Let us consider for a few lines the celebrated author of works such as The Innermost Room, The Hidden Light, Millicent Dorrington, The Four Graces, Blue Flames, Portrait of a Family, The Odyssey of Euphemia Tracy and The Inheritor. You may never have heard of these books – family sagas from sixty or more years ago – but the author’s name will be familiar, for she dwells among the immortals, and our illustration reveals her identity. Richmal Crompton, creator of William Brown, wrote forty-one books for adults, but these are largely ignored today while the ‘pot boiler’ William still thrives after eighty years and continues to delight generations of children. Michael Moorcock was one of those who fell under his spell in the Forties, and it is interesting to note the number of memorable Moorcock protagonists who are rebels and outsiders. Perhaps William is the first great anarchist that children meet. (There are worse role models.)
Richmal Crompton Lamburn was born on 15 November 1890 on the outskirts of Bury, Lancashire, the second child of a clergyman, the Revd Edward John Sewell Lamburn, and his wife Clara (née Crompton). Richmal’s brother, John Battersby Crompton Lamburn, known as Jack, and born in 1893, also became a writer (John Lambourne) and is remembered for his fantasy novel The Kingdom That Was (1931), described as a cross between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and She. Many of Jack’s boyhood scrapes provided material for the William stories.
Although a staunch Anglican throughout her life, Richmal had a strong interest in mysticism and the supernatural and this is reflected in a number of her works, being burlesqued in the William books and treated seriously in her weird tales, Mist and Other Stories (1928) and The House (1926; Dread Dwelling in the US, 1926). The distinguished Spanish writer Javier Marías – King Xavier of Redonda, Ghost Story Society member and Lost Club associate – will publish translations through his new Reino de Redonda (Realm of Redonda) imprint. (Mist appeared in Spring 2001.)
Richmal had William express a fascination with ghosts. ‘I can think [William],’ went on meditatively, ‘of quite a lot of people I’d like to haunt when I’m dead – ole Markie [his headmaster] an’ Farmer Jenks an’ people like that. It’d be more fun being a ghost than anythin’ – even a pirate.’
‘I dunno,’ said Douglas, ‘they can’t eat . . .’
Richmal was educated at St Elphin’s, a boarding school for daughters of the clergy in Warrington, Lancashire. A former convent, the school had a resident ghost – a nun. ‘ . . . the more imaginative of the pupils swore that they had seen her at the end of some dim-lit corridor or flitting through a dormitory at night’, it was said. After the building was condemned (suspect drains) the school moved to Darley Dale in Derbyshire in 1904. ‘It was larger and healthier and we loved the moors, but – we missed our ghost,’ wrote Richmal. After taking her degree at the Royal Holloway College in Surrey, Richmal returned to St Elphin’s as the classics mistress in 1914, later moving to Bromley High School. She was ‘Lambie’ to the girls. Her first published tale, concerning a little boy named Thomas, a forerunner of William, who reacts against authority, was published in The Girls’ Own Paper in 1918. In 1923 Richmal was struck with polio. She lost the use of her right leg and remained lame for the rest of her life. Teaching proved a strain because of her condition and so she gave it up to concentrate on her writing – William had been born in 1919. The William stories were originally written for adults and published in Home Magazine and the Happy Mag. Twelve of the stories, collected in book form and published by George Newnes in 1922 as Just – William, were aimed at the juvenile market, and the rest is history.
Do the stories stand up today in the age of computer games and gritty teenage fiction? The answer is unhesitatingly yes. They possess a Wodehousian verve. Indeed, it could be said that the William books are better read in adulthood when all the classical and cultural allusions can be appreciated. Take the scene when William is kept behind in class by his teacher. As Miss Drew bends over her desk the sun illuminates the gold curls on her neck. ‘There was a faint perfume about her, and William the devil-may-care pirate and robber-chief, the stern despiser of all things effeminate, felt the first dart of the malicious blind god.’ This would be lost on all but the most precocious children.
Mary Cadogan produced a warm biography, Richmal Crompton: The Woman Behind William, in 1986; though she calls her subject ‘something of a biographer’s nightmare’ since she found it impossible to find anyone who had anything unkind to say about her. Mary Cadogan makes the thought-provoking point that ‘one of the most appealing little girls in literature, Carroll’s Alice, was dreamed up by a man, while William, who is certainly one of the most popular of all fictional boys, was created by a woman’. A charming incident is recounted in the biography. During the Second World War Richmal shared a taxi with a mother and small boy: ‘In the course of the journey the mother mentioned that the boy was anxious to reach home in time to hear the William broadcast. My vacant expression, as I debated with myself whether or not to tell them that I wrote the stories, and reflected that they probably wouldn’t believe me if I did, convinced them that I had never heard of William before, and they hastened to enlighten me. They were still describing the stories and advising me to read them when we got to Victoria. (I didn’t tell them.)’
Richmal Crompton died in January 1969, after a heart attack at her home in Chislehurst, Kent. William Brown, of course, will probably never die.