Underrated: William Brown

The hero of the Just William books promotes free speech and debunks communism

Harry Phibbs

William Brown is a hundred years old, but for his legions of fans he will always be 11: the age he was when he first appeared in the short story “Rice Mould Pudding” in Home magazine in 1919 and in his first book, Just William, in 1922. While Richmal Crompton’s 39 collections of William stories are always set in the period in which they are written — William and the Pop Singers, published in 1965, for instance, addresses protest marches, animal welfare and vegetarianism, and 1950’s William and the Brains Trust includes a list of demands inspired by the Beveridge Report — his age and distinctive character remained unchanged for half a century.

William’s series of misdeeds (often more than one a page) frequently prove exasperating for his middle-class family striving to maintain respectable standards. Yet William operates within his own code of honour, responding to chastisement with such eloquent and indignant protestations of innocence that he appears to convince himself while providing an effective salve to the immediate crisis.

William leads Ginger, Henry, Douglas and the rest of his gang, the Outlaws, by consent. Vigorous free speech is exercised at their meetings, held in an old barn in a field belonging to Farmer Jenks. The Outlaws show great loyalty and courage in their shared endeavours — none more so than William himself. Invariably by the end of each story, the gang have triumphed in a way that earns the gratitude of the adult world so that earlier scrapes are forgiven.

Together with great entertainment, William offers vivid insights into the human condition. While familiar traits are parodied — evasiveness, pomposity, duplicity — William is the culprit often enough. Nevertheless, the reader cheers him on as he pursues his inquiries with such persistence that the grown-ups struggle to get away with much: William picks up the scent of hypocrisy a mile away.

Thwarted ambition and the constraints of childhood represent a source of frustration as William acts to resolve what the Prime Minister would call “burning injustices”. His inspiration might come from the cinema, when William decides to become an heroic screen character. But his energy, determination, and openness to new ideas are also key — and make William a natural entrepreneur. The results are mixed, but no setback discourages the Outlaws for long.

Scepticism towards political pronouncements is a recurring theme. The first story in William the Fourth (1924), “The Weak Spot”, offers a robust defence of the right to private property and a debunking of communism after William’s elder brother Robert helps form the Society of Reformed Bolshevists.Ejected after eavesdropping on their egalitarian declarations about opppression of the workers, William insists: “But I believe all you do — ’bout want’n other people’s money and thinking we oughtn’t to work.” As a compromise he is sent off to start a junior branch.

The elder brothers begin their crusade by asking their fathers for more pocket money. The Outlaws act along similar lines by grabbing fountain pens, cameras, bicycles and other prized objects from their brothers, prompting Robert to abandon the cause and tell his father: “It’s all right when you can get your share of other people’s things, but when other people try to get their share of your things, then it’s different.”

During the Second World War there is abundant inspiring patriotic material — William and Air Raid Precautions, William and the Evacuees and William Does His Bit are all full of such stories. Peacetime often sees improbable crime-fighting successes.

While scornful of teenagers’ clumsy romantic endeavours, William often demonstrates stirring chivalry. The impulse to assist a pretty girl in distress always overwhelms him. At other times, he might come across as selfish, but his exploits always see him pursuing his duty as he sees it, disregarding personal risk.

Superficially, our hero might be seen as an anarchist at odds with the forces of conservatism. But the synthesis between his challenge to official thinking and the ways in which the resulting chaos is resolved, provides us with conservative parables.

Naturally, those from across the political spectrum can also join in the joke. David Aaronovitch, who was brought up in a communist household, wrote in The Times recently in praise of William — demanding a statue for Richmal Crompton for giving us “one of the great characters of English literature” who “stands comparison with Wodehouse and Waugh”.

Yet in an age when much children’s literature has to meet the dreary requirements of political correctness, William is a saviour for conservative parents. Children won’t mind the dated slang or social remoteness. William’s personality transcends such trivial matters as class or history. And who knows? Amid the laughter, young William Brown may also provide some inoculation against Corbynista resentments.

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