An interesting history of the popular children’s books, Just William
In 1922, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was published, James Joyce celebrated the publication of his novel Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s third novel Jacob’s Room appeared. But amongst all this highbrow modernist literature, there was also another literary phenomenon arriving on the scene. He was eleven-year-old English schoolboy William Brown, who would become known to millions of devoted readers as ‘Just William’.
1. That said, William actually made his debut in print a few years before, in the 1919 short story ‘Rice Mould Pudding’. But it was the publication in 1922 of the first book of stories to feature him, Just – William, that would introduce him to the reading public at large. Richmal Crompton, the creator of William, was born in 1890. After the publication of Just – William in 1922 she would go on to write a total of 39 books in the series, which would enjoy combined sales of 12 million copies in the UK alone. Famously, Crompton was a woman – a fact which has surprised many readers, probably because of the ‘boys’ own’ feel of the stories, which led some fans to assume Richmal was a man.
2. Richmal Crompton’s full name was Richmal Crompton Lamburn – the middle name was in honour of her grandfather. ‘Crompton’ came from her maternal grandfather, who committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid when Richmal was three years old. Nobody knows why he killed himself. At school, Richmal was a gifted pupil who attended the local boarding school and was offered a place to study Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. However, she turned down Cambridge when Royal Holloway, London offered her a £60 annual scholarship to study there. After graduating she became a schoolteacher – though, perhaps surprisingly for someone who would create the most famous schoolboy in twentieth-century fiction, she taught at an all-girls’ school. She created William around this time, and although she wrote some 30 books for adults, none of them attracted anything like the readership that William Brown did. She would soon come to resent the shadow that her schoolboy creation cast over her ‘serious’ fiction. This sounds like Conan Doyle’s famous frustration with Sherlock Holmes – another creation that took on a life and popularity of its own beyond the writer’s own imagining (or desire). Coincidentally, Crompton, like Doyle, would also become a committed spiritualist in her later years (she died in 1969).
3. William got up to some pretty shocking things. As a Guardian article from 1999 outlines, William fell foul of animal rights campaigners when the stories were relaunched for a new generation of young readers in 1999. For instance, in the story ‘The Show’ – which appeared in the first volume of stories – William and his gang, the Outlaws, paint a terrier blue and charge people a penny to see the spectacle of a blue dog. In ‘The Stolen Whistle’, William unleashes his dog, Jumble, on a flock of sheep. But that’s nothing compared with a particular 1935 story…
4. In 1935, William and his Outlaws became Nazis. At least, kind of. In ‘William and the Nasties’, William and his Outlaws (who included Ginger, Douglas, and Henry) take to emulating Hitler and his fellow National Socialists in order to terrorise a local Jewish sweet-shop owner. Published in a magazine in 1934, ‘William and the Nasties’ was reprinted in the 1935 collection William the Detective. (‘Nasties’ is William’s mishearing of ‘Nazis’.) The story continued to appear in William the Detective well into the 1980s, when it was dropped from the volume and for all subsequent reprints.
5. Although he has a reputation for being a mischievous schoolboy, William wasn’t always all that naughty. Even in the above story, which is understandably no longer in print, there is a moral twist to the tale, with William and his friends realising the error of their ways and making peace with the shop-owner. And quite a few of the stories – dog-painting incidents aside – begin with William seeking to do something kind for someone. In many stories, he wishes to help, even if he does end up wreaking havoc and making things worse. In ‘William’s New Year’s Day’, for instance, he makes a New Year’s Resolution and looks after the local sweetshop (admittedly with vested interests!). In ‘Henri Learns the Language’, William tries to teach a visiting Frenchman how to speak better English. Many other stories entail the Outlaws embarking on money-making enterprises, but although their schemes are often cons, many of them are well-meaning but misguided. In ‘William’s Truthful Christmas’ he resolves to tell the truth to his family (nobly egged on by the local vicar), only for the plan to backfire when William learns the hard lesson that the truth can cause more problems than white lies and silence. Other stories see William being roped into helping- or, as often as not, generously offering to help – his older brother Robert, or his sister Ethel, in some romantic endeavour, only for William inadvertently to make a mess of things. Such a side to William Brown saves him from the ‘charge’ of mere naughtiness or mischief, and makes him a figure of fun – but one whose side we are always (or almost always) on, nevertheless.
The Bromley branch of the Wetherspoons pub chain is named The Richmal Crompton, in honour of the writer who taught at Bromley High School for Girls and created Just William.
Update: since we first published this post, we’ve learned from Brandon Robshaw that the name by which Crompton’s series of books is known, Just William, is something of a misnomer: the first book in the series was called Just – William (with the dash, which most people, including ourselves in our original post, overlook). All other books in the title refer to William in their titles, not ‘Just William’. See Brandon’s blog post about the issue for more details.
Image: A selection of book covers from reissues of the Just William books.