At 100, ‘Just William’ books are an icon of British childhood

For many, the mention of “Just William” evokes a nostalgic pastoral childhood of the inter-war period: that of maypoles twirling on the sleepy greens of the village, of presbyteries frequented by well-meaning and curious parishioners , games of conkers and spilled ginger played until dusk. The reality, of course, is that few readers will have known such a picturesque youth: the carefree, sugar-coated glow of a vanished Britain. As one of my friends says, the freedoms that William enjoyed in a safe and bucolic world contrasted sharply with the realities of his own childhood: “You could go alone to the fields or to the fair. There weren’t so many parental controls.

It’s a childhood that now feels alien, the stories brimming with action: the boys vex stray cats, make “licorice water,” launch homemade catapults, walk for miles through fields and hedgerows. , climb trees, fall into ditches and attract anger. of their local schoolmasters, confectioners and farmers, and sometimes all at once. It should be noted here that the “just” from “just William”, the title of Crompton’s first official book of William’s stories, published in 1922, is not a nod to his moral character, but rather a kind of shrug of the shoulders: take it or go. he will not change.

Mischief is not born of malice: it is most often the product of a benign misunderstanding. And yet, in a world of Blyton books, filled with “well-to-do” children embarking on heroic adventures in the countryside or slumming at boarding school, William’s stories might seem outrageous, even dangerous. The author’s ambiguous name, particularly in the early years of the series, added the gripping implication for some female readers – normally restricted to more moralistic fare – that these were “books for boys”.

Perhaps it pleased Crompton herself. The daughter of a curate and lifelong curator, Crompton was born in Lancashire in 1890 to a comfortable middle-class family. She taught classics at an all-girls school until she was 32, when she contracted polio. Illness disabled her and, forced to give up teaching, she turned to writing. Over the next 50 years, Crompton would publish over 300 “Just William” stories as well as 40 adult novels (none of which proved so enduring as a literary legacy). She was halfway through her 359th story when she died in 1969.

Of course, William did not arrive in the 21st century unscathed. One story, “William and the Nasties” (1935), was considered to have anti-Semitic overtones (though intended as an allegory for fascism) and was removed from reprints. Certain turns of phrase, and the cases of “blackening” and “Cowboys and Indians” play, as well as the treatment of animals, have been reviewed by the books’ editor, Macmillan.

About Nicole Harmon

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