One of the more delightfully familiar bits of radio programming over the Christmas period was Martin Jarvis reading Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, which the actor started recording in the 1990s and five of which were broadcast last week on Radio Four. Covid may be raging and the cost of living soaring, but a small corner of the universe will forever be a Home Counties village teeming with tended gardens, charity fetes and a staggering profusion of maiden aunts, and where, amid the perpetual middle-class calm, an 11-year-old schoolboy in torn jersey and scuffed shoes will always reliably be causing mayhem.
William Brown, the incorrigible fictional creation of the classics teacher become full-time writer turns 100 this year – although he’s also always 11, of course. Crompton, a vicar’s daughter who also wrote more than 40 novels for adults, produced 39 collections of Just William stories over a 50-year period (she died in 1969; the final collection was published in 1970).
A proud and varied tradition of troublemakers in British children’s fiction owe William their existence – Nigel Molesworth, Dennis the Menace, Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry – while Sweden produced its own fine equivalent in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. But William – who has never been out of print since 1922 and who has been seen on screen several times, notably in London Weekend Television’s wildly successful adaptations in the late 1970s – was arguably one of the first rule-breakers, and certainly one of the funniest. And in crucial respects, the most relatable.
William Brown emerged during a golden age for children’s literature. The starchy moralising imperatives of the Victorian era, which saw youngsters rewarded for doing good deeds (or, equally, punished for being bad), had slowly given way to works such as J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and E Nesbit’s Five Children and It, which offered an idealised, heightened and sometimes fantastical version of childhood that cast the young as heroes of their own universe. In fact, Nesbit is the closest ancestor to William. Her children are often flawed but decent types, although they operate in a different world to the schoolboy’s very recognisable suburbia.
By contrast, the perfectly crafted Just William stories pivot on the moment in which childhood fantasy comes up – often chaotically, always comically – against dreary domestic realism. Crompton’s William, who lives in an uneasy truce with his middle-class parents and disdainful two elder siblings in an unnamed village not far from London, is an inveterate romantic, frequently casting himself and his fellow loyal Outlaws (Henry, Ginger and Douglas) in the role of pirate or kidnapper or spy or, less comfortably for modern-day readers, a “red Indian”.