British children’s writers usually find favour in America—from A. A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame to J. K. Rowling and Nick Park—but one who has never quite captured American hearts is Richmal Crompton, author of the classic Just William stories.
Why this should be is unclear, because at their best the stories combine the period charm of The Wind in the Willows with the mischievousness of Roald Dahl and the wit of Wodehouse—while her hero has been likened (admittedly not entirely convincingly) to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The 11-year-old likeable scapegrace William Brown is an imaginative institution in England and in many other countries; the Sunday Times said of the stories that they are “probably the funniest, toughest children’s books ever written”. Yet for some reason Hollywood has not come calling—although perhaps this is just as well (1).
As well as telling delightful tales, Crompton incidentally charts revolutionary changes in British life from the time the first story appeared in 1919 until the author’s death in 1969, as seen through William’s half-wise, half-innocent eyes. Although the stories should be read for their own sake rather than any philosophical content, they have therefore also attracted considerable interest from cultural historians, and occasionally even controversy.
Richmal Crompton Lamburn was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1890, the daughter of a schoolmaster of Anglican and Liberal views. She had an older sister, Mary, and a younger brother, John, and some of William’s exploits would be based on her memories of John’s youth.
She won a scholarship to London’s Royal Holloway College, from which she graduated in 1914 with a BA in Classics. She taught Classics in Cheshire before relocating to Bromley High School on the southern edge of London in 1917. She beguiled her leisure time by writing, and the first William story appeared in Home Magazine in 1919, illustrated by Thomas Henry, who was to illustrate the stories until his death in 1962 (he died whilst working on a William picture). Henry’s perfectly-judged drawings have helped to define William as much as E. H. Shephard’s drawings fixed the public visualization of Winnie the Pooh.
The supposedly ephemeral stories swiftly overshadowed what Crompton always regarded as her serious work—40 novels and collections of short stories aimed solely at an adult audience, now virtually forgotten, while William eventually ran to 39 books (some posthumous) and still sells millions of copies worldwide, not to mention numerous TV and radio adaptations. (2) Yet although the stories are ostensibly written for children, they are perhaps best savoured by adults who can appreciate the author’s recondite references and “unsystematic satire” (3).
She was able to retire from teaching, which was fortunate because after 1923 she went down with polio, eventually losing the use of her right leg. Despite this, she led an active life, getting around in a specially adapted car and having all kinds of cultural and charitable interests (she was a noted campaigner for paralyzed children). She never married and died much mourned.
Her fictive force of nature is a middle-class 11-year-old living in a village between the fictional towns of Marleigh and Hadley, the location of which is a subject of agreeable but fruitless debate amongst keen Cromptonians. William’s village is clearly an amalgam of southern English Erewhons. In 1962, Crompton wrote “The village in which William lives is entirely imaginary…a small country village in Kent—or perhaps Surrey or Sussex, within easy reach of London” (4).
The earliest stories see William living with his parents and older brother and sister in a substantial Victorian or Edwardian villa, complete with library, morning-room, stables, cook, housemaid, and gardener. Later, the family is downsized by economic and social pressures and the domestic staff disappear, but the Browns always contrive to be comfortably off and stalwarts of community life.
Mr. Brown works in the City, and comes home every evening to sit aloofly reading newspapers and occasionally giving vent to unexpectedly vitriolic political reflections, such as “I tell you he’s bleeding the country to death. He ought to be hung for murder”. His outbursts contain a clever echo of his younger son’s purpler expostulations—and there are other occasional hints of a tacit understanding between the two that no-one else in the family can share. But most of the time, Mr. Brown is like a smoking volcano in the background of an ordered Italianate landscape—something to be tiptoed around, and which only comes to life at times of crisis—such as to pay some enraged neighbour for damage caused by his errant offspring.
By contrast, Mrs. Brown is not at all menacing; like most mothers she is the pivot of the household and the chief source of its respectability, stability, and comfort. Her chief roles are to darn socks and make excuses for William.
William’s sister Ethel is beautiful and always has a string of suitors—many of whom William irritates or frightens off, usually without meaning to or even while trying to ‘help’ them.
William’s older brother, the irascible and insecure Robert, is a mirror of the fashions and follies of every generation, from dancing the Charleston to toying with Bolshevism, and from experimental poetry to sports cars. He is always trying to find a girlfriend, and whenever he is making headway William usually ruins it—again often with the very best intentions. Like many 11-year-olds then and now, William regards girls as an utterly distinct (and generally inferior) species, and his lack of susceptibility can drive Robert to distraction. In “William the Intruder” (1922), Robert is telling his mother about his latest pash:
‘She’s different from everybody else in the world’, stammered Robert ecstatically. ‘You simply couldn’t describe her. No one could!’
His mother continued to darn his socks and made no comment. Only William showed interest.
‘How’s she different from anyone else?’ he demanded. ‘Is she blind or lame or sumthin’?’
There is also a plethora of aunts and uncles, most of whom find William wholly antithetical to their preferred pastimes of crochet-work, church-going, and snoozing off their lunches in the library.
Beyond the constraints of the family circle lies a huge world full of colour and adventure. William owns a devoted mongrel called Jumble and he also leads the Outlaws—a close-knit gang of boys, Henry, Ginger, and Douglas, similar in background and tastes but with slightly paler personalities. Beyond the Outlaws there are manipulative or adoring girls, and many other children more or less in thrall to William’s abounding personality. Inevitably, he also has enemies—ranging from epicene, immaculate, golden-curled, lisping sneaks with names like Cuthbert, to rougher would-be Williams with whom he has to physically contend for mastery of the village space.
Then there is the adult world, whose roster of characters alters as the stories dash through the decades—flappers, spiritualists, vegetarians, painters, academics, aristocrats, teachers, ex-majors, vicars, spinsters, nouveau riche businessmen, beatniks, burglars, protest marchers, pop-stars—most of whom seem to William to lead dull lives full of pointless rules. In “William Below Stairs” (1922), he muses that when he is grown-up,
“He’d have rooms full of squeaky balloons and trumpets in his house, anyway—and he’d keep caterpillars and white rats all over the place too—things they made such a fuss about in their old house—and he’d always go about in dirty boots, and he’d never brush his hair or wash.”
He in turn exasperates most grown-ups, which is scarcely surprising, because through sheer joie de vivre he exacts a heavy toll on their possessions—trampling their flowerbeds, ruining their lawns, scrumping their apples, falling through their roofs, shooting arrows through their windows, eating their food, tormenting their cats (twice actually killing them), covering everything with dirt, ruining their sleep, and leading their children astray. Some have even worse experiences, such as Aunt Emily, a generously-proportioned woman who disturbs the whole household with her deafening snoring, who wakes from an afternoon nap to find her bedroom full of wide-eyed local children who have paid William to watch her sleep, below an ill-lettered label reading:
“Fat wild woman
He may be noisy, unkempt, destructive, dictatorial, aggressive, opinionated and indignant—but he is also good-hearted, chivalrous, imaginative, brave and generous and has a strong sense of natural justice. In 1962, Crompton said William had:
“…the spirit of the inventor and pioneer…the stuff of which heroes are made…at the state of the savage—loyal to his tribe, ruthless to his foes, governed by mysterious taboos, an enemy of civilization and all its meaningless conventions…that threaten his liberty.” (6)
William is always prone to nostalgie de la boue. He is fascinated by ne’er do wells, real or imagined; he longs to leap his bourgeois traces and embrace what he sees as freer modes of living—down and preferably dirty amongst the working classes, the poor, criminals, subversives and exotic foreigners. William’s fascination with what she calls “horrid, common, rough boys” is a source of exasperation and incomprehension to the supremely class-conscious Mrs. Brown. Asked by her who he wants to invite to his Christmas party, he scandalizes her by replying “I’d like the milkman” then “I’d like to have Fisty Green. He can whistle with his fingers in his mouth”. She almost wails in reply, “But he’s a butcher’s boy! You can’t have him!” He listens enraptured to the Cockney accents of London children visiting the village on a day trip—
“He decided to adopt it permanently. He considered it infinitely more interesting than that used by his own circle.”(7)
William also envies “savidges”. Watching an amateur-dramatic production of Christopher Columbus with the Indians, he looks yearningly at the blacked-up white boys playing the Indians—
“…how different—how rapturously different. Browned from head to foot—a lovely walnut brown. It made their eyes look queer and their teeth look queer. It set them in a world apart…he saw himself, browned from head to foot, brandishing some weapon and dancing on bare brown feet in a savage land.” (8)
Like most boys then and now, he has fantasies of super strength and global domination—fighting his way out of ambuscades against impossible odds, consigning cities or countries to destruction with an imperious wave, being “Dictator of England” (9) or “World Potentate” (10)—accepting the imaginary homage of imaginary masses as he imagines multitudinous “stachoos” of himself.
Crompton is sometimes likened to the equally unsentimental “Saki” (Hector Hugh Munro, 1870-1916) whose short stories have been described as evoking “Pan beyond the drawing-room windows”. There is a similar quality in William. He may be fey, but he is safely fey. The solidity and stability of William’s background is the ideal backdrop to his adventures, which lampoon authority but never undermine it. He may be “Dauntless Dick of the Bloody Hand” out in the fields and woods, but every evening he is once again Master William Brown, subject to the iron dictates of what he calls contemptuously “Civilizashun”—obeying his parents, saying please and thank you, washing his face, wearing his Eton suit, and being forced to go to school and Sunday school. William has a disdain for education, as he tells his reform-minded Uncle George:
“When I was a boy, William, I loved my studies. I’m sure you love your studies, don’t you? Which do you love most?”
“Me?” said William, “I love shootin’ and playin’ Red Indians.” (11)
He is aggrieved by the way his parents react to his school reports—
“I keep tryin’ to explain to them about that. What’s the good of us usin’ up all our brains at school so’s we’ll have none left when we’re grown up an’ have to earn our livings? I’d rather keep mine fresh by not usin’ it till I’m grown up an’ need it.” (12)
The other Outlaws are almost as unintellectual, with the partial exception of Henry who can always be relied upon to give informed opinions on even the most complicated subjects—
‘They were always killin’ people for one thing’ said Henry.
‘They had to. How’d you think there’d ‘ve been any hist’ry if they hadn’t?’ (13)
Crompton was, remembered her friend Joan Braunholz, “a true-blue Tory…a temperamental Conservative” (14). She belonged to her local Conservative Association in Bromley—which was unimaginative enough to utilize the bestselling author solely to stuff envelopes with campaign ‘literature’. One cultural commentator has called Crompton “a species of conservative modernist” (15), while another has defined her outlook as “defending the private against the public and the individual against the demands of society and the state” (16).
Her conservatism is implicit but always apparent—in her High Anglicanism, pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature, ridicule of idealists, and belief in the necessity and durability of the class system. It was for this last reason that her books were removed from some libraries between the 1960s and 1980s by librarians trying, rather like Robert Brown, to be real and relevant. Today, the sensitivities more often surround race, with casual phrases like “rather more swarthy than the average boy” and “not an English cast of countenance” (17) causing consternation amongst the easily frightened.
Through William, Crompton constantly exposes the pomposity and hypocrisy of the complacenti. There are the advocates of “Higher Thought”, a coterie of sharp-chinned spinsters who hurriedly abandon their meeting when William’s cache of centipedes and spiders gets loose. Then there is the League of Perfect Love, ‘animal rights’ ignoramuses who have an instant change of heart when rats invade their living room (this 1935 story is rarely reprinted now, because it shows a rat-killing competition). There are the adopt-a-poor-family agitators who baulk at admitting the self-same poor into their own circles, or contributing financially towards these schemes (18). There is the teacher
“…with a startling taste in socks and ties, whose ‘modern’ methods of teaching had left the minds of his pupils completely but not unpleasantly befogged.”
Later, the same individual
“…transferred his gifts and his person to a small but exclusive repertory company that specialized in performing ‘experimental’ drama to a limited audience of leftwing intellectuals” (19)
“William and the Protest Marchers” (1965) contains the egalitarian students of “Newlick University”, marching to demonstrate against “those moth-eaten old relics of antiquity” Oxford and Cambridge—only to give up their march and forego their principles as soon as they get hot and they find a place to get a drink without having to mix with what their leader calls “riff-raff”. In the same story, an animal rights lecturer gets pushed into a lily-pond by a pig whose saintliness he has just been extolling.
William always reflected what was going on in the wider world (his creator often reminded herself in her diaries to “be topical!”) and the 1930s accordingly saw William setting up his own paramilitary formation after seeing a Mosleyite demonstration (20). Like (presumably) many adult Mosleyites, the Outlaws are intoxicated by “the salutes, the shouting” and fashion themselves green armbands, whereupon William harangues the townspeople:
“You’ve gotter have a dictator…you’ve all gotter to be Green shirts same as us…We’re goin’ to fight everyone that isn’t…We’re goin’ to fight everyone in the world…We’re going to conquer the world…We’re goin’ to be dictators over the world.”
This address and the subsequent clashes with a blue shirted gang over which will have the largest “col’ny” with the most doughnuts is a brilliantly funny commentary on contemporary Europe, already self-immolating at the hands of much less excusable orators.
The 1934 story “William and the Nasties” is frequently singled out for criticism and indeed it does leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, to the extent that it is no longer included in collections. Yet it is congruent with the fantasy psychology and immature knowledge of boys of that age. The Outlaws are talking about the new “Nasty” regime in Germany:
"They rule all the country" said Henry "an’ make everyone do jus’ what they like an’ send them to prison if they don’t."
"I’d be one of them if I was in that country’ said William.
"Jews are rich" explained Henry, "so they chase ‘em out and take all the stuff they leave behind. It’s a jolly good idea."
"Ole Mr. Isaacs is a Jew" said Ginger. They stared at each other with sudden interest.
(Mr. Isaacs is the unfriendly owner of the sweetshop whom they suspect of giving them short-measures of bulls-eyes and “cokernut lumps”.)
“’There came to him [William] glorious visions of chasing Jew after Jew out of sweetshop after sweetshop and appropriating the precious spoils."Henry explains the Nasties’ modus operandi—“They’ve got people called storm troops an’ when those Jews don’t run away they knock ‘em about till they do.”
They plan to break into Mr. Isaacs’ shop, but as they are so doing, their basic decency rapidly reasserts itself:
“A strange distaste for the adventure was creeping over the Outlaws.”
They never attack Mr. Isaacs, obviously, and in fact inadvertently do him a favour which brings about friendly relations between them and him. A recent study (21) acknowledges that Crompton was “probably trying to make pro-Jewish points”, but concludes that the story was unusually clumsily constructed. The story is genuinely disturbing, as if something hideous had briefly broken the surface of the still pond of English life, to sink again almost immediately but leaving behind a shivery memory. Needless to say, when war does come, William “does his bit” to ‘help’—and in “William Takes Charge”, which appeared in May 1940, our hero’s ineptitude is an obvious swipe at Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous diplomacy.
William is essentially apolitical. Long before being a Fascist, he had also been the sole member of the junior branch of Reformed Bolsheviks. He had to form his own organization because Robert will not let him join the Bolshevik club to which the Outlaws’ older brothers belong. Once again, William’s oratory ridicules fringe folly—
"All gotter be equal" he pronounced fiercely. "All gotter have lots of money. All ‘uman beings. That’s sense, isn’t it?... Well, then, someone ought to do somethin’!"
And William does do somethin’; he and the other Outlaws expropriate the belongings of their older brothers, who in consequence have a change of heart. As Robert admits ruefully to his father,
“It’s all right when you can get your share of other people’s things, but when other people can get their share of your things, then it’s different.” (22)
In “William—The Bad” (1930), there is a mock election between the Outlaws. Standing as the communist candidate, Ginger sets out his stall,
“Ladies an’ Gentlemen, Communism means havin’ a war against all the people that aren’t Communists an’ conquerin’ an’ killin’ them.”
In “William, Prime Minister” (1929), Henry explains more lucidly than many real-life commentators the true nature of politics:
“There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”
In a thousand such effortless-seeming asides, the wide-awake William and his chums unmask the pretensions not just of communism, but of all adult existence.
Yet howsoever revelatory about society, William is first and foremost the boy all boys wish they had been and who all girls adore—and we like to read about his escapades because they conjure up the intoxicating essence of childhood. Through Crompton’s timeless thaumaturgy, with a laugh and a pang we suddenly remember the texture of youth—the energy, the curiosity, the visions, the passing loves and hatreds, the resentments and rapprochements, the fears and guilt, the first times and sudden insights, the wonder and the acceptance, the long imaginative journeys inside one’s head or across fields of sun-striped grasses on afternoons when reality seemed contingent and time appeared to have no end. Like William, we have all lived “crowded hours”—and thanks to his immemorial ebullience, even now we can recover our pasts for a time.
1. According to the Summer 2011 edition of the Just William Society Magazine there have been three British films—Just William (1939), Just William’s Luck (1947) and William at the Circus (1948). Recordings are extremely rare
2. In her other novels, Crompton “sought to attack the cosy conventionalism of Victorian thought. Her novels are thronged with adultery, illegitimacy, divorce, suicide, child abuse, and homosexuality” (Classes, Cultures, and Politics, Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin, edited by Clare V. J. Griffiths, James J. Nott and William Whyte, 2011, Oxford: OUP). Ironically enough, Crompton’s brother John, the original inspiration for William, earned a reputation for ‘serious’ writing with his natural history works, especially 1948’s The Hunting Wasp, which was deservedly praised by John Betjeman, Harold Nicolson and others
3. Classes, Cultures, and Politics, op. cit.
4. “Meet William”, Collectors’ Digest Annual, 1962, cited by Mary Cadogan, in Richmal Crompton—The Woman Behind Just William, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1986
5. “The Show”, 1922
6. “Meet William”, op. cit.
7. “Not Much”, 1923
8. “The Native Protégé”, 1923
9. “William the Persian”, 1935
10. “A Present from William”, 1935
11. “William’s Hobby”, 1922
12. “William the Conspirator”, 1935
13. “William the Conspirator”, ibid.
14. Cited by Cadogan, op. cit.
15. Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, London and New York: Routledge, 1991
16. Classes, Cultures, and Politics, op. cit.
17. “The Native Protégé”, ibid.
18. “William—The Showman”, 1937
19. “William and the Holiday Task”, 1965
20. “What’s in a Name?”, 1938
21. Owen Dudley Edwards, British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007
22. “The Weak Spot”, 1924