Boys will be boys…
It is hard to know whether the William stories have appealed primarily to boys. Richmal Crompton’s repeated attempts to create an equivalent female heroine in other stories for children appear to have had little success – although there are plenty of powerful women in her adult novels. In her youth, Crompton herself was a suffragist (rather than a more radical suffragette), and she remained financially independent throughout her life. It would be too much to accuse the William stories of a kind of proto-feminism, but there is a sense in which William’s essential ‘boyishness’ is seen from the outside, from a female perspective.
William conforms to all the stereotypical expectations of boyishness, albeit without displaying many of the more negative attributes (such as aggression) that are conventionally associated with it. We are frequently told (by the author and her characters) that ‘boys will be boys’, and that William is merely displaying ‘natural high spirits’, or some variant of this. For Crompton, William almost seems to belong to an earlier stage of evolution, before the advent of true civilization:
There is a theory that, on our way from the cradle to the grave, we pass through all the stages of evolution, and the boy of eleven is at the stage of the savage – loyal to his tribe, ruthless to his foes, governed by mysterious taboos, an enemy of civilization and all its meaningless conventions. (Cadogan, p. 73)
William’s untidy and dirty appearance, his love of scrapping with his friends and enemies alike, his disdain for good manners and propriety, all fulfill this stereotype of boyishness. Yet it is particularly reinforced by his disdain for girlishness – or at least an equally stereotypical idea of girlishness, especially as represented in the character of Violet Elizabeth Bott, the spoilt daughter of a local nouveau-riche businessman. As Crompton goes on:
He dislikes little girls, not only because he considers them to belong to an inferior order of being but also because he suspects them of being allies of the civilization that threatens his liberty.
With her frilly dresses, her rosy clean face and bubbly curls, and her lisp, Violet Elizabeth represents William’s nemesis. She is a nightmare vision of femininity – one that is several degrees more appalling than its adult equivalent in the form of his sister Ethel or the boy-hating elderly spinsters of the village. Violet’s ability to get her own way derives especially from her often-quoted threat to ‘thcream and thcream till I’m thick’.
Yet if Violet Elizabeth is a kind of parody of girlish femininity, William might equally be seen as an affectionate parody of boyish masculinity – although he is obviously a more complex and likeable character. We are invited to identify with William, and to take his side; but we are also invited to laugh at his boyish immaturity.
…and children will be children?
This ambivalence is perhaps more apparent in terms of age, rather than gender. In fact, the William stories were initially written for adult women, rather than for children. The first stories were published in the women’s magazine Home, and subsequently moved to The Happy Mag, a family publication. Unexpectedly for their author, the stories proved popular with children too, and once they began to appear in book form, they were more explicitly aimed towards child readers.
Nevertheless, the stories continued to be targeted to adult women too, as late as the 1940s and 1950s. During wartime, they appeared in Modern Woman (1940-44) and Homes and Gardens (1943-45) and then in Home Notes (1947-48), while William ran as a comic strip in Woman’s Own between 1947 and 1969. Crompton maintained that the stories were written for adults, and that she knew very little about writing for children – although clearly she (and her publishers) could not deny their popularity with child readers. As we shall see, the after-life of William – especially in the form of audio books – also seems to depend upon a large adult market.
So are these stories for children, or merely stories about children? Some critics (such as William Whyte) have argued as much, while others (most notably Aiden Chambers) argue that Crompton’s approach changed when she realized her popularity with children and came to see them as her ‘true audience’. Yet in my view, both possibilities can be the case: like a good deal of children’s fiction (not least Harry Potter), these books have a dual address, and hence an appeal, to both adults and children.
Thus, on the one hand, the William books take the familiar ‘child-centred’ perspective that is common in popular children’s literature. Like Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, the Outlaws live in an idyllic rural world, in which they are free to roam with very little adult constraint. The gang is a kind of secret society (a common motif in children’s literature), of which adults know nothing. Indeed, for the most part adults are either absent or ineffectual in their attempts to control the boys. While they are occasionally displeased, they are more frequently confused or ignorant about what the gang is doing.
Indeed, it is striking to note how much freedom William and his cohorts have, when seen from the perspective of the much more tightly regulated childhoods of the twenty-first century. The Outlaws wander around the countryside, frequently trespassing across fields or in empty houses. On the face of it, they also engage in a good deal of ‘anti-social’ behaviour – fighting, theft, vandalism, bullying and the like – although they are generally well-intentioned in doing so. If William’s modern-day equivalent were to live on an urban public housing estate, he would probably have been subject to an ASBO (an Anti-Social Behaviour Order), or long since been placed in juvenile detention.
William is consistently successful in outsmarting adults; and yet when he wins out, they are often obliged to thank and congratulate him. In carrying out his plans, he often undermines or debunks adults’ pretensions and hypocrisies. However, this is rarely overt, or even intended: William sometimes voices a kind of ‘savage’ critique of the ‘civilized’ adult world, but he is more likely to be puzzled or confused by the strange things adults get up to. His victories over adults are most frequently achieved inadvertently, by accident rather than design. Aside from the few criminals and nefarious characters who occasionally appear in the village, adults are rarely dishonest or malicious in intent. To be sure, much of William’s success is achieved at the expense of the adult world; yet if this is subversive, it is only very mildly so.
On the other hand, the style of writing might suggest that the books are addressed to adults. The vocabulary is often quite elevated, and there are elements of social satire and irony that most child readers would probably find obscure. Many of the descriptions of adult eccentricities – the pretentious failed artists, the inept politicians, the loopy spiritualists, the vain social climbers – refer to aspects of adult life that would be beyond the grasp of many children. William’s poor spelling and grammar are also played for laughs, as are his stumbling and inarticulate attempts to justify himself to adults. The Outlaws employ forms of language and logic that are clearly marked as child-like, betraying a lack of basic understanding of the adult world.
Perhaps more significantly, the narrative often requires the reader to be more knowledgeable than William himself. Many of William’s schemes seem self-evidently idiotic or fanciful, and the passing doubts of the other Outlaws confirm this, until they are swept along with his optimism and energy. Caught up in his world of smugglers, spies and cowboys, William sometimes seems to have a precarious grasp of reality – and again, this is frequently pointed out to us, not least as his grandiose schemes invariably go wrong. The humour depends upon us recognizing William as a loveable fantasist, whose plans cannot conceivably work.
Likewise, William frequently misunderstands adults’ ideas and intentions, even as he exposes their hypocrisy: he often imagines sinister and melodramatic explanations for their behaviour (such as international espionage) that invariably prove wide of the mark. Here again, the reader is invited to judge William’s view of the adult world from a position of greater knowledge or maturity: we either understand what is really happening, or look for more rational explanations, in contrast to William’s wildly fanciful accounts.
While it easy to see how these ironies might appeal to adult readers, there is no reason to assume they are not accessible to children as well. Children might ‘identify’ with William, but much of the appeal of the stories – and especially the humour – depends upon the reader seeing William from a distance. The reader, we might say, has to read as an adult, and not only as a child.
To some extent, then, William represents a rejection of idealized images of childhood, of the kind represented by A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin (which Crompton reportedly hated). However, he is also loveable, and even somewhat cute. He is another, equally sentimentalized, figure common in representations of childhood: the loveable scamp. As such, he stands in a long tradition, running from Mickey Rooney in the 1930s to Macaulay Culkin in the Home Alone films. This is a quality very well captured in Thomas Henry’s original line-drawn illustrations (and later those of Henry Ford): William is pictured as rosy-cheeked, snub-nosed, with his school cap askew, and looks significantly younger than the eleven-year-old he is supposed to be. He is mischievous, but not malevolent; he causes trouble, but it is rarely serious or lasting. He is occasionally cheeky, but never truly rebellious. On the contrary, he is essentially playful. As such, he represents very little threat to adult authority.