The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 98-111
[Access article in PDF]
Richmal Crompton's Unusual Achievement
"The Most Popular Boy in Fiction," boast the covers of Richmal Crompton's series of thirty-eight William books. Publishers' hype? Possibly not (at least until Harry Potter came along), when the facts are considered. The stories began to appear in print in 1919, in Britain's The Ladies Home Magazine, the kind of monthly designed to appeal to the whole family yet mainly catering to adults. However, when the editorial staff found that children as well as their parents were eagerly turning to each new installment, the stories were collected in book form and released, beginning in 1922 with the book Just--William, in cheap editions packaged to appeal to the youth market. So although originally written with an adult audience in mind, as Crompton herself freely admitted, the William stories were enormously popular with children from the beginning; in fact, their demand created the series in book form, a very unusual occurrence. 1 The stories continued to appear in magazines before being collected in books (first in The Ladies Home Magazine, then in Happy Mag) until wartime paper shortages ended many weeklies and monthlies in 1940; after that they were released directly in book form, the thirty-eighth William book appearing posthumously in 1970, a year after Crompton's death at age seventy-eight.
How enormously popular have these books been and indeed continue to be? They have sold well over twelve million copies (this in a country with a population one-fifth the size of the United States), and all are still in print, even after almost eighty years. After Crompton's death, many thought the books would be too oldfashioned for the Swinging Sixties in Britain (Cadogan, Just 92-95), but Macmillan began publishing paperback facsimiles of the original editions, which continue to be on the bookshelves of High Street W. H. Smith and Waterstone's stores. Recently Macmillan also released a new series for younger readers aged [End Page 98] about six to eight, called Meet Just William, featuring the original stories edited down and a little updated by the actor Martin Jarvis, himself a great William fan and reader of the stories on radio and on a very popular series of audio cassettes. There have been several dramatizations over the years, in a feature film in 1939 and television series in 1962, 1977, and most recently in 1994. As librarians in Britain will attest, the books are always checked out, as I discovered when I tried to borrow them. (Luckily, there is a brisk trade in William books in secondhand bookshops, and there is always W. H. Smith.) Many young readers have become members of William's Outlaws Club, an organization still sponsored by the publishers. William is even in Madame Tussaud's.
What is even more impressive, it is virtually impossible to find someone in Britain between the ages of ten and ninety who has not read at least some of the William books. And all speak of William with delight, not with the condescension or embarrassment or nostalgia that series books sometimes call forth. For example, in "The Hardy Boys Revisited: A Study in Prejudice," Gerard O'Connor confesses, "Re-reading the series now, twenty-five years after I grew up with it, is an experience as traumatic as it is embarrassing" (239). In his study of the "deep structure" of series books, Gary D. Schmidt defines one kind of series, to which the William books clearly belong, by its plot structures: "Series like this have a recurring cast of characters who--and this is crucial--do not change. . . . What characterizes the novels within a series of this sort is a set of adventures which have almost identical plot situations. . . " (164). The best known of these series are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift--those published by the Stratemeyer syndicate--and as Schmidt goes on to explain:
Today, this is a form which is often denigrated, perhaps because of its formulaic nature...