The William stories – of which the first four are now reissued – came out over a span of fifty years. When they started, in 1919, women were still sniffing sal volatile and when they ended boys had begun sniffing glue. William, of course, could fantasise without the aid of glue. He was not the sort to pull up saplings wantonly; he merely overturned caravans accidentally. His crimes were the venial ones of truancy, trespass, gaining money by false pretences, unlawful picketing, kidnapping (of babies, which enjoy being kidnapped) and petty theft, as from the missionary-box in his home. Theft from a missionary-box? Isn’t that a bit like stealing from blind men? Ah, but the missionary-box contains only three-halfpence, enabling William to inveigh powerfully, and with the reader’s full sympathy, against his family, who lavish large sums on their own pleasures but can spare only this paltry sum for the poor heathen. He does not, however, put the three-halfpence back.
So skilfully does Richmal Crompton mitigate her young monster’s excesses, while sprinkling him sparsely with manly virtues, that he has long been hailed as the all-too-human universal boy, even a lovable one, and has been accepted as such from Iceland to Czechoslovakia. A few critics have complained that he is nothing but an old maid’s indulgent notion of what a wayward 11-year-old is like, but they are wrong. Over the years William may have been surrounded by some wildly caricatured types, but he himself has remained a recognisable robust figure of flesh and blood, especially blood. If, as Orwell says, Billy Bunter is a first-class comic character, then how much more so is William. His creator, a clergyman’s daughter and one-time Classics mistress, polio-stricken, never grew to despise him, though she may have had dying regrets that none of her 39 adult novels achieved anything like the fame of her 38 William books. Boy burglars and boy bandits had been glorified in the penny dreadfuls, but in the new century the trend had been for scrubbed and virtuous heroes whose stockings never fell down. Mostly they had been unfettered by parents, being allowed a loose rein by uncles and guardians. Richmal Crompton dared to plant William firmly in a recognisable middle-class family. Her secret was to maintain a high level of ‘aggro’ in the home: William’s hand was against everybody and everybody’s hand was against William.
If Miss Crompton had known her early tales were to be dredged for social significance she might have slipped in a few more gags for posterity. The original idea was to write stories about children for adults, but child readers, both boys and girls, took over and the author had to go easy with butts like the Society of Ancient Souls and the Society for the Encouragement of Higher Thought (the Twenties spawned endless cults, from Couéism to Eurhythmics). Some truly excruciating literary poseurs arrive to stay in William’s village, among them a writer on child-rearing deluded enough to think that children trail clouds of glory. In You’re a brick, Angela Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, working through the William canon, are shocked to find that in the Thirties William and his gang play at being Nazis, robbing a Jewish-owned sweet shop but later redeeming themselves by rescuing poor Mr Isaacs who has been trapped in the basement. ‘There were no more attempts to jollify the ethically unjustifiable,’ say the authors. Obviously, William should have confined himself to raiding missionary-boxes.
In these tales set in the early Twenties William’s family live in a comfortably large house with cook, maid and gardener. It is a day when breadwinners are periodically ‘ordered’ by their doctors to take rest cures at the seaside, even in February, and when wives are always darning socks and adding up tradesmen’s books. William has a brother and sister both of the ‘spooning’ age and they are reluctant to invite friends home because a visitor ‘would think it a queer kind of family where anyone like William was allowed to grow up’. William goes to a mixed school in the village, where it is hoped female influence will soften his rough manners. It has one tough master who, finding that William has bolted during detention, calls at his home, demands that he be handed over and marches him back to school: the sort of thing we do not see very often today. For formal occasions William is crammed into an Eton suit, as if to suggest that he is a prep-school boy. His speech is ungrammatical (double negatives a speciality) and he picks up expressions like ‘assified cow’, but he has somehow learned enough Latin to say Hic, haec, hoc. He has apparently never been cautioned against speaking to strangers, or accepting sweets from them, and he even befriends a rough man without ears, who can only be a burglar. If he had studied the Children’s Newspaper he would have known better than to stone cats and paint hens.
Today’s young readers can presumably cope with talk of shillings and half-crowns, which are now as one with doubloons and pieces of eight. They will find a puzzling reference to knife-polish, and they will learn that a person who is topless is one who has no top to whip. The style itself should present no difficulty, once it is realised that ‘culinary operations’ means cooking and ‘epistolary efforts’ writing. This sort of thing is never oppressive and a little facetiousness never hurt anybody. Like the skilled storyteller she is, Miss Crompton springs plenty of surprises. Old crabbed relatives sometimes turn out to be willing accomplices in William’s follies – though not Aunt Emily who, while taking her afternoon nap, is put on commercial display by William as a ‘Fat Wild Woman’. A supposedly dying great-aunt is saved from the grave by William’s high spirits, instead of being hastened into it. Now and again William is rewarded for doing the things for which he should have been punished, and punished for doing the things which he supposed were virtuous. It is an illogical and unjust world, as William is always proclaiming, so it is no surprise that, on giving an undertaking to reform, he insists on a last fling of wickedness. Thomas Henry’s illustrations – mostly from the Thirties, but no great matter – are always delightful; he can even make us enjoy a picture of a pretty girl being pelted by young thugs with potatoes, onions and ham bones.