This Bank Holiday weekend, I have been reading “William’s Crowded Hours” – typical of the many good-humoured, laughter-generating books about the life of young rapscallion William Brown, penned by Richmal Crompton.
Richmal’s tales of her young hero have been continuously in print for about 100 years (first book 1922) – because they’re genuinely amusing. (The copy of “William’s Crowded Hours” which I’ve been reading is a secondhand hardback printed in 1941 and despite the War, on thick, textured cream paper and with the energetic pen and ink illustrations by Thomas Henry)
William is an 11 year old boy who lives in a polite, staid middle-class English village circa 1920s, where the constant source of concern is keeping up appearances. However, William’s standards are somewhat different: he yearns for the adventure of being a Pirate King or Spy or involved in criminal cases – and he and his band of friends – called The Outlaws take on the world of Adults as foolish at best and usually as the Enemy. Wherever there is something to be broken or misunderstood, they will be in the thick of it, trying to raise money for luxuries such as lemonade and penny cream buns or a brand new water-pistol. And so the battle lines are drawn: discreet politeness on one hand, rough-talking, energetic activities dangerous to the lifespan of any clothing on the other hand.
In “The Crowded Hours”, William has 10 adventures: short stories involving such escapades as getting revenge on a schoolmaster who mocks him in class, impressing a young girl who is with his arch-enemy Hubert Lane, raising money by innocently selling embarrassing momentos of his sister’s admirers, trying to apprentice as a tramp, and trying to discourage a woman from marrying their headmaster by pretending that he is a drunkard who beats up his pupils. To William, his schemes are all logical steps – but as adult readers, we can also see the risks and foolishness of what he is trying to do.
Sometimes things go dramatically wrong; sometimes they turn out well in surprising ways – their writer keeps us guessing. One protracted effort to raise money fails but, at the end, the Outlaws see an adult ‘enemy’ they have bested and walk away laughing, feeling they have gained immensely.
William Brown was based on the author’s brother Jack and then supplemented from the life of her nephew, Tommy. Richmal herself was a schoolteacher – experience which comes in handy as School is a major trial and battleground in the life of William.
In her 30s, Richmal suffered polio, which left her left leg useless and was a semi-invalid much of her life; in her 40s she suffered cancer. She had to retire early from teaching but the plus side for her readers were – more books. She was able to earn enough income from the books to have a house built for herself and her mother.
Richmal was a suffragette and a well-educated, intelligent woman. Her William books were always written primarily for the adults, rather than children – and gently satirise the expectations and pomposity of society and its aspirations.
William’s brother and sister are much older and their driving motivation is romance – of which William is withering:
“”Sickening!” muttered William fiercely to the Outlaws. “Well, all I hope is that if ever I begin to go red when ever anyone says a girl’s name someone’ll stick a knife in me.”
“I will, ” promised Ginger obligingly.
He is a faithful friend to his gang and his mongrel dog, Jumble.
“The first sight of Jumble – a dog of multiple pedigree – more often excited scorn and derision. William was quite accustomed to doing battle on Jumble’s behalf against scoffers, as the knights of old did battle for their ladies. The ‘fine dog’ proved the tramp a man of perspicacity and understanding.”
He has a vivid imagination which leads him astray, but he does try to tell the truth.
“William,” said his mother, “you’ve surely not been fighting again?”
“Fighting?” said William in innocent surprise. “No, I’ve not been fighting. A boy happened to have his hand out, an’ I happened to walk into it with my face, that’s all. I can’t help his hand being out, could I?”
The actor Martin Jarvis – has become a bit of specialist in reading the William books, managing to voice a whole village of characters. Well worth listening to a sample on Audible – then considering purchasing.
William Brown as hero
Athough he is a fictional character, William features as choice in “Great Lives” proposed by political journalist Peter Oborne. (This programme is currently available until December 2020 on BBC i-player Sounds (for residents of the Uk and TV licence payers) He is nominated because of his ability to find the falseness in visiting ‘celebrities’ and pompous people in his village, as well as for the sheer joy in the comedy. Peter Oborne enjoyed the stories as a young boy, but as a grown adult, relishes the satire of adult society underlying the stories.
It’s important to point out that Richmal Crompton wrote many serious novels in her lifetime – so if you are on the lookout for William stories, be sure it has a title with his name in it. e.g. “William the Rebel” “Just William”, “William and the Space Rocket”. Richmal would have liked for her more serious books to be popular, but made her peace with the popular demand instead for William. (More patient than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was so frustrated by the demand for more stories of Sherlock Holmes instead of his historical novels, that he killed off Sherlock at Reichenbach Falls – only to have to bring him back 8 years later, due to public demand.)
Biography: “The woman behind William the life of Richmal Crompton” by Mary Cadogan.