Childrens' Books: The Triumph of William the Conkerer ; with Her Stories about an Irrepressible Scruff in a Postcard Perfect English Village, Richmal Crompton Created an Immortal Comic Character. Brandon Robshaw Celebrates the Sublime William " Literature's Favourite Schoolboy
Robshaw, Brandon, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
There are a small number of fictional characters who have stepped outside their books and become part of the wider world: Don Quixote; Falstaff; Heathcliff; Peter Pan; Sherlock Holmes. And among such characters " perhaps not at the very top of the list, but near it and very securely placed " is Richmal Crompton's immortal creation, William Brown. Williiam is so real that for a time there was a waxwork of him in Madame Tussaud's.
Shockheaded, freckled, anarchic, determined, boastful, sarcastic, combative, swaggering, irresponsible and irrepressible, with his school cap on crooked and his socks falling down and his shorts' pockets filled with conkers, string, catapults, penknives and pea- shooters, William is the essence of boyhood. Perhaps boys are not quite like that any more; perhaps they never were. The portrait is a heightened, comically exaggerated one " but there is something about it that rings true nevertheless, and something about it that is immensely appealing.
(Please note, by the way, that his name is not Just William. He is never referred to as 'Just William' in any of the books. The confusion arose because the first ever collection of William stories, published in 1922, was entitled Just " William. Subsequent collections had titles like William the Conqueror, Willam the Fourth and Sweet William, but it was the title of the first that stuck, and people began to talk of the 'Just William stories' (possibly by analogy with the Just-So Stories). And then radio and television series about him were called Just William, and many fell into the error of thinking that this was the name of the boy himself. But it's not. William aficionados insist on this in the same way that Doctor Who fans insist their man is not actually called Doctor Who, but 'the Doctor'.)
I started reading William books when I was eight, and for a year or two would read nothing else. And when I'd read them all (there are 38), I read them again. And again. It seems strange that I was drawn to a world so different from the one I knew " but it didn't matter in the least that I had no experience of living in a village inhabited by well-heeled families with servants, artists who took cottages for the summer and a nouveau riche family who lived up at the Hall. Crompton had created this world for me, and I moved into it as easily as if I'd been born there. I was William. I imitated his speech, his swagger and even his scowl, so aptly rendered by Crompton's illustrator, Thomas Henry.
It seems strange, too, that I wasn't put off by the sophistication and uncompromising vocabulary (they were originally written as stories for adults and were published in Home magazine). Flick through any William book and on every page long words jump out at you: pugnacious, nonchalant, truculent, indulgent, indiscriminately, insinuatingly, accomplishments, inamorata, impracticality, asperity. This didn't bother me in the slightest. Quite the contrary; it was fun to be challenged by grown-up words.
Much of the humour lay in Crompton's precise, mannered way of describing the most farcical occurrences. When she introduced a particularly contrived plot development, involving a donkey and a magician, with the words 'And now comes one of those coincidences without which both life and the art of the novelist would be so barren,' I knew I was being told to get ready to laugh. And laugh I did. In fact this was the first time I remember laughing out loud at a book. (The story was 'The Terrible Magician' and it's in William " The Outlaw " the next time you're finding life a bit grey, track it down and read it: I guarantee it will make you laugh.)
Crompton's style and vocabulary seeped into my own, more deeply than I knew at the time. To this day I still find myself using 'goaded beyond endurance', 'with admirable presence of mind' and a host of other such Cromptonisms. Nor am I alone in this. …