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Scourge of the Suburbs

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‘Rice Mould’ is a story written in 1919 for Home Magazine, a periodical aimed at women of the suburban middle class. A party is in progress at the Browns’ villa somewhere to the south of London. While the grown-ups get ready to dance to the gramophone in the library, the youngest child, William, a spirited, muddy-kneed, tufty-haired 11-year-old, is trying to smuggle one of Cook’s best cream blancmanges in a dirty soap-dish to the girl next door. It does not go well.

The tale so amused Home Magazine’s readers that William’s creator Richmal Crompton, a young schoolmistress, was asked for another William story, and then another. Three years later she had enough of them to publish a collected edition, Just William. It sold so well that she was able, after a debilitating attack of polio, to chuck in her job, settle at Bromley Common and take up writing full-time. In all there would be 39 William books, which have sold over 12 million copies in the UK alone. William has also appeared in nine foreign languages as well as on film, television, stage and radio.

Crompton also wrote 39 novels and 9 story collections not about William, with such titles as Journeying Wave and The Odyssey of Euphemia Tracy. She cherished them and continued to write them until she was 70 but, redolent as they are of lavender bags and Boots Lending Library, these titles have not found a niche in the collective memory of readers. William, though, is a different matter. He is lodged in my own memory from long wet summer afternoons spent in his company in Ireland, curled up on a broken-springed sofa in the playroom of my grandparents’ house. That association with a holiday is very appropriate because, unlike his fellow 11-year-olds Jennings and Molesworth, William’s world is not school-centred. His day-school may on occasion obtrude, but these stories are about free time, and how to fill it without adult interference.

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‘Rice Mould’ is a story written in 1919 for Home Magazine, a periodical aimed at women of the suburban middle class. A party is in progress at the Browns’ villa somewhere to the south of London. While the grown-ups get ready to dance to the gramophone in the library, the youngest child, William, a spirited, muddy-kneed, tufty-haired 11-year-old, is trying to smuggle one of Cook’s best cream blancmanges in a dirty soap-dish to the girl next door. It does not go well.

The tale so amused Home Magazine’s readers that William’s creator Richmal Crompton, a young schoolmistress, was asked for another William story, and then another. Three years later she had enough of them to publish a collected edition, Just William. It sold so well that she was able, after a debilitating attack of polio, to chuck in her job, settle at Bromley Common and take up writing full-time. In all there would be 39 William books, which have sold over 12 million copies in the UK alone. William has also appeared in nine foreign languages as well as on film, television, stage and radio. Crompton also wrote 39 novels and 9 story collections not about William, with such titles as Journeying Wave and The Odyssey of Euphemia Tracy. She cherished them and continued to write them until she was 70 but, redolent as they are of lavender bags and Boots Lending Library, these titles have not found a niche in the collective memory of readers. William, though, is a different matter. He is lodged in my own memory from long wet summer afternoons spent in his company in Ireland, curled up on a broken-springed sofa in the playroom of my grandparents’ house. That association with a holiday is very appropriate because, unlike his fellow 11-year-olds Jennings and Molesworth, William’s world is not school-centred. His day-school may on occasion obtrude, but these stories are about free time, and how to fill it without adult interference. My delight in these stories, and that of huge numbers of my contemporaries, would originally have surprised the author of ‘Rice Mould’, which she intended for adult readers. The William stories were seized on by children with such pleasure because their central theme – the vast difference between the child’s view of reality and the adult’s – had never been properly explored in British children’s fiction. True, his character has some of the traits of previous fictional 11-year-olds but, apart from boys that pop up in one or two stories by Saki, these were transatlantic models: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and, in particular, the lesser known Penrod Schofield of Indianapolis, a character created by the Mid-Western novelist Booth Tarkington. But Tom, Huck and Penrod were as American as root beer, while William’s world is nothing if not British. The familiar boy of William’s age, who appeared in stories by the likes of Henty and Ballantyne, was an upright, honourable, conformable lad, as truthful and clean in mind and body as Baden-Powell’s ideal scout. He would not dream of questioning any code of behaviour his parents wanted him to follow. Contrast William, grubby, graceless and in tattered garments, who sees himself with steely resolve as – in the titles of some of the books – rebel, outlaw, gangster and (in the very last, 1970 title) lawless. William differs sharply, too, from the anodyne children in the books of Crompton’s equally successful contemporary, Enid Blyton. The typical Blyton story pits a group of plucky but conformist youngsters against the nefarious activities of stereotyped vagrants, gypsies, foreigners and ex-convicts. William on the other hand revels in the company of all forms of marginal low-life. In ‘William’s Burglar’ (which appears in William Again, 1923) he frankly tells the felon with the missing ears, whom he spots lurking outside the White Lion pub, ‘I like you. I like the way you talk. I like the things you say and I want to know about what you do.’ Once, when asked how the mind of William Brown worked, Crompton explained, ‘There is a theory that on our way from the cradle to the grave we pass through all the stages of evolution, and the boy of 11 is at the stage of the savage – loyal to his tribe, ruthless to his foes, governed by mysterious taboos, an enemy of civilization and all its meaningless conventions.’ Crompton’s reference is to Recapitulation Theory, summed up by its chief nineteenth-century proponent Ernst Haeckel in the almost impenetrable phrase ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. Haeckel’s idea was adopted by many intellectuals, including Sigmund Freud, and even as late as the 1960s the popular child development expert Dr Benjamin Spock could write ‘each child, as he develops, is retracing the whole history of mankind’. It’s possible Crompton was making fun of what now seems an idea more appropriate to the back of a cereal packet. Yet, as a metaphor for William’s distinctiveness, her delineation of ‘the stage of the savage’ isn’t a bad way of sketching her hero’s principal traits. William’s family consists of Father (a disciplinarian when he can be bothered), Mother (long-suffering and frequently distraught) and older siblings Robert (constantly lovelorn) and Ethel (pretty but practical). His tribe, on the other hand, are the Outlaws – Ginger, Henry and Douglas, and dog Jumble – who meet under William’s rarely challenged leadership at the Old Barn. The Outlaws almost never fall out, and certainly not for long, though they often argue and sometimes fight in exactly the way real boys will tussle. Their female associates are less consistently seen, but they include William’s girl-next-door Joan, who brings out the knight-errant in him, and various visiting young girls who similarly attract his attention. Where he invariably comes to grief is in his dealings with Violet Elizabeth Bott, a child formidable beyond her years (she’s about 6), who exerts a mesmeric control over William and is expert in the deployment of advanced psychological stratagems, not the least of which is the threat that she will ‘thcream and thrcream and THRCREAM till I’m thick’. William often pits himself against a zealous official or an officious relative – anyone deluded enough to think that the boy can be tamed. By chance, cunning, iron nerve and an obstinate refusal to be beaten William usually (but not invariably) defeats these monsters of vanity, sometimes at considerable cost to himself in lost privileges and stopped pocket money. Amongst his own generation, the constant enemy is Hubert Lane and his gang, the Laneites. Hubert is more or less the negative impression of William: prissily dressed, priggish in manner, and fastidious when it comes to muck and puddles. In devising his victories over the Laneites William is never slow to exploit this last weakness in Hubert. William does not consistently adopt any particular code of behaviour. There are times when he aspires to sainted nobility, others when he yearns to slum it. What he really hates is mediocrity and boredom, and his restless imagination continually seeks fresh stimulation. He lives in a small community in transition from sleepy rusticity to an expanding London suburb. Along with many other residents William’s father travels up by train every weekday to his office, and down again in the evening in time for dinner. At home, all he wants is what he rarely gets – a quiet life. William’s mother seems to live to host tea parties and other social functions, while keeping the house, managing the servants and sympathizing with Robert’s and Ethel’s (usually romantic) woes. The village is full of retirees such as General Moult and Miss Hathaway, who devote their time to promoting order, personal respectability and modest self-improvement, none of which are at all admired by William. He is also notably unafraid of the suburb’s three greatest and most disabling bogeys: property crime, social humiliation and nasty surprises. Crompton has a beady eye for flaky ideas and theories as they catch fire in small communities, burn fiercely, then peter out. William’s suburb is thus visited by the New Era Society (enlightenededucation), the Society of Ancient Souls (reincarnation), the League of Perfect Love (the sacredness of animal life) and, at the very last in William the Lawless, the inchoate and perhaps hippy-inspired Brighter Thought Movement. These vapid attempts to plug the existential gaps in suburban living invariably self-destruct when, either through a well-meaning desire to help or vengeful spoiling tactics, William intervenes. The William stories as they developed reached a plateau of considerable sophistication in the 1930s and 1940s, and then gradually unravelled in the 1950s and 1960s as the author aged and was also (perhaps) obliged to tailor the books for younger or less competent readers. In these latter stages of William’s literary life, it was the very element that had previously been their hallmark – the pitiless exposure of the stupidity, vanity and selfishness of adults in their relations with children – that was eroded. The adults of the later stories are diluted Blyton-like characters and no longer looming figures whom the child’s eye magnifies into ogres of injustice and unreason. What sort of an adult would William himself have made? At one point Richmal Crompton offers this suggestion: ‘He disliked facts, and he disliked being tied down to detail, and he disliked answering questions. As a politician, a great future would have lain before him.’ This, from ‘The May King’ in the third collection William Again, shows Crompton sacrificing the larger reality of William’s character for the sake of a joke – which she would not have done at the peak of her powers. As a matter of fact, I think William might, at least for a while, have made a politician, not for the reasons Crompton gives but because he is a dogged arguer who enjoys nothing more than being the centre of attention and sees himself as fundamentally an idealist and a doer. Fizzing with schemes and eccentricities, and with luck on his side (for some reason, at this point, Boris Johnson springs to mind), he might have had a public career like a firework rocket. He would then, of course, have fallen to earth like one. There are, as it happens, two prototypes for the grown-up William. One was Crompton’s brother Jack, whose adult career would have delighted William, with phases as a mounted policeman in East Africa, traveller across the length and breadth of China, writer of his own adventure novels (as ‘John Lambourne’), and finally dedicated expert on insect life. A second and, I think, even better model may be found in a book by Crompton’s niece Margaret Disher, Growing Up with Just William (1990). Here Disher provides a compelling portrait of her brother Tommy Disher, a boy-man who had a humdrum career in a provincial bank yet was never properly socialized and required ‘an adventure a day’. Tommy’s misplaced idealism and bald honesty – deeply Williamesque qualities – were legendary: in the case of the latter, as his sister says, ‘it was disconcerting to be told [in conversation] “I’m sorry, but I’m not the slightest bit interested in what you’re saying”.’ Two other talents must be coupled with Crompton’s in accounting for William’s continuing success: the peerless illustrator Thomas Henry, who illustrated William until his death in 1962 (when the job passed to Henry Ford), and the actor Martin Jarvis, who has done more than any to extend William’s lease of life today. The fact must be faced that the William books are a wordy and slow-moving proposition for a child more used to rapid-fire digital entertainment. However, the judiciously edited readings of the William stories by Jarvis for 15-minute radio slots – also available on CD to beguile long car journeys – cleverly fulfil Richmal Crompton’s original intention to entertain all readers and not just a juvenile audience. For, as these performances emphasize, William cannot be reduced to a child’s comic cipher, a mere story-book alter-ego. William is a human gadfly, a necessary social irritant who, just by being himself, stings and disrupts complacent authority in all its forms.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © Robin Blake 2013


About the contributor

Robin Blake is the author of the Cragg and Fidelis eighteenth-century crime stories. However, he once had very muddy knees, unruly hair and an intense longing to be outlawed.

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