and buns, and lemonade, and, in fact, everything he could think of, till the people of Switzerland determined to complain. They appointed Walter Fürst, who had red hair and looked fierce; Werner Stauffacher, who had gray hair and was always wondering how he ought to pronounce his name...
...and he has some fun writing a heckling mob scene as the wicked Governor addresses the crowd:
And punctually at eleven o'clock, Gessler, having finished a capital breakfast, came out on to the top step and spoke to them.

"Ladies and gentlemen,"—he began. (A voice from the crowd: "Speak up!")

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began again, in a louder voice, "if I could catch the man who said 'Speak up!' I would have him bitten in the neck by wild elephants. (Applause.) I have called you to this place to-day to explain to you my reason for putting up a pole, on the top of which is one of my caps, in the meadow just outside the city gates. It is this: You all, I know, respect and love me." Here he paused for the audience to cheer, but as they remained quite silent he went on: "You would all, I know, like to come to my Palace every day and do reverence to me. (A voice: 'No, no!') If I could catch the man who said 'No, no!' I would have him stung on the soles of the feet by pink scorpions; and if he was the same man who said 'Speak up!' a little while ago, the number of scorpions should be doubled. (Loud applause.)
But the heart and soul of the story is that dramatic scene where William Tell confronts the Governor:
"You should always think, Tell. It is very dangerous not to do so. And I suppose that you shot your arrow through the hat without thinking?"

"I was a little carried away by excitement, your Excellency."

"Dear, dear! Carried away by excitement, were you? You must really be more careful, Tell. One of these days you will be getting yourself into trouble. But it seems to have been a very fine shot. You are a capital marksman, I believe?"

"Father's the best shot in all Switzerland," piped a youthful voice. "He can hit an apple on a tree a hundred yards away. I've seen him. Can't you, father?"

Walter, who had run away when the fighting began, had returned on seeing his father in the hands of the soldiers.

Gessler turned a cold eye upon him.

"Who is this?" he asked.
Ooooooooh! Doesn't that put a chill up your spine? The boy is, of course, William Tell's own little son Walter (probably in lederhosen). Threatened by the Governor, William Tell must prove his archery skills by shooting an apple off the head of his son...or both will die. Aieeee! At this point I had to set the book away for a while and go lay down until I had stopped shaking.

Well, I won't risk a SPOILER ALERT by telling (hee hee hee) you the end of the story, but everyone lives happily ever after except for the wicked people in the story. And there is much rejoicing, and applesauce.

When this story was originally published in 1904, the book had lovely illustrations by Mister Philip Dadd (you can see one of them on this page of the wonderful and incredibly useful Russian Wodehouse Society website), but the more modern edition I read today had no illustrations. So I got to make up what the story looked like in my head (which is always fun!) Bully's edition of William Tell Told Again is contained in a 1980 reprint collection entitled The Eighteen-Carat Kid and Other Stories, so reading the other tales between the two covers gave me a lovely sense of some of Mister Wodehouse's other early work. The longer title novella is a school story a bit like, and written during the same time period as, Tales of St. Austin's, but written from the point of view of one of the masters of the school (rather than the boy students) and it's more of an adventure thriller than a comedy: a young rich but unruly transfer student is threatened with kidnapping by American gangsters, and our hero reluctantly protects the bratty young Ogden Ford, leading to an exciting gun battle inside a barn in the dark of a stormy night on the school's deserted grounds. Ooo-ee! Around that point I had to go and lie down again for my nerves. But, like William Tell, there's still a smattering of Mister Wodehouse's whimsy and clever dialogue, as in this scene where the blustery Headmaster confronts the new student:
'How dare you smoke, boy? How dare you smoke that cigarette?'

'It's the only one I've got,' responded Ogden, amiably.
Like Mister Wodehouse's later country house romances, there's butlers who are Not What They Seem To Be and double-crossed criminal plans and a Jim Dandy of an O. Henry twist at the end when we find out who really hired the kidnappers and why. (Once again, everybody lives happily ever after, even the bad guys, who despite a few sinisterly-aimed bullets, aren't really that bad after all.) In fact, the whole story bears a handful of resemblances to O. Henry's famous "The Ransom of Red Chief" with its plot of a young terror of a kidnap victim, but the execution and plot are purely Mister Wodehouse.

There's also two short stories in the collection. "The Prize Poem" is a St. Austin's school story of students inadvertently all turning in the same verses for a creative writing contest. It's the first short story he ever had published in a magazine (in 1901) and it shows up again as a chapter in Tales of St. Austin's. But I 'specially enjoyed the short story "The Wire-Pullers," which is a story told by—I think—the only first-person female narrator in all of Mister Wodehouse's big cannon canon. As a girl myself, I very much applaud that. Did you ever think you would see words by Mister Wodehouse on the page like this?:
It was a beautiful day on the Monday. I wore my pink sprigged muslin with a pink sash and the pink chiffon hat Aunt Edith sent from Paris. Fortunately, the sun was quite hot, so I was able to have my pink parasol up the whole time, and words can't express its tremendous duckiness.
You can't imagine those words coming out of the mouth of Bertie Wooster, can you? Maybe Bingo Little. Not Bertie Wooster.

This is the point in the review where Bully tells you where you can go to get the book because you will almost certainly want and need to read it now. I have provided you with two choices above in the clever little Amazon boxes that take you right to internet shopping (almost as good as going to the mall, but no Orange Julius). One link is to get yourself The Eighteen-Carat Kid like Bully has, or you might prefer a public domain paperback reprint of William Tell Told Again plus what appears to be some other stuff in A Wodehouse Miscellany. But since Bully's snoring loudly and is fast asleep, I'll let you in on Marshall's tiny secret: if you want, you can read William Tell for free online! Go to the very super-secret Project Gutenberg page on the Russian Wodehouse Society website and check out a free e-text of the book! Hooray! Another triumph for out of copyright works and for those of us who don't have much money to spare because we only get six cents a week in allowance (for my totally excellent job of brushing the kittycat everyday). Tell 'em Bully's kid sister Marshall sent you. I think you'll enjoy it. Words can't express its tremendous duckiness.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Patrick C said...

Did you get a chance to read the Wodehouse homage in Alan Moore's new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier?

SallyP said...

Tremendous duckiness indeed.