The first Big Books I can recall reading as a child were Richmal Crompton’s William books. Every Saturday, after our weekly swim at the local pool, I would be found in the public library gradually working my way through the series. I remember briefly sampling Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, but these boarding school adventures about posh children held little appeal. Likewise, I found nothing to interest me in the war stories of W.E. Johns’s Biggles; and my parents evidently failed to push me in the direction of ‘children’s classics’ like Swallows and Amazons or The Chronicles of Narnia.
William was not intended to be improving literature. Even his creator, Richmal Crompton, described the books as ‘pot-boilers’. She would have preferred to be known for the adult family sagas she produced in great quantities over her fifty-year writing career, but it was not to be. William, first published in magazines in 1919 and in book form in 1922, lasted through 38 collections of stories until her death in 1969. More than 12 million copies have been sold in the UK alone, and the books have been translated into around a dozen languages – although interestingly they have never succeeded in the United States. While the books have rarely been out of print, William has also enjoyed an extensive after-life through television, radio and audio books, continuing well into the twenty first century: the most recent TV version was a short BBC series aired in 2010, ninety years after the first stories were published. As the covers of the paperback reprints of the 1990s proclaimed, William was ‘the most popular boy in fiction’ – at least until the advent of Harry Potter, with whom he makes an interesting comparison.
I don’t think I realized at the time that the author of these books was female. Unlike J.K. Rowling, Crompton didn’t intend to disguise her gender, although I’m not sure it would have discouraged six-year-old boy readers like me in any case. Richmal Crompton Lamburn (to give her full name) had a very conventional upper-middle-class upbringing. The daughter of a clergyman and Classics teacher, she attended an Anglican boarding school in Lancashire and later in Derbyshire. In 1914, she took a degree in Classics at Royal Holloway College, and went on to become a Classics teacher herself, first at her old school, and then at a high school in Bromley, just outside London. Her life changed when she contracted polio in 1923, leaving her partly paralyzed; and in the early 1930s, she had a mastectomy following breast cancer. The immediate success of the early William stories enabled her to give up teaching, and buy property, where she lived first with her mother, and subsequently with her older sister. It seems that Crompton had no romantic relationships in her life: she became what she described (somewhat ironically) as a ‘professional Victorian aunt’, especially for her sister’s children.
Crompton remained a devout Christian, although she developed a passing interest in spiritualism later in life; and she was also a true-blue Conservative, who campaigned for the party in local elections. Despite the popular success of the William books, she remained interested in scholarly pursuits, especially in Ancient Greek literature. In most respects, her life could be described as respectable and traditional, even old-fashioned.
The appeal of William
The continuing appeal of William might be seen as a symptom of adult nostalgia – and to some extent, it is. Yet William still seems to appeal directly to contemporary children. As part of the eightieth anniversary celebration of his creation, the publisher Macmillan produced twenty William books with facsimiles of the original jackets, while also launching a set of abridged versions for younger readers with much more contemporary cover designs. So how might we account for the longevity of William’s success?
As an adult re-reading some of the stories today, I was not surprised to find them highly formulaic; although I also found some of them genuinely very funny. The earlier stories in particular are full of gentle social comedy, as characters are satirized and parodied. There is a kind of relish in how Crompton works through the twists and coincidences of the narrative, and the little jokes that she distributes throughout.
The location and many of the characters seem to have been established in the very earliest stories, before they were published in book form. William is the youngest son of an upper-middle-class family living in an English village, apparently not far from London, where his father commutes daily. This is a pastoral setting, a narrow and safe world of genteel tea parties and church fetes, amateur dramatics and tennis clubs, respectable ladies and their domestic servants – although, as we shall see, there are occasional intrusions of modernity.
However, William and his gang of friends, the Outlaws, live in a world that is partly of their imagination – a world of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, Arthurian legends and international espionage. Many of the stories are concerned with the boys’ apparent confusion between these fictions and reality, or at least their overly ambitious attempts to make these fantasies come true – and these are delusions that the reader is expected to see through.
William is to some extent a force of anarchy, a lord of misrule. He persistently disrupts the calm and comforting stability of the village and of family life, generating chaos and confusion. Yet William is not at all malicious or destructive, or even disobedient. While he is certainly often naive, he is always well-meaning. He is loyal to his friends, fair-minded and honourable. While he can be opinionated and obstructive, he is rarely openly resistant to adult authority – although he does frequently express a resentment of adults’ unreasonable demands, their occasional inconsistencies and hypocrisies, and their misunderstandings of children’s point of view. William is typically scruffy and dirty, but even in the school holidays he consistently appears in school uniform, with drooping socks and untied shoelaces and his cap and tie askew.
As Crompton herself wrote, William is not the ‘bad boy of fiction’, as he has sometimes been called:
His insatiable curiosity may put the refrigerator out of action, immoblize the Hoover and fuse the electric lights, but it is the spirit of the inventor and pioneer that inspires his work of destruction. He explores unknown stretches of country, plunging into ditches, climbing trees, doing battle with his enemies, and comes home a sight to break his mother’s heart, but his courage and initiative are the stuff of which heroes are made. He has sudden impulses to ‘help’ his family. He ‘helps’ to wash up and leaves a trial of broken crockery in his wake; he ‘helps’ to bring in the coal, covering face, hands and the kitchen floor; he ‘helps’ bring in the deck chairs, becoming inextricably entangled with each; he puts in a spot of gardening and no one can ever use the secateurs again. It is not always easy to remember how laudable his intentions were… (1962, quoted in Cadogan, p. 72)
Typical stories will involve two, or sometimes three, storylines. These often result from William’s fantasies and ambitions, which are clearly marked as unrealistic and impossible from the start – often through dialogue with his sceptical friends. William frequently misreads the ideas and intentions of adults, filtering them through his own fantasies. Alternatively, he sees adult foibles as a means to realize his own and his friends’ desires – for money, for a new bike, for avoiding adults’ demands, or for some form of revenge on somebody who has wronged him. For example, William’s older sister Ethel and his brother Robert are frequently involved in superficial romantic entanglements: while Ethel is often seen as flirtatious, Robert is merely a sap. William despises this, but it also provides him with knowledge and situations that he can manipulate to his own advantage.
Through layers of misunderstanding, coincidence and lucky accident, events rise to a pitch of chaos, followed by a denouement in which order is quickly restored. The absolute rule is that, however embarrassing and disorderly the situations might become, William invariably wins out. His grandiose schemes always fail, but nevertheless he gets what he wants; and in the process, he also frequently finds a way of pleasing the adults around him, by fulfilling their stated or unstated wishes. At the story’s end, William is often congratulated, and hardly ever blamed, let alone punished. While adults may be vain and sometimes hypocritical, and while there are occasional villains (usually of the criminal variety), adult authority is generally seen as benevolent too.
The sheer predictability of this formula, across many dozens of stories, is undoubtedly part of its appeal. We know the way these stories go, even if we do not know exactly how this particular one is going to pan out. For the reader, a key pleasure comes from seeing William vindicated and victorious once again, apparently against the odds. This repetitiveness is of course a recurring feature of children’s stories, and particularly of series fiction: it is a quality William shares with the British series mentioned above, as well as American ones such as Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Goosebumps. Any parent who has been exasperated by their children’s compulsive re-playing of favourite videos can confirm that this also applies to more contemporary media.