Friday, November 15, 2013

Book Review: William Tell Told Again by P. G. Wodehouse

Most of P. G. Wodehouse’s work falls neatly into categories. You’ve got Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, Psmith, the school stories, etc. And then there’s William Tell Told Again. Published in 1904, it was Wodehouse’s first published book outside of the public school magazine tales. (See the Book Dirt review of Tales of St. Austin’s.) Like the school stories, it was intended for young people, though it’s got plenty of dry wit and sarcastic historical humor that make it more in the vein of 1066 And All That than anything most young people would read today.

First edition of William Tell Told Again.

Wodehouse’s collaborators are a bit mysterious. John W. Houghton contributed rhymed verses that accompany the text, but information on him, outside of the connection with this book, is elusive. Philip Dadd, the illustrator, is somewhat of a forgotten artist, mostly because his life was cut short. Dadd (who worked mainly as Philip J. S. Dadd) was both a painter and an illustrator, and was contributing war illustrations to London newspaper The Sphere when he was killed in World War I action in France. His last illustration appeared just days later on the cover of The Sphere, along with the announcement of his death, and the fact that “his work showed great promise.”

Illustration by Philip J. S. Dadd.

The biggest mystery surrounding William Tell and All That, at least until just a few years ago, was its dedication. Wodehouse dedicated his many books to no less than 43 people, including his mother, his brother, and “That Prince of Slackers, Herbert Westbrook.” (The dedication in Heart of a Goof is perhaps the most hilarious: “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”) Wodehouse also  had many authors dedicate their own books to him, including Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris, and Agatha Christie, who dedicated Hallowe’en Party “To P.G. Wodehouse, whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years.” It wasn’t until 2006, though, over a hundred years after William Tell Told Again was published, that the recipient of the dedication “To Biddy O'Sullivan for a Christmas present” was discovered. Biddy, it seems, was the daughter of Denis O’ Sullivan, a largely forgotten actor and friend of Wodehouse.

Illustration of the hat Gessler makes his subjects pay respects in his absence.

The book tells the history of the Swiss folk hero William Tell, with plenty of embellishments and jokes along the way, and if all you know is the story of the apple, it’s pretty entertaining. While the hilarity is not quite as developed as Wodehouse fans know it will be later on, the author takes every opportunity to make cracks, some of them dark humor. He describes the brutal ruler Albrecht Gessler’s executioner:

“The Lord High Executioner entered the presence. He was a kind-looking old gentleman with white hair, and he wore a beautiful black robe, tastefully decorated with death's-heads.”

The following exchange, when some men volunteer to confront Gessler over high taxes, is pure Wodehouse:

"Now, sir, if you please. We are wasting time. The forefinger of your left hand, if I may trouble you. Thank you. I am obliged."

He took Arnold's left hand, and dipped the tip of the first finger into the oil.

"Ow!" cried Arnold, jumping.

"Don't let him see he's hurting you," whispered Werner Stauffacher. "Pretend you don't notice it."

Gessler leaned forward again.

"Have your views on taxes changed at all?" he asked. "Do you see my point of view more clearly now?"

Arnold admitted that he thought that, after all, there might be something to be said for it.”

William Tell Told Again is a quick read, and perhaps an essential one for the Wodehouse fan, as it’s so different from his other works—enough to be considered a novelty. It’s in the public domain, so free copies abound,  but try to find an illustrated one if you can, or, if you’re a true collector of things Wodehousian, nab a physical copy. There are some beautiful reproductions floating around.

Written for Friday’s Forgotten Books. Links to the other reviews of obscure novels can be found at Patricia Abbott’s blog.


  1. Now that's a forgotten book! I've never heard of it and I thought I knew a lot about Wodehouse. It's on my want list now. Thanks for this nifty review.

    1. I've read a lot of Wodehouse, but I recently decided to start at the beginning and read in order, hence some of the odd finds.

  2. Cool. I was certainly likely to pick up the likes of Cuppy and Richard Armour's IT ALL STARTED WITH COLUMBUS as a kid, and would probably have enjoyed this one had I known of it...and will probably enjoy the entirety of it now...thanks!

    1. It's not as funny as their stuff, but parts of it are decidedly in the same vein. Hope you like it.

  3. I don't guess I've ever heard Tell told the first time though I've watched a retelling or two in cartoons. Certainly have heard the "William Tell Overture" plenty of times though.

    And I've never read any Wodehouse. Oh Wodehouse is me!

    Wrote By Rote

    1. "Wode(house) that I'd known"...given that his name sounds more like "wood-house"...

    2. Yeah, the other joke works better visually than aloud.

  4. It takes me even longer to get to all of them. This is a terrific review and makes me want to read something by Wodehouse--which I have never done.

  5. I love Wodehouse except I don't read his books in public, while commuting in suburban trains. I'd be embarrassed if I were to burst into spontaneous laughter. Todd's mention of Richard Armour brought back memories. I have been looking for his books. They're hilarious.