‘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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