William’s escapades began in book form, but were soon turned into radio shows, TV series, and movies.
Scruffy, mischievous, and largely inscrutable, at least as far as adults are concerned, William Brown is one of the most well-known and beloved characters in children’s literature. Created by novelist Richmal Crompton, he made his debut 100 years ago when his first Just William book was published in 1922.
Over the ensuing century, he has remained a perennial favorite, the star of no fewer than 38 books, later translated into dozens of foreign languages, as well as countless movies, television series, radio shows, and plays.
In English alone, more than 12 million Just William books have been sold. But how the heck did this rascally schoolboy, with his loyal group of friends, The Outlaws, and his outrageous escapades, get so popular?
Jane McVeigh, whose recent biography of the author has been published to celebrate the centenary, says: “William is a timeless character. He has been described as something of an everyman. He can speak to all of us because we look at the adult world through his 11-year-old eyes and see people for who they really are. I think that really moved Crompton readers.”
One of William’s key character traits was his rebelliousness. In the stories that Crompton wrote until his death at age 78 in 1969, the schoolboy was always involved in all kinds of trouble.
There was a time when he pinched his brother’s bike and it skidded out of control during the family picnic. Or when she decided to lock the family cook in the coal cellar to raid the pantry and invite her friends to a party at home. Or the sanctuary that she opened for the protection of rats.
On one occasion, he and The Outlaws kidnapped a baby and left him in charge of a cow. In another, he broke into a house only to discover another, more serious burglar at work. Inevitably, whatever William does, often with the best of intentions, results in total chaos.
Also, inevitably, he almost always emerges victorious.
William has remained a perennial favorite for over a decade.
Having first appeared in the 1920s, he is the original mischievous schoolboy, an inspiration for all manner of fictional rascals, from Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx, to Pippi Longstocking, Bart Simpson and Horrid Henry. McVeigh says that William’s rebellious behavior is key to his attractiveness.
“He does things that we all wish we had done but know we wouldn’t have been brave enough to do. And he does it all with a certain innocence, not always understanding the implications of what he’s doing.”
William Brown lives in an unnamed fictional town in the Home Counties, with his long-suffering parents and older siblings Ethel and Robert.
When not costumed as a pirate, thief, or lion tamer, he usually sports a scruffy school uniform, scuffed shoes, unkempt hair, and a dirty face. His speech and writing are peppered with mispronunciations, malapropisms, misspellings, and dropped consonants.
In one story, William hangs a sign on his snoring Aunt Emily’s bed saying that she is a “fat wild torkin natif langwidge”. In another, he pretends his mother’s fox fur is a “bear shot by outlaws in Rusher.” At one point, The Outlaws decide their needs should be enshrined in law, so they draft their “Magner Carter,” with six key demands for the government: 1) Both vacation and term; 2) There is no school in the afternoon; 3) Pocket money of sixpence a week and not discounted; 4) No Latin No French No Arithmetic; 5) As many ice creams, bananas and cream buns as we want for free; and 6) There are no penalties and we stay up as late as we want.
The nostalgic, interwar, upper-middle-class world William initially inhabits is one of village parties, servants, amateur theater, dusty school classrooms, well-stocked sweet shops, conker fights, and picnics.
Millions of readers continue to enjoy Richmal Crompton’s 38 Just William books
In addition to his fellow outlaws (Ginger, Henry, and Douglas), recurring characters include Joan (whom William has a soft spot for), various strict teachers, doctors, and a procession of elderly aunts and male cousins. The Outlaws face a regular nemesis in a rival gang called the Hubert Laneites, led by the spoiled Hubert Lane (“Hubey” to his beloved mother). There’s also William’s pet mongrel, Jumble, with “fox-terrier ears, retriever nose, collie tail” and “slightly dachshund body that quivers with joie de vivre”.
Aside from William, perhaps the most memorable character of all is Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping, spoiled six-year-old daughter of the local self-made millionaire who warns, “I’m going to scream and scream until I get fat…and I can.” Crompton described Violet’s voice as “a scream that would have put a factory siren to shame and guaranteed that anyone within thirty feet would have a costly nervous breakdown.” , William’s nemesis was played by a young Bonnie Langford.
As a result of all the chaos that William regularly inflicts, his father becomes convinced that his younger offspring are “crazy; rigid, crazy to bind. He tells his wife, “You should take him to a doctor and have his brain examined.” His mother is more understanding. “Children are very funny things,” she observes. William, meanwhile, is constantly struggling to make sense of the confusing adult world around him, and all the hypocrisy and pomposity of it.
“In a subtle way, he’s a subversive figure who defies authority,” says McVeigh. “He points out the flaws in adult behavior.” But it’s the comedy in the Just William books that stands out the most.
“There’s a mix of farce and slapstick, but there’s also very subtle social comedy and satire,” McVeigh continues.
“And the way Crompton uses vocabulary… Some fans have said that he can write a single line and capture something in it that is so true about life and human nature.”
William will always be 11 years old
Richmal Crompton Lamburn, to use his full name, was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1890. After studying at Royal Holloway College, Surrey, she took a job teaching classics at Bromley High School, Kent, and lived in Kent. . she suburbs her the rest of her life.
In 1923, she contracted polio while on vacation in Norfolk, a disease that nearly killed her. As McVeigh explains in her book Richmal Crompton: A Literary Life: “Until the end of her life, she couldn’t walk without help and she always needed someone’s arm or her cane when she was out of her “.
From then on, Crompton concentrated on his writing, producing a large body of work, including some 50 works of adult fiction in addition to Just William’s 38 books.
Despite celebrating his 100th birthday this year, William will always be 11 years old. Even the characters he shares his stories with refuse to age.
But the politics and global events of the 20th century inevitably invade this fictional world. There are stories set in World War II, the Blitz, the advent of television, and even the “Space Race.” Fashions and slang develop over time. The 1965 book William and the Pop Singers is a clear reference to The Beatles.
Like much ancient fiction, some of Crompton’s stories clash with the modern reader. One, titled William and the Nasties, from a 1935 collection, has been withdrawn from reprints due to anti-Semitic references.
“Crompton later regretted it,” explains McVeigh.
“But you have to admit that some of the ways he writes would not be acceptable today.”
Biographer Jane McVeigh
While the books alone were enormously popular, Just William’s adaptation for radio, television and film has helped ensure that this mischievous boy is forever remembered in post-war British culture. By 1946, the BBC’s radio plays, many of them written by Crompton herself, were enjoying an audience of nine million.
There were several films, the first, Just William, released in 1940.
But it has been the various television and radio series that have continued to attract new generations of fans. The first aired in the 1950s. There were two series in the 1960s, one starring Dennis Waterman, who would later appear in The Sweeney and Minder. Other series aired in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2010s.
Most recently, actor Martin Jarvis narrated the stories for BBC Radio 4, helping to introduce them to another generation.
In fact, William Brown became such a successful character in Crompton’s lifetime that she admitted that she ended up being controlled by him.
“He was my puppet. I pulled the strings,” she once wrote. “But gradually the tables have turned. I’m his puppet. He pulls the strings. Like all characters who have been pampered excessively by the authors of him, he insists on getting his way.”
In January 1969, shortly before the publication of his last book on William, William the Lawless, Crompton died in a Kent hospital.
But today, a century after its appearance, its most famous creation lives on. As McVeigh says of William: “Their spirit of him lives on as fans in the UK and abroad continue to read the stories of him throughout his lives and other readers recognize him as a cultural icon.”
Will children still be reading about William in another 100 years?
McVeigh thinks not. “Perhaps they read about a fantastic boy or girl who lives in space, or who is a digital avatar. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had very similar features to William’s.”
- Richmal Crompton: A Literary Life by Jane McVeigh is published by Palgrave Macmillan priced at £17.99
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