How can the perennial eleven year old boy, with his tie askew and knees grubby, be 100? The first story of William Brown, by Richmal Crompton, was published in 1919, so I think this should be the year I share these beloved books with my son. The forever in trouble William was my hero throughout my childhood (a status shared with Jennings and, interestingly, Veronica Weston of the Sadlers Wells ballet books). William is stoic, dignified, daft and with tortuous logic that serves his own noble aims of having fun with his friends, the Outlaws, and getting away from adult authority. I’ve written before about my love of William, and every time I was given money or a book token as a child, I’d go to the local bookshop to buy another Just William book, making up for those the library didn’t have. The assumption that books about boys, in which girls are sometimes just an inconvenience (such as Violet Elizabeth Bott, who could scream and scream until she was sick) shouldn’t appeal to girls never occurred to me. William was as real to me as my friends, and I tried to emulate him (as my long-suffering mother will remember). Of course what I didn’t realise until much later is that I also learned some quite complex vocabulary (such was my determination to absorb the wit and wisdom of William that I read with my dictionary by my side), and a lot about how good writing is structured.
Richmal Crompton was a Classics teacher, whose life became devoted to writing after serious illness. The story published in Home magazine in 1919 launched a juggernaut: 38 William books were published in total, and it was quite a surprise to me as an adult to discover she had also written ‘serious’ novels too – over 40 of them. I have read a few and they’re not bad, but they don’t compare to William. She never idealised children, and indeed the books gently poke fun at those who do – and there was plenty of that in the 1920s; ‘William joins the Band of Hope’ sticks in my mind as a particularly hilarious period piece. William is honourable, at heart: he has his code of honour and sticks to it, even when he’d much rather not. He has a kind of rough chivalry, too, feeling he ought to rescue damsels in distress, though he is more likely to admire a girl who is happy to get muddy and tear her party dress than one with more propriety. He is also an optimist, despite the odds being against his improbable plans, and keen – as all children are – on things being ‘fair’, though his sense of fairness doesn’t always tally with that of the adults around him. He might not be a good child, in the conventional sense, but he is well-meaning and realistic, too. The illustrations by Thomas Henry are the perfect complement to the text; no other attempts to illustrate the books have captured the friendly grumpiness of William’s expression, or the polished perfection of his sister Ethel, or the gentle despair of his mother.
There is a lot in the stories which reads like a history lesson, today: anxiety about communists, older siblings who attempt to emulate film stars of the day, fancy dress balls where everyone seems to be a Pierrot. The Browns seem to lead a charmed life (apart from their slightly exasperating younger son) but they have a cook and maids, and never seem to do anything but arrange the flowers (Mrs Brown) and read the newspaper (Mr Brown) – though this setting is updated in the most recent BBC adaptation. The language is a little dated too – though not as much as Jennings – but William himself is timeless, and as each chapter narrates a scrape he’s got into, often in the most well-intentioned way – it is easy to read each chapter discretely as his series of after-school and summer holiday adventures. In the 1980s he seemed to me like a boy who might wander in at any moment, his dog Jumble at his heels, clutching his catapult and drinking his home-made ‘grog’ (liquorice dissolved in water). I think this is still true now, and I can’t wait to see if Edward agrees.