The J.K. Rowling of her day

I went to a recording of two Just William stories being performed by Martin Jarvis last week. He is quite right, Richmal Crompton was the J.K. Rowling of her day. I plan to write about this over the coming months.

The recording was held in the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond upon Thames. I was struck by how many men were there. I have met several of her male fans recently who still think she was a man. Is the success of Martin Jarvis’s reading just nostalgia for days gone by and their early childhood reading? I don’t think so. William speaks to both boy and man and Martin Jarvis’s performance brings this aspect of her writing to life.

Jarvis gives us a thoughtful, strategic William. I overheard a member of the audience put it perfectly. Richmal Crompton does not talk down to children, he commented, which was why he liked her Just William stories so much as a child. Martin Jarvis captures this quality in Crompton’s writing. He gives us a William who can sound ageless.

At times, William portrays qualities that could be true for both children and adults. In one of the stories Jarvis performed, “William and the Musician”, we are entranced by William’s imagination that creates exciting adventures and takes him off into another world. At the same time, this quality is one that perhaps, like him, we have all learnt to rein in:

“William had learnt that in dealing with ordinary limited human beings one’s imagination should not be given too free a rein. He put the true artistic touch of restraint into his picture.”

The care Martin Jarvis takes with each word and phrase, the detailed attention to the tone of even the snappiest retort, makes me realise how nuanced these stories are. He performs a William who “gave himself up again to gloomy reverie” and is worried that his new found friend will be “ignominiously ejected” from a local event. His attention to Crompton’s language and his precision timing to heighten the comedy are absolutely critical to our enjoyment.

Martin Jarvis’s performance also reminded me that it is often other adult characters in Crompton’s stories who we laugh at, while we laugh with William.

Martin Jarvis’s performance of two stories in Just William Live can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on:

William and the Musician: Wednesday 1st May 2019 11:30AM.
William and the School Report: Wednesday 8th May 2019 11:30AM.

A moment to remember Richmal Lamburn

Today seems a good day to revive my blog about the work of the author, Richmal Crompton. Many of her readers may not realise that her real name was Richmal Lamburn. Crompton was her mother’s maiden name. The life of the woman is somewhat hidden behind her work as an author and her most famous character, William Brown. Richmal Lamburn died 50 years ago today. 2019 is also the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first Just William story. I am thinking of both Richmal and William Brown today.

In one of his more sanguine moments, in “The Helper”:

“[William]  had come to the conclusion that morning that there was certain monotonous sameness about life. One got up, and had one’s breakfast, and went to school, and had one’s dinner, and went to school, and had one’s tea, and played, and had one’s supper, and went to bed.”

Always thought provoking…

William does nothin’

One of the things I love about working in Richmal Crompton’s archive at the University of Roehampton is when I can piece together different fragments of paper and narrative that tell us something about her writing life. Here is an example of what I mean.

Here is part of the draft manuscript for a story called “William and the New Civilisation”:

RC manuscript.1
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

In the middle section of the page it reads as follows:

They walked on for a few yards then stopped again to listen. The words “William Brown” rose clearly above the tumult.

“There,” said William. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.

“An’ it wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.

“Course it wasn’t,” said William. He was silent for a few moments then continued, “But let’s try ‘n’ look as if it wasn’t. That sometimes helps. To start with anyway.”

Crompton used scraps of paper to make all sorts of notes about her writing like this royalty statement:

RC manuscript.1.amendment.a
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

On the back she made the following amendment:

RC manuscript.1.amendment.b
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

The tumult was dying down again, replaced with a babel of children’s voices. Above the babel the words “William Brown” could be clearly distinguished.

“There,” said William with a certain gloomy satisfaction. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.

“It wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.

“Course it wasn’t,” said William, “we did nothin’”

“Nothin,” said Ginger.

“Nothin,” said Henry

“Nothin,” said Douglas

“Well let’s try ‘n’ look as if we’d done nothing,” said W”

Needless to say this was a memorable moment in my research. I also checked the final version of this story and it is indeed this amendment that was published.

A matter of words

I have been learning about Richmal Crompton’s love of words and her careful phrasing as I burrow away in her archive at the University of Roehampton. In a handwritten article, she shares part of her life as a wordsmith. She believes that each word has “a life & personality & character of its own quite apart from its meaning – some friendly, some unfriendly, some gloomy, some cheerful, some beautiful, some ugly”. She is interested in the feeling and meaning that words evoke and how this is connected to their sound:

“COSY You can’t say the word without being drawn into an atmosphere of closed curtains, a heaped up fire, the right book, the right person & the sound of rain on the window.

SUCCULENT You have to roll your tongue around the word. Just to say it makes the mouth water.

Say FRIGID aloud and the temperature will drop several degrees.”

You can hear some of her attention to tone in audio recordings of her interviews. In 1966 Richmal is responding to a criticism about the effect that William has allegedly had on many unsuspecting families:

“I did once get a message that William ‘has wrecked our home’ – I sent a message back that original sin was created long before I put pen to paper.”

The 1938 Club

This month I am excited to join The 1938 Club. You can browse posts about all sorts of books published in this year on the Stuck in a Book blog. Take a look.

Richmal Crompton.1

Journeying Wave (1938) by Richmal Crompton, available as an ebook, is a social satire about lives on the cusp of change, whilst others remain firmly rooted in the past. The imagery in the first sentence sets the tone for the novel: “The light filtered softly through the drawn curtains … and flooded the big square bedroom, which, despite the up-to-date furnishings, still retained a vague suggestion of Victorianism”. This is Viola’s room. She comes from a privileged upper class background and her marriage to Humphrey, her second, caused some consternation in her family. Humphrey runs a draper’s shop. Viola has all sorts of cultural interests that she cannot share with him given his limited education and one “part of her had been starved throughout the long years of their marriage”. As a result, she feels that she had “deliberately renounced her birthright for him”. She thinks they have been happy, but Humphrey is leaving her for a younger woman. Humphrey’s unfaithfulness is a “shock to her self-esteem”, and “her cheeks hotly flushed…. The whole thing was horrible”, but this is as much as we see of her emotions.

The novel then goes on to trace what happens to different relatives who are influenced by this upset in their insular and protected lives. Hester is older, supported in all aspects of her life by her twin sister, Harriet. She in turn looked after Humphrey for a short period when he was a child and news of his affair shatters her belief in him and her memory of the idyllic time they spent together. She feels lost and goes on a holiday during which she finds a new memory to enrich her life in a relationship with young friends who need her help: “The little episode existed in her mind perfect and complete in itself … It was her Escape, the one part in her whole life in which Harriet had no share, the part that gave her identity”. The memory of her time with Humphrey is a small fantasy, one that Hester replaces with this new experience as she withdraws once again into a life of inaction. A life in which she is happy, relying as she does on Harriet looking after her hand and foot.

Humphrey’s influence is more direct in the lives of other members of his family. Bridget, his young niece, feels over wrought amidst the social expectations of her relatives, especially her mother, but with Humphrey “she lost the feeling of uncertainty and bewilderment that was her usual attitude to life”. She feels that he accepts her for who she is, something that her mother seems unable to do. When Bridget learns about his affair this shatters her confidence in her decision to become engaged to someone that her mother does not like. However, she comes to realise that it was “as if she had been in a boat in a quiet stream and an electric launch had passed whose backwash had driven her boat from its course and nearly upset it”. This self-awareness helps her to get her life back on track and she decides to marry the man she loves, whatever her mother thinks about his class and background. Hilary, Viola’s son and Humphrey’s stepson, is also knocked off course by news of their separation and he is lead astray by a group of friends. However, despite the impending divorce, he realises that he still believes in Humphrey, in “his goodness and kindliness”, and this helps him to restore his sense of purpose as he rejects his friends’ dissolute way of life. In the meantime, Viola is being tempted into an affair with Adrian, although she comes to realise that he depends on her, whilst she has always been able to rely on Humphrey up to now.

IMG_0247
Richmal Crompton Collection, Archives and Special Collections University of Roehampton

So, what of Humphrey? We learn that he has always felt that Viola “looked down on him from superior heights of breeding, education, intellect”. He feels her coldness when he tells her about the affair, as she remains locked “in her fortress of fastidiousness”. We also learn that lots of people rely on his kindness and care about him. The novel describes how Humphrey is called on to help both Bridget and Hilary. Bridget’s mother, Doreen, demands that Humphrey does something to avert her daughter’s disastrous marriage plans. He does quite the opposite and offers her fiancé a job. Doreen is aghast at this and the criticism she receives about her treatment of one of her servants. She snaps that, “Kindness was always misunderstood and misrepresented”. This seems to me to lie at the heart of the novel’s moral purpose.

Bridget and Hilary are examples of two young people who grow up during the course of the novel and come to realise how much Humphrey has meant to them and the extent to which he has helped them in all sorts of ways, without making a song and dance about it. Snobbery and dated social conventions about marriage and class are subtly challenged in this novel. The lives of those who look down on people with working class backgrounds are studied and found wanting. Young people, like Bridget and Hilary, seem to hold the future in their hands as older generations, like Hester, remain stuck in the past. Viola, in middle age, is in danger of losing sight of how much Humphrey means to her. Will she see the light? As ever, Richmal Crompton’s novel offers food for thought. She is not stuck in the past, although she realises that many people of her generation – she was in her late forties when the novel was published – might be.

 

Fans of the Archive

I would like to invite you into Richmal Crompton’s archive to hear the voices of her fans.

I have made a seven minute film about her fans, past and present. It is based in her archive at the University of Roehampton and was made in partnership with members of the Just William Society and Richmal Crompton’s family.

To see the film please click: https://vimeo.com/153080878

The archive includes fan letters from across the world, as well as other letters, manuscripts and documents that were part of both her personal life as a daughter, sister, aunt and friend, and her professional life as a writer. One can also visit her library taken from her last home by her family, which stands alongside her desk, chair and typewriter, as well as photographs and other mementos.

This film aims to bring the archive to life. In the film the ‘Just William’ stories written by Richmal Crompton, displayed on the archive’s shelves and shown in this film, original letters by her fans who wrote to her during her lifetime, and the views of her contemporary fans and family discussed in this film, come together to achieve a connection between the past and the present. It offers a chance to think about memories of childhood and the extent to which the childhood reading of her fans has gone on to influence their adult lives. But, part of Richmal Crompton’s conversation with her fans is missing in this film. We cannot, sadly, hear a reading of what she said to them.

Best Laid Plans

Richmal Crompton’s William seems to personify the ultimate survivor as he charges about his middle-class family home and village creating havoc wherever he goes. Although, it is the story of the people who may, or may not, manage to survive this chaos that often makes us laugh. ‘Just William’ stories present us with stories about a fiercely enthusiastic and unruly eleven year old boy, although his behaviour often seems almost sensible when compared to the behaviour of the adults around him. This is often exposed as petty and ridiculous, as Mrs Brown, William’s mother, suggests in “The Best Laid Plans”. William cannot eat his supper because he has gorged so much at the local fair, spending half-a-crown given to him by his sister’s suitor: ‘“It’s perfectly absurd of people,” said Mrs. Brown indignantly, “to give large sums of money to a boy of William’s age. It always ends this way. People ought to know better”’. The suitor is keen to avoid exposure:

Furtively Mr. French pressed a two-shilling piece into his hand.

Glorious vistas opened before William’s eyes. He decided finally that Mr. French must join the family. Life then would be an endless succession of half-crowns and two-shilling pieces.

As Mrs Brown comments, Mr French’s initial behaviour is ridiculous and this is compounded when he has to give William even more money to keep him quiet.

In “William and the Psychiatrist”, William is convinced that his future career lies in psychiatry. He invites his first customer, Mr Peaslake, to sit down and talk to him, although his client is concerned that, ‘“it is utterly ridiculous … my coming in here like this”’ (10), something with which many readers would concur. He nevertheless goes on to explain that his fiancé has decided to break off their engagement because he lacks imagination. Having had the opportunity to talk, William asks him if his ‘mental troubles’ are cured: ‘“No,” said Mr Peaslake. He rose from the packing case. “They’re only just beginning. My whole life is shattered to its foundations. Existence will be meaningless from now on”’. William does not understand that he has to pay attention to what the conversation is actually about to be able to help anyone. William then mistakenly goes on to decorate Mr Peaslake’s fiancé’s home in bright colours and this prompts her, before she rushes off to a meeting of the Society for the Abolition of the Conventional in Life and Art, to agree that the marriage is back on. Apparently she now believes that her husband-to-be has ‘the vital spark’ that makes him unconventional and more attractive as a result. This story shows up avante-garde disdain for the ordinary, a contemporary fashion in society at the time Crompton was writing.

In another ‘Just William’ story, “William’s New Year’s Day”, William makes a New Year resolution and decides to be polite. His family is nonplussed and confused:

“Does it hurt you much?” inquired his brother tenderly.

“No thank you, Robert,” said William politely.

We can all think of examples when being polite has seemed absurd and pointless and in laughing at William and his family we can laugh at ourselves. William never seems to accept that he is out of control, even if his behaviour might be described as such, as he reflects wryly on the absurd behaviour of others. It is as if he is quite convinced that it is his family and people connected with them in the village where he lives, never himself, who do not have a hold on life.

The novels of Crompton are often not laugh-out-loud funny like ‘Just William’ stories. However, a few take a rather sardonic view of life. The humour in Crompton’s more light hearted writing is often based on a subtle irony which also seems to pillory the behaviour of conventional middle-class people. For example, The Gypsy Baby (1954) is a social comedy. Drusilla is a housemaid who works for the local vicar. She is pregnant, although she claims not to know who the father is and her lack of concern about this, and the vicar’s wife’s dismay about her attitude, kicks off the social comedy in the novel: Mrs Medway asks, ‘”who’s the father?”:

“I don’t know, ma’am,” said Drusilla, and added in a tone of wistful innocence, “I don’t know how you tell which it is.”

Much of the comedy lies in the extent to which the reader believes, as Mrs Medway does, in Drusilla’s apparent innocence. A series of women in the village decide that they would like to adopt Drusilla’s baby. They are all, of course, terribly concerned about the baby’s future and allegedly not at all interested in meeting a lack in their own lives. The reverse is actually the case as we learn in a series of chaotic scenes in which a bizarre game of ‘pass the baby’ is played out across the village.