- William Brown's World
Richmal Crompton's "William" books, each made up of short stories with eleven year old William as hero, were first published from 1922 to 1970, and there are, in all, nearly forty books and over four hundred stories. They continue to be very popular in Britain with children of about William's age, the early books as much as the later ones. In the last decade most have been reissued in paperback, and William has been featured in a television series. This long popularity is, at first sight, surprising. The books appear more suitable for adults, for whom the original stories were intended: vocabulary is wide, there are frequent satirical presentations of such types as the would-be aesthete or imaginary invalid, and the treatment of William is often ironic and even patronizing. The early books at least are now remote in time and have a distinct period flavour, and the world they depict is narrow and, in most respects, remarkably unchanging. The same basic cast of characters reappears time after time and William invariably dominates—even his three closest friends, the other "outlaws," remain shadowy and barely distinguishable from each other. Yet, as their publishing record shows, the books continue to appeal, to children and to adults who find themselves reading to children. This article considers why they have remained so popular; it focuses on the first ten books, published between 1922 and 1929, those which one would expect to be most remote from the experiences of the eighties.
The point of view is ostensibly adult. William is often referred to as a "small boy"—puzzling to an eleven-year-old reader who would never describe himself as such—and viewed from an ironic distance. In the earliest stories, the distancing is evident in the conclusions. "Reader, if you had been left, at the age of eleven, in sole charge of a sweet shop for a whole morning, would it have been 'all right' with you? I trow not" (Just William 177). After the first book, Just William, there are few overt appeals to adults, but readers are often expected to be more knowledgeable and sophisticated than William and his companions. There are many stories where the outlaws write letters and notices, and we are meant to be amused by their rudimentary grammar and spelling. It is not even clear that William is a credible eleven-year-old: his games of cowboys and Indians, and his ability to believe that a nearby wood is unexplored by man, or that a story he has just concocted is the truth (many of the plots turn on such points)—suggest a child of about seven rather than eleven. One might infer that the adult narrator cannot distinguish between the two age groups.
The social context of the early William books naturally reflects Richmal Crompton's class and generation, and will be unfamiliar to most contemporary readers. It is conveyed partly through obviously topical references—for example, to the "wireless" as a recent invention—but mainly through a set of assumptions about what is normal. A person's class is immediately distinguishable by speech and dress. William's parents and their associates are upper-middle class, and members of other social groups—aristocrats, farmers, servants, shopkeepers, workers—appear only intermittently and seem to lead very separate lives. The upper-middle class have large homes and gardens, and various servants. Men work at a distance and do not refer to their work at home, and most women have ample time for walks, gardening, tea parties, and amateur theatrics. The church plays a fairly central role, and sponsors such activities as fetes, Band of Hope meetings for children, and wait singing at Christmas.
Adult society is, however, only a background to most of William's activities, and he does not share its values. Much of William's personal world is established in the first story of the first book, "William goes to the Pictures," He sees a sequence of five silent movies, each a hackneyed example of its genre. There is a cops and robbers story, involving a long and complicated chase; a "simple country love story"; another...