The Just William books by Richmal Crompton were responsible for this reviewer and her friends wasting a great deal of time between the ages of seven and nine in making bows and arrows that never worked (among other absurd enterprises). On the other hand, the extremely rich vocabulary of early William stories in particular, with their obscure long words which baffled and delighted, was exciting and probably quite educational. It is now clear, on rereading the books, that they are in fact masterpieces of extremely dry Lancastrian humour, focussed on a Southern suburban social order. (In a delightful example of art imitating life, Crompton herself moved to Chislehurst after writing twenty-eight William books.) The magnificently ornery William, with his determinedly slovenly speech and appearance, represents a continual rejection of middle-class shibboleths, the aspect of the stories that most delights any adult reading them aloud to a child. His refusal to be tamed or influenced gives him a proto-rock n’roll, even slightly punk appeal. (It is not surprising that John Lennon claimed to have spent much of his lonely childhood pretending to be Just William.) William represents the indomitable strain of bolshiness in the native temperament, normally covered up by good manners in adults, but obvious in some children (“William, suffering from influenza, was in a state of violent rebellion against fate”). His interventions often reveal, in one way or another, the flimsy nature of the social fabric and the mild hypocrisies, pretensions and forced politenesses on which it depends, and on occasion threaten to unravel it altogether.
The very blandness and normality of William’s suburban middle class-family —father something in the City, mother slightly vague and harassed in her attempts to keep up with the village fete and jumble-sale calendar, elder sister Ethel chiefly focussed on clothes, makeup and young men, the exact feminine counterpart to dim and romantic elder brother Robert— ensure that William himself leaps glowering off the page, in striking relief against his milquetoast relatives. This device is very canny, exaggerating the comic effect by giving William a large spotlight for his activities, and providing all sorts of amusing storylines in which William scuppers and subverts his relatives’ blamelessly respectable plans and pursuits. The Outlaws, William’s little gang of obstreperous comrades, do indeed have something of the Wild West about them, if on a small scale, but William’s extreme individualism means that the comedy really starts to hum when he encounters the equally maverick and larger-than-life figures (strolling players, indigent artists, eccentric children’s book authors, revolutionaries) who erupt into the tiny, highly ordered village world at regular intervals, and immediately find synergy with him. Another source of comedy involves the highly imaginative William’s frequent misunderstandings of adult conversation, and stubborn refusal to admit his ignorance. On hearing that his mother is going to run a White Elephant stall at the Fete, for example, he spectacularly gets hold of the wrong end of the stick, explaining to the Outlaws that white elephants “come from the cold places —same as polar bears. That’s what turns ’em white —roamin’ about in snow and ice.” His imaginativeness extends to side-splitting literary endeavours, which this reviewer much enjoyed as a similarly ink-stained child. My particular favourite was a play featuring Perkin Warbeck mysteriously dressed up as George Washington: “george washington (throing off disgize). I am not george washington thou villun I am perkin warbeck and I have cum to waid in thy blud.”
The more peripheral permanent characters in the books are also interesting. There is, of course, the rival gang, the repulsive Hubert Laneites, but far more interesting are the nouveau riche Botts. Materialistic, busy Mr Bott is almost an Essex Man avant la lettre, while his socially-climbing wife constantly fails in her rather tasteless and dim attempts to impress the neighbourhood. In these portrayals there is a hint of snobbery, an unpleasant undertone in an otherwise openhearted series. Assertive, coquettish Violet Elizabeth Bott, their be-ringleted, lisping offspring, is a horrifyingly manipulative child, with her recurring awful threat “I’ll thcream and I’ll thcream ’till I’m thick!” She contrasts with the outwardly submissive Joan, who succeeds in thereby managing William. (William clearly adores her, though he is gruff about it.) Clearly intended as a satire on adult dynamics, the gender politics are very much of their time.
In a remarkable interview featured on the complete BBC Martin Jarvis recordings of the stories, Crompton speaks at length about her creation. It is striking that, despite the many illnesses and privations which she endured, including a permanently paralysed leg from the polio which ended her brilliant teaching career at Bromley High School when she was a young woman, she consistently radiated grace, lively humour, and cheerful kindliness in all her recorded interviews. If she was ever down-hearted, she certainly never betrayed it. Her steady stream of William novels demonstrates a serious point about literary frivolity: associated with female writers, and therefore critically undervalued, it was in fact often deployed as a stoical response to difficult life circumstances. Crompton’s wit was gratefully received by the English reading public, some of whom were no doubt also struggling in their own lives. The books were instantly popular, and they have been reprinted time and again. Crompton relates a particularly interesting anecdote about an old lady who, at the end of her life, became convinced that William was staying with her, and spent a very happy final few weeks cooking for and tending to William, who, one hopes, showed some decent manners for once. (This is a very strange choice of imaginary houseguest, when the old lady could instead have hallucinated the Scarlet Pimpernel, for example, but horses for courses.)
What is particularly fascinating, looking back, is the extreme topicality of the books. It must have been somewhat reassuring for children during the tumultuous first half of the century to read Crompton’s lampoonings of bolshevism, fascism and dictators, words which they would have overheard at home but probably not completely understood. William’s political allegiances, particularly in 1924, were highly capricious. After a brief flirtation with bolshevism he attempts to throw in his lot with the Liberals: “I know a lot ‘bout the rackshunaries —you know, the ole Conservies— I’d like to go callin’ ‘em names, too,” he remarks appealingly to his campaigning uncle. (Such episodes provide a salutary reminder that there have been periods in modern history even more polarised than the current age.) Delightfully, Crompton uses her dour creation to highlight the silliness of the Jazz Age, as William stymies his flapper sister Ethel at every turn, or inadvertently parodies the thriving advertising industry (“HAVE YOU TRIED MOSSES COKERNUT LUMPS?”) In wartime, William and the Evacuees must have provided much-needed comfort and amusement to children who found themselves uprooted from London and deposited on rural areas. In this book, William feuds with the skinny, argumentative Cockney Arabella Simpkin, a sort of working-class female version of himself. ‘“I been ’vacuated,” said a small child proudly. “It made my arm come up somethink orful.” “Shut up, Georgie Parker,” said Arabella. “It’s a diff’rent sort of ’vacuated you have done on your arm. It’s to stop you turnin’ into a cow you have it done on your arm.”’ Similarly, William and Air Raid Precautions, William Does His Bit and William Carries On must also have raised juvenile morale, as William grimly set out to defeat "ole Hitler." This was a sensitive and wise move on Crompton’s part; rather than offering children escapism by pretending that life in William's village was going on just as usual, she helped them to face the things that frightened them by making them funny. During the fifties, William’s dynamism and energy were a tonic for a drab and exhausted country, as he devoted himself to the space race in William and the Space Animal. In the 1960s he even engaged with popular culture, to somewhat uncertain effect (William and the Pop Singers, William the Superman).
Throughout the series, the reader forms the impression of a woman who genuinely liked and respected children, and was sympathetic to their querulousness at the state of the world and the various aspects of life that just don’t, as William is often wont to complain, make sense. For those who would like more of a sense of Crompton’s unique personality and endless comic inventiveness, I can warmly recommend the delightful, now-completed website Just William’s Year (http://justwilliamsyear.co.uk/) which features a blog post on each of the 360 short stories that make up the 39 books, written by young rabbinical student Gabriel Webber in his spare moments —proof that William continues to shoulder his way, scowling, into the future. --Isabel Taylor