growing in the Bristol suburbs of the eighties and nineties, my reading material was suitably timeless in layout, though it rarely, if ever, included an Enid Blyton. Amid the colonial and deeply anti-PC tastes of Biggles and Rider Haggard, my trio of favorite characters never really changed: Jennings, Billy Bunter, and William Brown. Of the three, Jennings was probably my favorite, being the closest to my own school life of vaguely similar appearance and age, and also because the situations were the most recognizable. I found Bunter turbulent but also rather tasteless and absurd, for reasons which have now, alas, become much clearer. And then there was William Brown: alleged outlaw, committed dog owner and perpetual enemy of soap and water, not to mention his perpetual enemies, Hubert Lane and Violet Elizabeth Bott.
Drink a couple, and you’ll want to revive the Empire too
I enjoyed the books as picaresque stories of bad behavior without seeing myself much in William, or even in his friends. Their author Richmal Crompton’s evocation of the invincible pre-war suburb – not so far from a benign version of the half-idylls, half-nightmares portrayed by Orwell in Coming for air and Patrick Hamilton in Hangover Square – was certainly convincing, but I was too young to appreciate Crompton’s social satire, itself considerably more pungent than anything to be found in Jennings and Bunter, not to mention the stiff fantasies of English manhood peddled by WE Johns with Biggles, Gimlet and the rest. They all seem like nothing more to me than industrial cocktails. Drink a couple, and you, too, will want to revive the Empire.
Yet now, a century after the first appearance of Just Guillaume, I re-evaluate the universe of Crompton, and therefore I respond much more warmly to his characters and his creations. William Brown himself is an entertaining if unmistakably two-dimensional figure, at his most amusing when forced to temporarily fit into the adult world, as in the story “William’s Truthful Christmas”, when he provokes the social outrage and misery by offering an honest opinion on the gifts he has received. But it’s the rich array of characters around William that gives the stories their interest and color, and that makes them as fun for adults to read today as they could be for their children. If, of course, eleven-year-olds can be distracted from their iPads and Netflix and their nefarious online activities long enough to enjoy William’s books.
Leaving the children aside for a moment, the adult characters of the Nameless Village provide endless humor and intrigue. There’s William’s neurotic mother, desperately saying about her son that “he’s fine” even as he’s embroiled in yet another humiliating scratch. His father, meanwhile, is an alcoholic conservative whose cynicism about the world sees him rewarding his wandering son with extra pocket money for his most outrageous actions, as long as he’s not bound. with “his liver”. It is not for nothing that this faithful representative of central England is called John Brown.
Then there’s William’s alleged romantic older brother Robert, desperately professing each of his girlfriends “the most beautiful girl in the world” until her eye is caught by another. Mr. and Mrs. Bott are a pair of pushy millionaires who made their money from “Bott’s Digestive Sauce,” a substance that William says was likely made from crushed beetles. Needless to say they are settling in the New Rich Bott Hall establishment, where their social status annoys them. “We should have ancestors, Botty,” Ms. Bott said. “We have them, my dear,” Mr. Bott said after a moment of reflection. ” We must have. be here now if we weren’t. Floating on the outskirts is Robert’s friend, the beautifully named Jameson Jameson, of whom Crompton writes, with caustic humor, “[his] the parents had carried out the ultimate joke on him of giving him his last name for a first name, so that people who addressed him by his full name always seemed to indulge a certain piece of wit.
Only the cynic could imagine modern equivalents of it
Leaving aside the fact that such cowardly observations are not usually found in the contemporary work of, say, David Walliams, Crompton, a single woman who never had a family of her own, managed to bring her characters to life. of children in the most memorable way of ways. Chief among them is the reprehensible Hubert Lane, William’s supremely loathsome foe. Crompton writes of him that he is a “big fat boy with bulging eyes, a superhuman appetite and a morbid love of mathematics.” To say nothing of his usual “resort to heavy sarcasm”, “with his plumpness, his greed, his wickedness and his cowardice, Hubert had a good deal of cunning, and it is not uncommon for this quality to allow him to mark outlaws ”. He could almost be Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool in miniature.
Then, of course, there’s Violet Elizabeth Bott, the zozed and overly indulgent Bott’s daughter and purveyor of the above-quoted slogan that even those who have never read a word of William’s books will no doubt be familiar with, wouldn’t be. what Bonnie’s. Langford’s inimitable performance as a character in the late ’70s television series. Violet is the epitome of the spoiled child, given to displays of petulance and temper at every opportunity. Crompton beautifully evokes the character of someone who will grow up expecting every one of their requests to be met without a doubt, or else there will be hell to pay. Only cynics could imagine modern equivalents.
Crompton wrote the books for almost half a century. Like her contemporary PG Wodehouse, she chose to keep William perpetually in the same state of development, even though she nodded worriedly in order to progress. Some of the latest books recognize space exploration and pop singers. Most breathtakingly, the story “William and the Nasties”, written in 1935, shows William and his cronies engaging in unexpected anti-Semitism towards a Jewish confectionery owner, Mr. Isaacs. Incredibly enough, they try to emulate the Nazis by forming a bunch of “bad guys” to force him out of business. Lines like “he came to [William] glorious visions of chasing Jew after Jew from candy after candy and appropriating the precious loot “and” I’m just fine not to be Herr Hitler … I’ll call him Hitler … and the four of us are the bad guys ” are the unsurprising reasons why the story was removed from future editions by Crompton’s executors, although curious people can still find it online in a preserved form.
Aside from this rare lack of taste, Crompton’s Universe remains one of the most striking fictional achievements a children’s writer has ever created in the English language. It just seems that now, decades after I first discovered the books and their characters, I can read them again – or better yet, listen to the wonderfully acidic narration of Kenneth Williams’ stories – and appreciate them for what they say. are. : brilliantly written social satires that never cease to amuse and seduce. Will others say the same about the vast majority of what passes for children’s literature a century from now? Somehow I doubt it.