Jane Gordon-Cumming's romantic comedy, A Proper Family Christmas, was first published by Transita and subsequently reissued under the OxPens imprint. She has had numerous short stories published, and is a contributor to the OxPens Oxford Stories anthologies, and the Romantic Novelists' Association's Loves Me, Loves Me Not. Jane has recently produced her own collection of ghost stories set on the Oxford Canal: 'The Haunted Bridge' and Other Strange Tales. She is Secretary of the Oxford Writers' Group and Deputy Treasurer of the RNA. Here Jane discusses Richmal Crompton's William books.
Jane Gordon-Cumming on the William books of Richmal Crompton
William! - the mere name conjures up a vision of a mischievous, grubby boy. The William books are part of our culture, and I hesitate to admit how much influence they have on my own writing. A gang leader, the terror of his village, never happier than when getting into a fight - nowadays he'd be a prime candidate for an ASBO. What is it that makes the exploits of this dreadful child still so compelling to a modern - often adult - reader? I thought it might be interesting to examine the books more closely and try to work this out.
Well, they're very funny. Re-reading some for this piece, I still found myself chuckling aloud. Crompton has a sharp wit, and a penetrating eye for character, and despite writing in such a completely different period, somehow her humour hasn't dated. She avoids the pitfalls of being self-consciously arch, or silly, or twisting a character out of true for the sake of a joke. Her authorial asides are sparely used, and delicately placed: 'William was not a born poet and (unlike many people who are not born poets) he didn't enjoy writing poetry.' She manages to give the impression that the people she presents us with are funny, and her only task is to relay what they say and do.
William is a flawed hero: selfish, arrogant, mercenary and, when things go against him, a supreme moaner. 'There ought to be a lor against it!' is his constant cry about the unfairness of life to William Brown. But nevertheless, one can't help liking him. Maybe it's because he's so positive. He has no doubt of his rightful place as leader of his companions, and lead them he does. William rarely hangs back or admits something might be beyond him. He has an infinite belief in his own capacity, and when hubris is followed by the inevitable fall, his great gift for self-deception will convince him that failure didn't happen, or was somebody else's fault.
Like all the best disaster areas, he usually means well. Some of his worst sins are committed when he 'was only helpin' people'. Cue for a tirade about the ingratitude of Man, or more often Woman. William's relationship with the female sex is amusingly ambivalent. While he may heap scorn on 'rotten ole girls', he is disastrously susceptible to feminine wiles. Violet Elizabeth and her kind have only to flutter their eyelashes and tell him how wonderful he is for William to be putty in their hands - these young women don't need teen-mags to tell them how to manage their men. Yet William would be appalled if he thought his reaction bore any relation to the ridiculous lovey-dovey stuff his brother and sister go in for. Crompton has no very high opinion of the constancy of young love, and Robert and Ethel's fickle romantic liaisons give William endless opportunities for manipulation and blackmail. His family are among the minor characters which she draws so well: his long-suffering mother, of the 'Don't do that dear' school, his ultra-conventional father, prone to retire to his study at any sign of trouble, his Bright Young Thing sister and silly ass of a brother. Does William hug these people and say 'I love you'? I think not. They are to be taken advantage of, or avoided.
Yes, William inhabits a different world, and for me the window on to an English village between the wars is a large part of the attraction of these books. It's the same 'ordinary daily life' background that Agatha Christie uses of course; one has the feeling that Miss Marple lives round the corner. There's a cobbler and a blacksmith, and Latin is taught at the local school (though not, apparently, much English). Every front door is answered by a parlourmaid, if not a butler. Cooks guard the kitchen and gardeners keep William from their cold-frames and apple-trees. There are flower shows and sales of work and church bazaars, and entertainment is provided by historical pageants and visiting lecturers, fairs and circuses - complete with lions and elephants and horses, or what would a circus be? William might have a run-in with the butcher's boy or Farmer Jenks's bull (when did people stop being addressed by their professions like that?), with no one being sued for assault or Health and Safety, and the old barn they play in hasn't yet been converted into a residence with original period features. Crompton is in her element as she gently satirizes the population: the nouveau Botts, whose butler regrets descending to work for 'Trade'; the do-gooders, the arty types, the adherents of strange philosophies and cults; the 'literary person' who writes about children but shrinks from having her idealized vision sullied by contact with a real one, and William's bugbear, the Virtuous Boy, flourishing his Sunday School medals, and refusing to get into a fight.
This isn't the place for a thesis on the relative merits of childhood then and now, but it's interesting to compare them. William and his friends were free to roam as they pleased, explore derelict houses, clamber over building sites, with no more opposition than a telling off for coming home dirty. The only danger from strangers was whether they might be likely to clip one round the ear. On the other hand children were expected to conform to the convenience of adults in those days. No one, apart from a few derided eccentrics, considered them lovable little beings, merely a nuisance, and there was nothing wrong in parents, teachers or casual passers-by venting their irritation with a spot of physical violence. I'm sure William would think modern children live in a Utopia, where there's 'a lor against' this, lessons are supposed to be fun, and the holidays filled with a succession of Kids' Activities designed for their entertainment.
So we love the books because they present a vanished world - and yet is it so very far removed from our own? Village life is actually much the same, even if the sales of work have become craft fairs, and the Theosophists espouse the New Age. Certainly the Virtuous Boy can still be seen in those earnest little faces on local TV, anxious to assure us how they're conserving wildlife and saving the planet. And William and Ben from Outnumbered actually have a lot in common, with their persistent, demanding, aggravating logic, and inadvertent propensity for disaster. Maybe it's because people don't change much that we still find the books so amusing.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]