Richmal Crompton's William series was written for mothers, but the irrepressible titular character charmed three or four generations of kids too
I don’t know how many readers below the age of 40 have read the William stories by Richmal Crompton. However, one can say with some confidence that at least three or four generations of children around the world have grown up enjoying the misadventures of the naughtiest boy on the planet. Those who haven’t read the William books, should. They are genuinely missing something.
And the strangest thing is, the stories were not written for children. Crompton wrote them for adult women—mothers, in fact. Most of William’s exploits were published in ladies’ magazines.
The first story featuring William Brown, an 11-year-old living in an English village, appeared in 1919, and the first book in 1922. Over the next 50 years, another 38 books were published, but in Crompton’s world, William was always 11, and the year was always 1919. By the time the books went out of print, they had sold more than 10 million copies in Britain alone.
I had read quite a few of the stories as a boy, and had very fond memories of them, but believed that the books were still out of print. So imagine my joy when I discovered that a couple of years ago, Macmillan had republished several of the books, with covers drawn by some of England’s leading illustrators. I immediately ordered six of them, and when they were delivered, consumed three in three days flat.
William lives with his family, consisting of his parents and his grown-up brother and sister—Robert and Ethel. His relationship with his family members—other than his mother, who is most of the time placidly darning socks—is habitually under great strain. This is because he is always getting into, or making, trouble. His father thinks he is insane, and his siblings think he should be hanged.
This seems patently unfair to William, for, other than a few forays into the businesses of kidnapping, arson and vandalism, he generally means to help people out. As Crompton puts it in one of the stories: “William was an entirely well-meaning boy. That fact must be realized in any attempt to estimate his character, but Fate had a way of putting him into strange situations, and the world in general had a way of misunderstanding him. At least, so it always seemed to William… "
In William the Detective, we are told that William’s village has seen a spate of burglaries in the past few months. He decides to turn detective and zeroes in on Mr Croombe, a merchant who has recently settled in the village. He carries a black bag, which convinces William that he is the leader of a gang of robbers and murderers. He tries to surreptitiously follow Mr Croombe wherever he goes in the village, but is spotted by the master criminal several times.
Mr Croombe cannot make head or tail of why he keeps seeing this boy with an accusing stare in all sorts of odd places, and begins to fear he is suffering from hallucinations. He seeks psychiatric help. William sneaks into his mansion and finds a drawer full of jewellery. This, as far as William is concerned, is all the evidence he needs to put this dastardly robber in prison for a very long time. What follows is hilarious pandemonium.
This born rebel is also a deep philosophical thinker. The existential question that bothers him is: “Why can’t grown-ups just give me stuff, let me do what I like and then go away A LOT?" That, certainly, is a very valid question for an independent-minded 11-year-old.
William’s brothers-in-arms are Ginger, Henry and Douglas, and the foursome call themselves the Outlaws. They are a secret society whose principal activity is to stay secret. They spend their time playing at being bloodthirsty Red Indians and pirates, raiding the woods nearby as hunters, and rolling around in muddy ditches. William also has a soft corner for insects, and is always collecting earwigs, caterpillars and beetles, and trying to—unsuccessfully—teach them tricks.
In William and the White Cat, Mr Romford, Ethel’s current suitor, hands William a basket with an expensive white Persian cat in it, and asks him to deliver it to his sister. This is his promised Christmas gift to her. This makes William furious—being a “cat-carrier" is grave ignominy, but he starts off for home with the basket. On the way, he meets Ginger, who begs to have a look at the cat. But the moment William raises the lid of the basket a bit, the cat escapes.
A series of misadventures follows. William and Ginger fail to recapture the cat, then catch another one and try to paint it white—but this cat runs away as well. They attempt to catch every cat in sight but are unable to. Finally, they manage to get hold of a ferret and put it in the basket. The eternally optimistic William believes that he can pass it off as a cat since “some folks don’t know much about animals".
Mayhem ensues when he presents the ferret to Ethel, and it all ends with Ethel breaking up with Mr Romford, much to his bewilderment, and much to William’s satisfaction (William is ill-disposed towards most of Ethel’s suitors, who are many in number).
William often complains bitterly about the state of affairs. “All that I say is," he tells his mother (when he is bored out of his mind on a family holiday), “that no one cares whether I’m having a nice time or not… You don’t think of me. No one thinks of me. I might just as well not be here. All I say is, I might jus’ as well be dead for all the trouble some people take to make me happy."
In The Native Protégé, watching a school play about Christopher Columbus landing on the American continent, William is fascinated by the skin colour of the “aborigines of America". He steals a bottle of brown greasepaint and colours all the exposed parts of his body with it, and sets off. He is, however, captured by a group of posh people. They have been waiting to meet a boy from Borneo whom a priest is bringing over, and obviously think William is that boy. William is helpless, but he is also eying all the delicious food that is laid out for him.
He has a hearty meal, while speaking utter nonsense—“Blinkely men ong", “Clemmeny fal tog", “Bluff iffn"—much to the admiration of his hosts (“I love these Eastern languages, so—musical," gushes a lady). Of course, this happy situation cannot last forever, and soon the real Borneo boy appears with the priest, and chaos is unleashed.
“William had often been told how much happier he would be if he would follow the straight and narrow path of virtue, but so far the thought of that happiness had left him cold. He preferred the happiness that he knew by experience to be the result of his normal wicked life to that mythical happiness that was prophesied as the result of a quite unalluring life of righteousness."
For instance, in one story, William and Ginger, both in a state of bankruptcy, decide to sell Ginger’s three-year-old twin cousins into slavery to raise some funds. The idea is to sell them and then rescue them and take them home. But with William, things never quite work out as planned.
However, William does seek redemption from time to time. He is inspired by a Sunday church sermon to be polite to everyone he meets. But his family treats a polite William with great suspicion and his zeal for perfect courtesy inevitably ends in disaster. In another story, he decides to be truthful in everything that he says. As we can well anticipate, nothing good comes out of this resolution.
As I read the books again after so many years, I kept wondering what I had made of these stories—how much I—or millions of children across the world, for that matter—had understood them in all their nuances. After all, they were written for mothers. Adult themes proliferate, such as attempted love affairs, as do words like “obstreperous", whose meanings the young reader surely did not know (in fact, I still don’t know what “obstreperous" means).
A passage like the following can occur only in a story written for adults: “‘What’ll we do this morning?’ said Ginger. It was sunny. It was holiday time. They had each other and a dog. Boyhood could wish for no more. The whole world lay before them."
But such matters did not seem to have impaired our enjoyment as child readers in any way. We loved this eternally scruffy-haired, all-muddied-up boy with his wonderfully warped logic, his wild imagination and his heroic anti-authoritarian attitude. We wished we had the courage to be like him. And we laughed ourselves silly as he spread confusion and panic all around, and often emerged triumphant. Even if he did not, his spirit remained unbowed, and we applauded that.
And today, as a middle-aged man, I am just happy that William lives on. It’s not just nostalgia. They are damn good stories, and I can still laugh myself silly reading them.
William hasn’t aged. He will always be 11, and in that English village, it will always be 1919; this pint-sized anarchist’s adventures will never fail to be thoroughly, totally, absolutely entertaining.
Sandipan Deb is editorial director of Swarajyamag.com.
The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and though-provoking, but also enjoyable.