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September 06, 2006

The Alternative Brown Boy: Richmal Crompton's William Again and Sweet William

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Again
by Richmal Crompton
Pp. 251. George Newnes, 1923

Sweet William
by Richmal Crompton
Pp. 252. George Newnes, 1936

It does worry me sometimes that the fictional character with whom I can most easily identify is a bombastic fantasist and petty gang leader retarded at the age of eleven. He is a compulsive attention-seeker and his most firmly held principle is an opposition to compulsory education. In the course of a short train journey across Southern England he can convince himself that he is a spy travelling through enemy territory, a general moving up to the front with his staff and the owner of a circus. He hates being told what to do; he is always hungry. He is convinced that the remarks he makes to other people are "a jolly sight more interestin'" than what they have to say to him. This is getting spooky, but my wife is more worried about the similarities than I am.

For those who have not recognised him this is William Brown, Just William, the creation of Richmal Crompton, a partly disabled Lancastrian spinster and schoolteacher, who was born Richmal Crompton Lamburn in 1890 and died in 1969. William Brown first featured in a short story in 1919 and went on to be the central character in thirty-eight collections of stories. He shares his surname with Tom Brown and also a place in the great English catalogue of children's (mainly boys') writing which began with Charles Kingsley and Tom Hughes. (I'm not sure when it ended.) But otherwise they are opposites in every way; William is the alternative Brown, the alternative boy.

Most of the central characters in the vast collection of English children's writing, including thousands of school stories, embody the Victorian idea of virtue to some degree. William does not: he does not "do" modesty, humility or unselfishness. His virtues, if you will allow them, are a love of liberty, a zest for life and a kind of honesty. He is more like Falstaff or Bottom than he is like Tom Brown. When compared with the Christian Socialism to which the Doctor converts Tom, William's political preferences are a dictatorship with himself as dictator - followed by anarchy if that isn't an option.

When I was a child reading the books I always liked the place William lived in. It is a village called Marleigh, near a town called Hadley. It is not clear where these are except that they are in the outer Home Counties: at one point we discover that London is fifty miles away. I think of it as being in the Chilterns, but that may be my own fancy. The village is almost entirely inhabited by the middle-classes - commuters, pensioners, rentiers, the odd writer seeking a retreat. Agriculture is not prominent; it is a background, represented by farmers and bulls (both generally hostile), horses (usually friendly) and barns which William uses for meetings, theatrical productions and the incarceration of his enemies. The description of the countryside seems strangely accurate for comic fiction. Rural South East England in the inter-war period was deep in an agricultural depression, but also a pocket of booming prosperity in a collapsing global economy. Prosperous commuters, among them William's father, were filling up the villages, creating, for the first time, a village which is about the idea of the countryside rather than about the production of food. When he is able to forget his progeny, Mr Brown has found his idyll (William Again, p. 68):

It was a perfect evening. Sabbath calm reigned supreme over the countryside. The trees were just beginning to turn from green to gold. The birds’ song rang through the still evening air. As Mr. Brown walked along, a sense of peace and well-being descended upon him. He completely forgot William. Then, suddenly, he turned a bend in the road and saw a curious figure . . .
Marleigh is thus more like a village in the twenty first century than a traditional rustic backwater. Much of its comedy arises from its citizens' interest in social reform and in new intellectual movements. In "The Native Protégé" the villagers sponsor the education of a boy from Borneo. William, having blacked up for his own amusement with greasepaint stolen from a school theatrical production, is confused with the native protégé, who has arrived in England for his first visit. On seeing him, the vicar's wife comments (William Again, p. 141):
"The beauty of these dark-skinned races. The knowledge, the wisdom they seem to hold."

"Bunkum allis lippis," said William, feeling that something further was expected of him.

This was written at arguably the high point of English racism when Tom Bevan, for example, was writing boys stories which contained huge doses of racial contempt. Marleigh was, indeed, a rather advanced place in its own way.

William has a family whom he routinely detests. His father is a benign, but generally distant commuter, his mother kindly but feeble. His brother Robert and sister Ethel are much older, on the fringes of late adolescence and adulthood, mainly preoccupied with affairs of the heart. William is hurt and disappointed by their general policy of ignoring him (even when he trails evidence that he has been kidnapped or brutally murdered) but equally annoyed by the particular forms which their occasional interest takes. At breakfast their determination to ignore him is at the height of its intensity (William Again, p. 30):

But William liked an audience - even a hostile one consisting of his own family. . . . . . This morning William, surveying his family in silence in the intervals of making a very hearty meal, came to the conclusion, not for the first time, that they were hardly worthy of him.
It is at this point that I must indulge a little proper nostalgia. William, eleven years old, is left alone to get on with it, to wander round the countryside inventing his own fantasies (much as I was). The countryside was probably no more or less dangerous than it is now: it had it's share of wild bulls, gangs of hostile youths and very violent schoolgirls, all of whom might attack you. Not to mention criminals and dodgy tramps. Arguably the period 1919-23, between the first William story and the publication of Just William, was the most violent in modern British history.

The difference from our own period is that William's parents do not feel the need to incarcerate him to protect him from all this; he does not have to spend his time sitting in the back of a car or in front of a screen. He complains bitterly that he would rather live in any historical period other than the one he's born into, but he doesn't know how lucky he is. Mr Brown was too old for the Great War and Robert too young, one presumes, so they also are in luck.

William's enemies include his family, all teachers and farmers, the pampered brats of the Hubert Lane gang and persons of the female persuasion. The last category is the most complex and ambiguous. William is inclined to claim that he detests them. When accosted by a group of schoolgirls in "Pensions for Boys" who demand to know why not girls as well, he rather bravely says it is because he doesn't like them. And when they demand, in their nosy female way, why he doesn't like them, he says (Sweet William, p. 227):

"'Cause they're soppy an' batty an' stuck-up an' stupid . . . . 'Cause they can't play fair or talk sense. ’Cause . .
He is severely beaten up for his honesty (Crompton was a former suffragette). And, in any case, it's not true. William often has a soft spot for girls. In the story "Not Much" he becomes besotted by a passing cockney lass called Eglantine, even making determined but unsuccessful attempts to talk like her. And there is his permanent friendship with the lovely and loyal Joan Clive who falls in so readily with all his fantasies (William Again, p. 233):
She was quite satisfactory. She entered into the spirit of a thing and had the additional advantage of not demanding a prominent role.
She stands at the opposite end of the female spectrum from William's nemesis, Violet Elizabeth Bott, the girl who carries the Ultimate Weapon with its safety catch off for use whenever her iron will is thwarted ("I'll thcweam and thcweam until I'm thick"). I'm cheating here because Violet Elizabeth doesn't actually feature in either of these books, though in Sweet William her nouveau riche father, the sauce magnate known to his wife as Botty, has already moved into Marleigh Hall.

His permanent allies are his loyal gang of Outlaws, Ginger, Douglas and Henry. They all seem to be both more rational and more knowledgeable than William, but as if in illustration of their contemporary Max Weber's theory of charisma, they nevertheless accept his leadership.

But William has another category of ally with whom he often establishes friendly and profitable relationships. They are the elderly, often those considered senile, including his grandfather, his Irish aunt Jane, a passing cabinet minister and a fairly random sequence of old ladies. The unavoidable point is that William, at eleven, is pre-pubescent. Unlike the odious Robert and Ethel with their ridiculous concerns about who will accompany them to the tennis club ball he is not yet trapped in the human condition, the nexus of lust, love, status and relationships. He is free as only an eleven year old can be free and in ways that working, married adults can barely imagine or remember.

Except, perhaps, a lively and imaginative chaste spinster - and the very old. William slips off to the circus with his "senile" grandfather, to their shared delight; his great aunt Jane is so pleased by his pasting seven bells out of his priggish Irish cousin Francis that she recovers from what was assumed to be her death bed, thus postponing the receipt of legacies by his other Irish relatives; the visiting cabinet minister is so terminally bored by the prospect of making another speech that he prefers to watch one of William's inept theatrical productions in the barn. It seems to me fairly obvious (and I've no idea whether or how often the comparison has been made before) that the long-running BBC TV series Last of the Summer Wine is fully derived from the William books, but with the old replacing the young.

William's political views are very refreshing. He is a fervent opponent of the liberal theory of history with its narrative of reform and progress. He sees a strong case for slavery - particularly if you are going to be an owner - and is entirely unconvinced that the circumstances of children have been improved, frequently offering to go up chimneys or down mines as it would be a good deal more interesting and better paid than school. An interesting dialogue occurs when the vicar's wife forms S.E.F.C.R.C. (Society for Educating Future Citizens in the Responsibilities of Citizenship). Vicars' wives share top billing among Crompton's satirical targets with people who write books about how to raise children and both categories sound remarkably like Tony Blair to an early twenty first century ear (Sweet William, pp. 144-147):

"You see, dear boy," she continued, "when you're grown up, it's you who will govern the country."

William sat up, galvanised into sudden interest. "Crumbs!" he said, "I didn't know that."

"Yes, dear boy," murmured Mrs Monks, "and that's why we want to prepare you to govern it properly."

"Oh, I'll govern it properly all right," said William, "once I get a chance of governing it at all." . . . .

He had often imagined himself dictator of the country, but never before had the position been offered to him by a responsible grown-up person.

"So you see, dear," went on the Vicar's wife, "you must train yourself very carefully for the day when all this power will be put in your hands."

"Oh, that's all right," said William airily. "I bet I could govern a country without any trainin' or suchlike. An' I don't mind startin' now either. 'S no good keepin' everyone waitin' till I'm twenty-one. Things might've got into an awful mess by then, an' anyway, I'd be too old to do much if I waited till I was twenty-one.

Initially William thinks of power in terms of personal control of all trade in toys, sweets, fireworks, etc., but as time goes on he becomes interested in principled reform and his projects take up most of the second half of Sweet William. They include abolishing compulsory education (natch), freeing the animals from the zoo and replacing them with selected humans, abolishing St. Valentine's day and replacing it with a day devoted to Mars the god of war, pensions for boys and, briefly under left-wing influence, freeing wage-slaves (notwithstanding his enthusiasm for proper slavery).

I think Crompton stands out from the vast collection of English writing for children in the last century and a half. Almost all other characters in this body of writing seem like ciphers for adult notions of virtue - or devices to attract our sympathy. This includes Tom Brown and Biggles and the Famous Five and the jolly good chaps of a thousand public school stories which I read in my youth (with the single exception of the eponymous characters in P. G. Wodehouse's Mike and Psmith). I also think that the comparison with Wodehouse is fair - that William is to be compared to Jeeves and Wooster among the great comic characters of the twentieth century. Crompton wrote with an edge, a real unconventionality, which is missing from her competitors, her imitators, the numerous television versions of what she wrote and even from memories of her writing. I wonder if it's there in translations of her books?

In fact she wrote fifty books that had nothing to do with William, mostly adult novels which did little better than the average. Her successful trick was William; as with her contemporaries, Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, this gave her the enviable right to sell what was essentially the same book over and over again. William the Lawless was published posthumously in 1970, more than half a century after the first story appeared. I always much preferred the earlier works. Although William never ages, history is allowed to move on so the later William is, to my mind, unnaturally caught up with war, television, moon rockets and so on whereas he really belongs in my mother's world of middle-class life between the wars. There isn't much difference between the 1923 version and that of 1936 except for references to Hitler and Mussolini and the plots have become more complicated; in 1923 stories can easily be generated from the elements of William's personality and circumstances, but by 1936 there have to be more complex artifices to achieve a semblance of originality.

I'm tempted by the idea of the universe as a struggle between two eleven-year-old boys called Brown. Tom Brown, I think, stands for something rather sinister, at least potentially. William Brown stands for humour, freedom and the uninhibited enjoyment of both reality and fantasy. ˇViva la libertad! ˇViva Guillermo!

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

To read Lincoln Allison's review of Tom Brown's Schooldays, see: A Paean to Christian Socialism and "Manly Piety" - Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays.


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Along with Mary Cadogan's splendid work, probably the most enjoyable and insightful appreciation of this classic character from the golden age of British children's fiction. Many thanks!

Posted by: david saks at March 15, 2007 12:05 PM
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