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.