Long before Harry Potter there was William Brown, the enduring creation of Richmal Crompton, who knew what boys are like and, more than that, what boys like to read. Now well into his nineties, her endearingly mischievous hero is still going strong
There are classic figures of English literature who are universal, like Oliver Twist and Macbeth, and others pretty well unknown outside these shores, like the two schoolboys Nigel Molesworth and William Brown.
Eleven-year-old William is my subject, William and his creator Richmal Crompton, who was actually a woman, in spite of the name. The first collection of William stories, Just William, was published in 1922, and the last, William the Lawless, in 1970, which gives him a long innings. It would have been longer if Richmal had not died suddenly in January 1969 of a heart attack.
William made Richmal Crompton rich—not as rich as J.K. Rowling, but rich enough to have a substantial house built for her and to leave an estate of £60,000 which must be at least a couple of million in our money; probably more since she owned her house in Bromley in South London. William appeared in films and on television. There was a wireless William too and all the books were read by Martin Jarvis when the wireless had become the radio.
I would bet that no English person of my age who reads books at all has not read a William book, more likely a succession of William books. I read nearly all of them myself and then read them to my daughter, who is now thirty-two. She loved them. Why? Predominantly because they are funny.
Are they? I leave you to be judges of that. Here is the story of William and Albert, the stag beetle he keeps in his sock drawer, when he is not in a box in William’s pocket:
William was, as not infrequently, under a cloud. His mother had gone to put some socks into one of his bedroom drawers and had found that most of the drawer space was occupied by insects of various kinds, including a large stag beetle, and that along the side of the drawer was their larder, consisting of crumby bits of bread and a large pool of marmalade.
“But it eats the marmalade,” pleaded William. “The stag beetle does. I know it does. The marmalade gets a little less each day.”
“Because it’s soaking into the wood,” said Mrs Brown sternly. “That’s why. I don’t know why you do such things, William.”
“But they’re doing no harm,” said William. “They’re friends of mine. They know me. The stag beetle does anyway and the others will soon. I’m teaching the stag beetle tricks” …
He still had Albert. He put his face down to where he imagined Albert’s ear to be, and yelled “Albert!” with all the force of his lungs. Albert moved, in fact scuttled wildly up the side of his box.
“Well, he certainly knows his name now,” said William …
“How’s Albert?” said Joan.
“He’s been took off me,” said William.
“Oh, what a shame, William.”
“But I’ve got another … an earwig … called Fred.”
“I’m so glad.”
“But I like you better than any insect, Joan,” he said generously.
“Oh William, do you really?” said Joan, deeply touched.
(Still William, Chapter 16)
My daughter had me repeat the bit about yelling Albert’s name many times, and she laughed each time. So did I. I still do.
Richmal Crompton Lamburn was born in 1890 in Lancashire, in the North of England where people are down-to-earth and unpretentious, or so they say, and Richmal was more than a bit like that. Her father was a schoolteacher in holy orders, a common enough figure in those days. She had an elder sister, Gwen, to whom she remained close all her life, and a younger brother, Jack, her first model for William. Jack, unlike his sisters, was not one for book-learning, and rather a trial to his father. He joined the Rhodesian mounted police for a bit of excitement (he got it) and later wrote adventure stories for boys, popular in their day, none of which, as Samuel Johnson might have said, I have been able to peruse.
Perhaps Richmal, who never married, was a lesbian who wanted to be a daredevil boy in her heart of hearts, but there is no actual evidence of that. She became a classics teacher of girls, and this lasted nine years until she contracted polio at the age of thirty-three, was disabled for the rest of her life and had to give up teaching.
She was always something of a bluestocking, exchanging postcards in Latin with her father when she was still at school. In later life her favourite novelist was Ivy Compton-Burnett and she couldn’t be doing with P.G. Wodehouse. She was not, perhaps, very marriageable.
But she liked young men, though she tended to find them rather comical. William’s elder brother, Robert, is a callow youth, that is, more than a bit of a fool. He falls in love with a new girl every month and writes poetry about them. The poetry sounds like this:
Oh Marion, my lady fair,
Has eyes of blue and golden hair.
Her heart of gold is kind and true.
She is the sweetest girl you ever knew.
I should mention in passing that William writes poetry as well. We have a few snatches:
He shot him dead
And blood came pouring out of his head
And this one is for Ginger, his best friend, suffering terrible pangs from eating the wrong kind of mushroom:
Ole Ginger is dead
He ate toadstools instead
Of mushrooms …
William is a much better poet, as you can see. But, to return to Marion. She isn’t sweet. She is vain, mercenary and silly, like William’s sister Ethel. Richmal can be hard on pretty girls, particularly if they are pretentious and snobby. She wrote comic verse at school, and it always rhymed and scanned. Though she could not quite forgive A.A. Milne for Christopher Robin she respected him for his verses, one of which, she said, was in a classical metre used by Horace. Which? Search me.
William is the leader of a gang called the Outlaws, though it is a fairly small one, much smaller than the rival gang of a fat, pasty boy called Hubert Lane. Since all the Laneites are fat and pasty too, this doesn’t matter much as the Outlaws always win in open warfare.
There are just three other boy Outlaws, Ginger, Henry and Douglas, each etched in with bold strokes. And there is the Joan we have already met, though most of the time she is away at boarding school. There is not much to be done with Joan. She worships William and that is that. The real queen of William’s world is a girl of six, with the face of an angel and a will of iron, Violet Elizabeth Bott, whose father has made a fortune out of selling brown sauce, reputedly “made of black beetles”. Here she is, in Still William again:
“You with you wath a little girl, don’t you?”
“Er—yes. Honest I do,” said the unhappy William.
“Kith me,” she said, raising her glowing face.
He brushed her cheek with his.
“Thath not a kith,” said Violet Elizabeth.
“It’s my kind of a kiss,” said William.
“All right. Now leth play fairieth. I’ll thow you how.”
And she does. William becomes a gnome.
What Richmal is writing is farce. Perhaps that is why she is so casual about details. Ginger (with whom I identified) begins with the surname Flowerdew, but somewhere along the way he becomes Merridew, though we never do learn his given name. Henry has a sister who is sometimes a baby in a pram, and sometimes a two-year-old, depending on what Richmal wants to do with her. Babies in prams are always cropping up and getting lost or swapped. (Richmal, like Wodehouse, is not particularly pro-baby.) William’s elder brother, Robert, is sometimes seventeen, sometimes two or three years older. Of course Richmal wrote very fast, nearly forty William books and over fifty others, including two about Jimmy, a boy of seven with a stammer (how she did love speech impediments) but indubitably a good egg.
There are certain writers who are inextricably linked to their illustrators. Boz has his Phiz, Conan Doyle his Sidney Paget, who showed us definitively what Sherlock Holmes looked like. A.A. Milne has his elegant E.H. Shepard and Lewis Carroll his Tenniel, who could draw anything under the sun and many things that weren’t, but had trouble depicting a seven-year-old girl. Both these illustrators, but most particularly Shepard, were ill served by the Disney Corporation who vulgarised and cutified (if there is such a word) the images. I grind my teeth whenever I think of it.
Richmal Crompton had Thomas Henry, who illustrated all her books until he died. Truth be told, the original William illustrations aren’t very good and Henry redrew them for later editions. He took about fifteen years to get William right, but after that the pictures just grew better and better. When he came to draw Jimmy, who is only seven, he drew the same boy but made him shorter. Even when Henry died the illustrations went on looking much the same though signed by Henry Ford. Nobody knows who he was—Thomas Henry’s ghost perhaps?
Why don’t the William books travel? Well, they do a bit, to India, Iceland and, to a certain extent, to Australia. But not in the US. Research I have done among the members of a poetry website (Eratosphere) seems to back this up. Some say Americans will have no truck with a society bound by class, but they love Lord Peter Wimsey. And they love Miss Marple too, who lives in a village much like William’s. Perhaps Americans (and Australians?) are more sentimental about childhood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is good, but it has very mushy parts whenever ghastly Becky gets in on the act. Crompton’s Joan is a sort of Becky and William says he does love her better than any insect, but … Tom is brave and upstanding and William does his share of unmasking villains, thieves, traitors and so forth. But he usually does it by accident when he is trying to do something else. And William is mercenary and a doughty liar when he needs to be. The boy hero he is most like is Penrod Schofield, created by Booth Tarkington (who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons) about ten years before William. Though her biographers stoutly deny it, Richmal pinched some of his plots. And why not? She made the stories better, funnier.
And there is the young Clive James. Like Clive, Richmal is a dab-hand at irony, something she shares with her creation, William’s father. Irony, I can’t help thinking, is not a particularly American thing.
Richmal knew what boys were like, though she had no children. There was Jack, and later there were her young relations, Tom Discher, her nephew, and Edward Ashbee, her great-nephew, ordinary middle-class boys. I don’t recognise myself in William, identifying rather with Ginger, but I do think boys are like that. Parents, though benign, are essentially other, which is why so many good children’s books kill them off (Roald Dahl), send them to prison (E. Nesbit) or set the stories in boarding schools. They also wreck them on desert islands of course, which gives us Coral Island where the children, Ralph, Jack and Peterkin do splendidly, and Lord of the Flies where they revert quickly to savagery. Boarding schools can be savage too, or so I hear. Not many laughs there though, and children need to laugh.
William the savage (More William, where he talks savage language) is continually at war with adults, but even more with what he sees as the wrong sort of boy, fat, creepy Hubert, or a succession of angelic-looking little boys with golden curls in white sailor suits. Richmal produces this child again and again, a sort of amalgam of Little Lord Fauntleroy and Christopher Robin.
Georgie Murdoch is their epitome and his discomfiture is achieved because he insists on being the centre of attention and he cannot admit to ignorance of anything at all. There is to be a competition to act a scene from English history. The winner will receive a box of chocolate creams, of which Georgie (the greedy little pig) is passionately fond. William decides they will do King John after he “lost his things in the Wash”. Georgie has never heard of him and if you are the same, then shame on you and read 1066 and All That or look him up. The Wash is a large (and indeed muddy) estuary between Norfolk and Lincolnshire where King John’s baggage-train (containing the crown jewels) was lost. Or so John claimed. Rumour has it he pawned the jewels for ready money, of which he was always notoriously short. Like William.
Here is the episode, or part of it. I have italicised the bits that show the attentive reader that William is up to something.
“Who’ll be King John?” said William.
“I’ll be King John,” said Georgie.
“All right,” said William with unexpected amenity, “an’ shall Ginger an’ me be your two heralds, an’ Douglas an’ Henry your servants or somethin’?”
“Yes,” said Georgie, and added, “You needn’t do anything, but jus’ stand there—any of you. I’ll do the actin’.”
“All right,” agreed William with disarming humility. “You know all about the story, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“About how King John went into the Wash, trying to find his things—”
“Yes, I know all that.”
“An’ the Wash is a kind of a bog—”
“Yes, I know.”
“And he came out all muddy but couldn’t find his things ’cause they’d sunk in the mud.”
“Yes, I know.”
“An’ he came to his two servants called Dam and Blarst—”
“Fancy you not knowing about King John’s servants being called Dam and Blarst!”
“I did know,” said Georgie. “I’ve known it for ever so long … What did you say they were called?”
“Dam and Blarst.”
“Dam and Blarst. Of course I knew.”
(William the Outlaw, Chapter 3)
You can see where this is heading. Georgie, covered in mud from head to foot, appears on the lawn, “uttering horrible oaths before the assembled aristocrats of the village” (“Oh Dam and Blarst, I cannot find my things!”) Job done. The forces of misrule triumphant! And look at the perfection of that dialogue.
My principal sources are the thirty-eight William books, Kay Williams’s biography Just-Richmal (1986), Mary Cadogan’s The William Companion (1990) (invaluable) and her biography Richmal Crompton: The Woman Behind William (1986), which is interesting, partly because she cannot find anyone who had a bad word to say about Richmal. I can’t think of any other writer, except perhaps Anthony Trollope, of whom that could be said. Richmal didn’t like her sister’s husband much, but perhaps he wasn’t likeable. Gwen didn’t think so and divorced him.
There is also the Just William Society website, www.justwilliamsociety.co.uk. To see what William looked like, do an internet search for thomas henry just william illustrations.
John Whitworth’s poetry and prose appear frequently in Quadrant. He lives in Kent.