I am not too sure how our discussion centred round a writer whose contribution is still remembered amidst various modernistic literary trends over the years. I was ushered into the little house with a rose garden belonging to Jennifer and Chris in Barnet by my son the other evening during my brief stay in England. We were discussing about the new juvenile literature with an emphasis on adventures and treasure hunts the sort of books on which we grew as schoolchildren.
I went down the memory lane. More than five decades have gone by. I was a student in the middle school of Ananda College, Colombo, where it so happened that one of the teachers named K D de Lanerolle was a freelance journalist contributing to the Sinhala newspapers of the day plus a writer of children’s books of some repute. He had a small library of English books from which we could borrow various types of books pertaining to children’s literature.
In this venture we had the opportunity of getting to know of ‘Just William’ books written by Richmal Crompton (1890-1969). “I am a William fan and fond of Crompton’s writings,” said Jennifer. “Same here,” I said joining her in order to know more about the writer and her books. William books are back again in bookstalls, she said.
“Is it the same in your country?” she asked.
I had to say no as I had not seen any William books for the last so many decades. How surprising, she said. Then I observed how the other well known names entered the children’s book scene perhaps with Enid Blyton in the forefront and more recently Rawling’s Harry Potter series There may have been many more in the list in the series meant for children around the world.
It is noted that the name Richmal Crompton does not sound feminine. As such, a lot of people round the world knew the writer as a male. Even when she died in 1969 many William fans knew so little about her because of this unfamiliar Christian name. As noted in a biography written by Mary Cadogan, titled as ‘The Woman Behind Just William’. The stories which make up the William books were written over eight decades ago, but they retain their sparkle and satirical edge today.
I discovered this factor on reading once again the very first William book titled as ‘Just William’ as gifted to me by Jennifer as a token of remembrance of our discussion. It is said that the writer Richmal wanted to write more serious books for adults, perceiving the idea that she is churning out ‘pot boilers’. But she was resisted by the fact that the William books undoubtedly and surprisingly had happened to be bestsellers around the world.
Several generations of children have grown up in the world of William as created by Richmal feeling that his or her village, which Richmal never named or precisely located, was real enough to be just around the corner of the child reader’s world. The passage of time with the advent of new trendy creations may not have fully tarnished the image of William as created by Richmal. It is interesting to see what has happened on the William scene in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first. Like so many other literary heroes, William Brown is of course no longer confined to the world of books, but is featured on tapes and broadcasts and discussed on the internet. However, it is still to the books that we go to find the authenticity of Richmal’s creativity where the voice of William emerges as a fresh sound.
In all, it is recorded that forty eight William books have appeared during her lifetime. She had also kept copious multifaceted notes on other subjects like nature and her gifts to the world. She had been a great admirer of nature and the life spirit that it gives to humans and animals. Though she had earned a mint out of her books she had a gift to donate a share of her money to Infantile Paralysis Fellowship a charitable organization, based in London, which she supported.
Disabled herself through polio, she had visited this office several times. Her teachers say that as a child Richmal had the rare gift for the study of languages like French and Latin. As a result she earned a living as a language teacher where she had the opportunity of meeting children of all ages. She had come to know of their desires and wish fulfilments.
Undoubtedly she had been prolific based on the reader demand. But she had studied minute details as regards the various types of childhood adventures in her conversations and teachings at the school level. She had the habit of keeping notes on various human experiences. Before launching her William books she had written two novels for adults namely ‘The Innermost Room’ (1923) and Anne Morrison (1925).
She had drawn experiences for her works liberally from her own family circles. But embellished them with her touches of imaginative flair that she later developed. She also had a flair for writing poems which she never developed. But she enveloped some of them in her William books as visualised to be written either by William the protagonist or by his companions. All what Richmal intended to do, it is believed. is to create a new world unimagined by the adults of her day. In her creation of the character of William the reader sees that the protagonist William is fond of making groups and planning new innovations to overcome certain either misdeeds and/ or misnorms where William becomes the chief spokesman.
William looks more matured than the others who become his companions.
It is this factor that is more creative in comparison with other works of later writers. Perhaps Blyton would have derived some inspiration from Richmal. The more adult reader finds a dose of humour in the works of Richmal.
This humour is not found in her contemporary writers of the calibre of Wodehouse or Thurber.
Thus the world of Richmal and William remain to be rediscovered. Richmal is at her best with the ‘secret world’ theme which presumably is term used by the critics to denote the differences. In the thematic techniques as used by writers the secret world helps to build suspense.
In this direction Richmal makes use of William as a day dreamer inspired by a sudden infatuation for some fanciable female or other which could be imagined or interpreted as living in ones own imaginative world of love and intimacy. In one instance he falls heavily for the actor who plays a fairy like character in a pantomime named Princess Goldilocks. Then he thinks of various ways of talking to her In actual reality he goes to see this play with his brother Robert with whom he never discusses what is within him. Later on he finds that the actress is not so charming as he visualised via the performance. This makes a certain degree of disillusion. But William remains unshaken by the fantasy.
The discovery of the creative spirit of Richmal may be resting on various layers. Perhaps this alone is a striking point in her creative communication. Her biographer Cadogan says that ‘she [Richmal] remained extremely mobile in spite of her disability.
She coped with polio when she was in her thirties and cancer in her forties and that neither condition seems to have been allowed to disrupt her life and creations drastically’.