Still William

Richmal Crompton

A few years ago, a newspaper ran a series called Forgotten Novelists or something similar. I was curious to see just who these people were. Most of them were indeed well and truly forgotten but I was sad and surprised to see Richmal Crompton in the list. The William stories forgotten! Impossible! They were popular from the success of the first collection, ‘Just William’ published in 1922. They sold over 12 million copies in Britain alone. The stories have been made into more than one television series and the audiobooks recorded by Martin Jarvis give William and his friends another lease of life. He gives convincing voices and accents to the characters in William’s world. The recordings are worth searching out.

The name Richmal is puzzling. It sounds like a name which is intentionally neutral like Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell. They gave their publisher a big shock when they walked into his office in London!Find out who they were! However, Richmal was the writer’s real name. So was Crompton. She simply left out her surname which was Lamburn.

My copy was a Christmas present to my uncle in 1929. I remember reading it in a large armchair in my grandparents’ house when I was not much older than William himself.  

With his friends Ginger, Henry and Douglas, William formed a group called the Outlaws. Most of their time they were pirates or Red Indians, and their activities invariably clashed with their families’ ideas of how young boys should behave.   In fact, all grown-ups were incomprehensible to William and his friends though there were rare exceptions such as Bob, the gardener at the Hall, and Old Stinks, the chemistry teacher at school.

The William stories have many admirers. Some are not who you might expect. For example, Francisco Rico a member of the Real Academia in Spain and an authority on Spanish medieval texts and Don Quixote, is a declared fan of William and his exploits.

Some novelists are lucky in their illustrators. Richmal Crompton has Thomas Henry whose illustrations take us back to the world of the 1920s and 30s. It is hard to imagine the William books without them.

‘Still William’ was first published in April 1925 then reprinted eight times before my copy appeared four years later! The publisher was George Newnes, an interesting character in his own right. He was the benefactor of the towns of Lynton and Lynmouth on the coast of Devon, and founder in 1881 of the magazine ‘Titbits’, which lasted until 1984. But that is a story for another time.

The books are collections of short stories. Let us take ‘The Sweet Little Girl in White’ from ‘Still William’.

The Hall is taken by Mr and Mrs Bott and their six-year-old daughter, Violet Elizabeth Bott. William’s mother meets Mrs Bott at the Vicar’s, and Mrs Bott is anxious to find a playmate for her daughter.

“I hope you’ll come and see me, dear, and didn’t someone say you had a little boy? Do bring him. I want Violet Elizabeth to get to know some nice little children.

Mrs Brown hesitated. She was aware that none of her acquaintances would have described William as a nice little child.

Mrs Bott took Mrs Brown’s speechlessness for consent.”

William despite all his protests had to go with his mother to the Hall the next week.

Mrs Bott sends William and Violet Elizabeth to play in the garden. Violet Elizabeth’ hair “stood up in a halo of curls”. She is dressed in a white, lace-trimmed dress with white socks and white shoes. She also has a lisp.

“William gazed at this engaging apparition in horror…

‘Now you muth play with me.’

‘I don’t play girls’ games,’ he said scathingly. But Violet Elizabeth did not appear to be scathed.

‘Don’ you know any little girlth?’ she said pityingly. ‘I’ll teach you little girlth games,’ she added pleasantly.

‘I don’t want to,’ said William. ‘I don’t like them. I don’t like little girls’ games. I don’t want to know ‘em.’

Violet Elizabeth gazed at him open-mouthed.

‘I like you,’ she said. ‘Don’t you like me?

William stared at her in horror.

“You – you do like me, don’t you?”

William was silent.

A large shining tear welled over and trickled down the small pink cheek.

“You’re making me cry,” sobbed Violet Elizabeth. “You are. You’re making me cry, ’cause you won’t say you like me.”

“I – I do like you,’ said William desperately. ‘Honest I do. Don’t cry. I do like you. Honest.”

A smile broke through the tearstained face.

William, pirate and Red Indian and desperado, looked round wildly for escape and found none.”  

He is even obliged to kiss her, the crowning indignity. I sometimes imagine a scene twenty years later when William has become, say, a very successful second-hand car dealer and is in love with Violet Elizabeth who is quite a beauty. How he longs for the kiss that he couldn’t bear when he was eleven years old! However, all this remains in the imagination!

The day after tea at the Hall William goes out with his friends, the Outlaws.

“Never had the comradeship of his own sex seemed sweeter to William than it did the next day when he set off whistling carelessly, his hands in his pockets, Jumble, his mongrel dog, at his heels, to meet Ginger and Douglas across the fields.

It was sunny. It was holiday time. They had each other and the dog. Boyhood could not wish for more. The whole world lay before them.”

However, Violet Elizabeth manages to escape from the Hall and join them in their activities, which involve squelching through a bog and picking blackberries. When the boys finally take her back to the Hall, she is covered in mud and her dress is in tatters. Her father does not recognize her. He has to be persuaded that the ‘tousled ragamuffin’ in front of him is actually his daughter.

On their way home the Outlaws consider their morning with Violet Elizabeth, and how they had been powerless to confront her.

William says, “I’m not going to have anything to do with any ole girl again.”

“It’s all very well saying that,” said Douglas, who had been deeply impressed that morning by the inevitableness and deadly persistence of the sex, “it’s all very well saying that. It’s them what has to do with you.”

“And I’m never going to marry any ole girl,” said William.

“It’s all very well saying that,” said Douglas again gloomily, “but some ole girl will probably marry you.”