Richmal Crompton’s eleven-year-old anti-hero William Brown bounced onto the literary scene in February 1919 in a short story called ‘Rice Mould’ in Newnes Home Magazine. Scruffy, down to earth and opinionated he was a welcome departure from the impeccably well behaved characters who had for so long been leading protagonists in children’s stories. His name quickly became a synonym for robustly independent boyhood and for the archetypal active outdoor child. His career has now spanned eight decades and spilled over from magazines and books to stage, screen, radio, t.v. and audio cassette presentations as well as to spin-offs such as card-games and crunchy William toffees.
It is unusual for an author’s works to run full circle from the printed page to broadcasts and cassettes, then back again to books, not in their original form but following the text of the sound recordings. This has happened recently with the William saga: Macmillan have issued several small books, each comprising four or five stories which are reprints of Martin Jarvis’s popular recordings and, designed to introduce younger readers to William’s world, these have large print and attractively zany illustrations by Tony Ross.
Jarvis’s adaptations worked brilliantly on radio and cassettes and, listening to them, one hardly noticed departures from the original narratives. Seeing them in print inevitably increases awareness of textual abbreviations and changes but happily these have been sensitively made, mainly through cuts in some descriptive passages. The dialogue sequences remain largely faithful to Richmal’s originals and, overall, the simplified texts of these shorter William books seem likely to enthuse new young readers who, hopefully, will go on to read the mainstream stories. Appropriately Tony Ross’s visualization of William is younger than Thomas Henry’s classic depiction but it is similarly sparky and engaging.
Surprisingly, Richmal at first considered William as her ‘pot-boiler’ and later was to call him her ‘Frankenstein monster’. Her main literary ambition was to produce serious adult novels but once William had scorched off the launching pad he could not be called back. So great was the demand, from both children and adults, for his exploits that for half a century, from 1919 until her death in 1969, Richmal found herself writing stories about William. Commenting in 1957 on his extraordinary resilience, she wrote:
‘… for many years I looked on William as “my character”. He was my puppet. I pulled the strings. But gradually the tables have been turned. I am his puppet. He pulls the strings. For he is resolute, indomitable and inclined to be tyrannical. Like all characters who have been over-indulged by their authors, he insists on having his own way. He refuses to co-operate in some plots. He makes fantastic demands on others. He pushes his way unceremoniously into situations in which he has really very little concern.’
It is noteworthy that until the late 1950s all of William’s adventures were originally produced for adult magazines – the Home and Happy Mags, Modern Woman, Homes and Gardens and Home Notes. Only when the stories, with Thomas Henry’s expressive illustrations, were collected into books (starting with Just William in 1922) did they become widely known and appreciated by children. Although she realized that young readers were virtually taking over the books, Richmal refused to change her richly allusive and ironic style. Like other authors of distinction she never ‘wrote down’ to her juvenile audience who, even if some subtleties might go over their heads, were generally responsive to the farcical pile-up of events so often initiated by William and to Richmal’s facetious descriptions of these (‘It was, he was sure, contrary to all rules of etiquette to go out to tea accompanied by a cow’). Many generations of children have had no difficulty with her sometimes demanding language: with the books as popular as ever, this is particularly cheering today when children’s reading skills and stamina are often questioned by critics and educationists.
When Richmal began to produce the William stories, which eventually ran to 38 books, writing was a sideline, secondary to her career as a teacher. On the surface it seems strange that she should create and immortalise a character so different from herself. In tastes, interests and aspirations she is the direct opposite of her bumptious brainchild. She is studious while he is intellectually lazy (‘I’m jolly well sick of wastin’ my time in a stuffy old school. Let’s be outlaws…’); she is socially co-operative while he is unashamedly out to promote his own interests (‘“Do you mean to tell me you want to be paid for doing a little thing like that?” “Yes”, replied William simply’); she is politically conservative while he is anarchic (‘I don’t want to be a civilized yuman bein’. I’d rather be a savage any day’) – and so on and on. The list of contrasts between them is endless.
One attribute, however, which Richmal and William had in common was a quintessential straightforwardness which allowed no place for humbug or pomposity. This perhaps is why she was able to get beneath the skin of her most famous character and to empathize with boyhood in general. (With panache and understanding akin to Richmal’s, more recent female authors – Sue Townsend (with Adrian Mole) and J. K. Rowling (with Harry Potter) have surely created the two other most charismatic fictional boys of the twentieth century.)
Richmal’s empathy with boyhood apparently had its roots in her childhood devotion to her younger brother Jack, whose exploits were later to inspire some of her William stories. Born Richmal Crompton Lamburn in 1890, in Bury, Lancashire, she was the second daughter of Edward, a clergyman schoolmaster, and Clara, a loving but managing wife and mother. The family was close-knit and Richmal’s deep affection for her sister Gwen and the lively, adventurous Jack were to last throughout her life. As a child she was considered delicate and made to lie for long periods on a backboard because her parents nurtured the fear that she might develop a curvature of the spine. Although she would have loved to be running around the fields near her home with Jack, she made the best of those times of enforced inactivity by reading, and working out stories of her own. She even edited and produced her own magazine, ‘The Rainbow’: ‘Its circulation was confined to two. I used to read it to my small brother and my beloved rag doll,’ she said.
Things looked up for Richmal when, in her eleventh year, she joined Gwen as a boarder at St Elphin’s, a school for clergy daughters, at first in Warrington and then in Derbyshire. Richmal’s days of invalidism were over and she relished her full participation in the school’s social and sporting life. As well as a passion for hockey, she developed a great interest in classics, won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway College of London University and obtained a degree in classics in 1914.
Although she had, in her own words, ‘been scribbling since childhood’, Richmal never then considered writing as her main career but, like her father Edward, became a dedicated teacher, first at St Elphin’s, her old school, and then as senior classics mistress at the Bromley (Kent) High School for Girls. She took up this appointment to be near to her sister Gwen, who was then married and living in south east London, and to her mother who had moved there after the sudden death of Edward in 1915. Richmal never married but always played a prominent part in Gwen’s, and later her brother Jack’s, family life. To their children she was the ideal and much loved aunt.
Teaching provided Richmal with great satisfactions and, over eighty years on, she is still remembered by some of her former pupils as an engagingly stimulating teacher whose lessons in Latin and Greek were always well spiced with humour. She taught at Bromley from 1917 to 1924 and during this period the first of her stories to be published appeared in a 1918 Girl’s Own Paper. Called ‘Thomas’ it featured a boy who might be seen as a bland forerunner of William. She made one or two other attempts at creating an iconoclastic boy character before she produced William in 1919.
With her stories then in great demand, the time came when both Richmal’s headmistress and her editors began to press her to make a choice between teaching and writing because success in both fields seemed to be making too heavy demands upon her. The decision about which career she should continue exclusively was eventually made for her when, in 1923, she suffered an acute attack of poliomyelitis which left her with a permanently paralysed right leg. After struggling to cycle to school for some months, and later giving some private coaching, with much regret Richmal gave up teaching. Her writing career went from strength to strength and there is no doubt that teaching’s loss was literature’s gain.
The tragedy of disablement seems never to have smothered her natural exuberance. Indeed she once remarked that she had led ‘a more interesting life’ because of this. It says a great deal for her strength of character that, only a few years after having polio, she coped with cancer and a mastectomy with the same resolute cheerfulness, and her stories continued in full flood with no lessening of their sparkle and humour. As well as the William saga she produced two books of short stories about ‘Jimmy’, for younger readers, experimented in two series with producing a girl character and, in all, had some 40 adult books published. These, though still collected by enthusiasts, are pleasing but unmemorable domestic stories. In a sense her William books seem to be parodies of these family sagas, and with him around to heap social chaos and embarrassment upon his elders, the genteel drawing-room mood is of course transmuted into music-hall rumbustiousness.
At college and afterwards, Richmal had supported the women’s suffrage campaign but there is little evidence of feminism in her books, although William (‘pirate, desparado, woman-hater and girl despiser’) is sometimes lured into submissiveness by girlish charm (‘I like you better than any insect, Joan…’) and frequently put down by Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping, six-year-old bundle of frilliness and precocious obstinacy who subdues him by threatening to ‘thcream and thcream’ till she’s ‘thick’.
Richmal was always a staunch, practising member of the Church of England, although towards the end of her life she was strongly attracted to certain occult and mystical teachings. Pleased with, but generally modest about, her literary success, she counted amongst her most rewarding moments ‘letters from parents telling me how William has lightened their children’s illnesses, and from soldiers telling me how he lightened the rigours of the war…’ With typical honesty she also records ‘less flattering reactions from embittered parents: “Tell Miss Crompton that she’s wrecked our home”… I always point out in such cases that parents owe me at least the quiet half hour or so while the child is reading the stories before it starts putting into practice the ideas it has gleaned from them…’
Richmal died of a heart attack in January 1969, and on the day before her death was engaged in writing a William story, ‘William’s Foggy Morning’, which was published postumously in William the Lawless in 1970. Appropriately some part of her resilient spirit lives on, sealed into the saga of the small and scruffy boy which started as a pot-boiler and has become a classic.
Mary Cadogan is the author of Richmal Crompton: the Woman Behind William and Just William Through the Ages.
Photograph © Macmillan Children’s Books
Some of the many William books published by Macmillan
Illustrated by Thomas Henry, £3.99 each:
Just William, 0 333 53408 5
Sweet William, 0 333 41820 4
William, 0 333 37394 4
William and the Evacuees, 0 333 43674 1
William and the Masked Ranger, 0 333 57738 8
William Does His Bit, 0 333 46673 X
William the Outlaw, 0 333 37391 X
William the Showman, 0 333 42616 9
William’s Happy Days, 0 333 38492 X
Adapted by Martin Jarvis and illustrated by Tony Ross, £2.99 each (10 titles available):
Meet Just William 1: William’s Birthday and Other Stories, 0 330 39097 X
Meet Just William 6: William’s Day Off and Other Stories, 0 330 39099 6
Meet Just William 10: William and the School Report and Other Stories, 0 330 39211 5