“The biggest surprise I ever got”

Richmal Crompton's desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Richmal Crompton’s desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

So, what about William? I want to draw your attention in this post to the letters in the Richmal Crompton archive, primarily the letters, not written by Richmal Crompton herself, but by one fan, who I have called David to protect his identity. I want to share with you David’s reading of the ‘Just William’ stories and illustrate how much they meant to him.

Richmal Crompton’s books and letters were a central part of David’s life in the 1950s and 1960s. He must have first contacted her as a boy in May or June 1953. In this letter he is delighted that she has taken the trouble to write to him and he almost seems very deliberately to be taking on a William like character.

This letter opens with: “I have had a lot of surprises in my life, some unpleasant and some pleasant – unpleasant surprises – well, like the time I was doing a sketch “on the sly” in my copybook during class. The subject of my sketch was the teacher who was droning away up at the blackboard. I felt somebody shoving against my elbow…. I said, “chuck it, you ass” – It wasn’t [a] pal – It was the Rev Headmaster! What followed came as no surprise. I got what I expected – and it was not pleasant. But pleasant surprises – your lovely letter this morning was one of these, in fact, it was the biggest surprise I ever got. You see, dear Miss Crompton, I never expected to get any reply from you – “Cross my heart”, as William would probably say, I didn’t”.

David then went on to exchange letters with Richmal Crompton until her death in 1969.  And we have 13 of them in the Roehampton archive. However, we only have one other letter of David’s from the 1950s, received only three days after the last letter I have just quoted and dated 25th June 1953. From these two early letters we find out that the boy is confined to bed for much of his life, suffering from chronic ill health. These are two very different people but with a shared experience and they have made a connection which resonates throughout these letters.

In this second June 1953 letter we learn that Richmal Crompton has sent David a book: “your precious autographed copy of “William and The Tramp”. At first I was too happily surprise[d] to do anything but gaze at the wonderful book, then I gave a yell of joy – giving “Nursie” a slight touch of blood pressure (whatever that is, but that’s what she said), she got such a fright…. Your letter the other day came as a huge surprise, but your book today – Well, it has taken my breath away. I can hardly believe that I honestly and truly possess a “William book” actually signed by you. Thanks over and over again, dear Miss Crompton, I will always treasure this book and remember with deep gratitude your amazing kindness to me”.

Letters, photographs and postcards from 'David' (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Letters, photographs and postcards from ‘David’ (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

We do not have another letter from David until September 1962 and in this letter David calls her, “My dear Fairy Godmother Richmal Crompton”. Now David in the 1960s is a much older boy but he continues to be ill. We do not have Richmal Crompton’s letters to him, but we know that she was concerned about him and that she was a loyal and caring friend. She clearly asks him how he is getting on and what he has been up to while he has been confined to bed. We also learn that she shared part of her life with him: “Thank you so much for telling me about yourself and your home”, writes David.

In his letter of September 1962 David is delighted to have received another book. I assume this was William’s Treasure Trove published in 1962: “Your latest William book, the one you so generously sent me, is, in boy language, super. You understand the workings of a boy’s mind, his thoughts, his make-believe world, his hopes, his dreams and his little fears far, far better than many a Dad. Often when I laugh at Williams antics I am really laughing at my secret self. Your books and your stories are always true to life, all your characters, both young and adult, have their flesh and blood counterparts in the everyday world”.

These letters are very much a story in their own right, about a boy and young man who develops a close relationship with a caring and loyal writer and friend. We learn that he must have lost his parents at a very young age and he struggles with long term ill health which sometimes prevents him from replying immediately to the letters he receives. We know that his mother was an artist and poet. He loves nature and the birds in particular that he looks at from his window. And what is really striking is the extent to which his reading of Richmal Crompton’s stories and her letters become a lifeline for him.

“The past and present were no longer confused in his mind”

Idea for a Novel (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections, RC/1/1/2/1/7B)
Idea for a Novel (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections, RC/1/1/2/1/7B)

Where do ideas for novels and stories come from? Well, in the case of Richmal Crompton we have some evidence in her archive. She wrote ideas and potential themes for her stories on fragments of paper, in notebooks and on the back of letters, bills and other correspondence. The picture of one of these fragments above suggests an interest in an “old (man) woman spending the year after husband death with children – a few months with each. old lover?”. It is not clear at all when this was written and why she wrote this short note to herself at all. Where did she keep it? Did she know where to look for it when she came to think about a new novel? I am not sure that the answer to these questions really matter. What we know is that this was a theme which interested her. It suggests a concern about old age and what happens to a man or a woman when they lose their formal partner and enter a new kind of relationship with their children. Perhaps they find out something new about their wife or husband, or have to come to terms with an early love affair. This fragment also draws attention to a key theme in Richmal Crompton’s writing about the importance of memory and how this shifts and turns depending on who we are with and our state of mind. Her novels Portrait of a Family (1931) and The Old Man’s Birthday (1934) are two novels which explore these concerns.

In Portrait of a Family (1931) Christopher has been travelling after his wife’s sudden death and the novel opens as he arrives home again. As she lay dying she whispered something to him which implies that she had an affair with a close friend. The novel explores Christopher’s new relationship with his children as he decides whether to ask them if they knew about the affair. However, Derek and his wife Olivia, Frank and his wife Rachel and his daughter Joy, who is married to Bruce, are totally caught up in their own lives. Towards the end of the novel Christopher realises that he has been unable to ask them about his wife, Susan: “He thought of the day when he had gone to see Olivia to ask if she knew anything about Susan and Charlie, and had found her more unhappy, more driven, more tormented than he was himself. Ever since then his anxious thoughts had been with her”. He realises that he has to seek some resolution alone. The novel offers a moment, a portrait, in the life of this family as it faces one particular tragedy amidst the mess and turmoil of each of their lives. Christopher turns to the portrait of his wife: “He flung open the drawing-room door, and entered it for the first time since his return from Cornwall”. Sometimes our thoughts and recollections of those closest to us, even those we have lost, can mean more than a room buzzing with people, even if they are members of our own family.

Richmal Crompton's desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Richmal Crompton’s desk (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

Matthew Royston has similarly lost his wife and today is his 95th birthday. In The Old Man’s Birthday (1934), he lives with his eldest daughter, Catherine, who tries to control his day to day life, and another daughter, Charlotte. Matthew wakes and thinks about the family dinner in his honour later that evening: “Catherine had disapproved of the idea from the first. It was Catherine’s disapproval, of course, that had made him resolve to carry the arrangement through in the face of her opposition”. She is furious that Matthew has invited his grandson, Stephen and his married partner, Beatrice. She is estranged from her husband and Catherine is appalled at the idea of inviting such a person to her home. Matthew seems to delight in the idea of challenging her.

Beatrice arrives to meet him and Matthew decides to visit each family member to introduce them to her before the evening’s main event.  Beatrice reminds him of a young woman he loved before his marriage and he journeys back to thoughts about his life and “suddenly, as if a dam had been broken, a torrent of disconnected memories began to crowd upon him”. There is something special about Beatrice. She has “a tender, radiant serenity, [which] seemed to emanate from her very being”, as well as a “childlike gravity and candour”. I hope this does not come across as a somewhat romanticised portrait. The point is that Beatrice is special because she has a beauty which is based on more than sexual attraction. The novel challenges the notion that her value as a woman can only be judged by her unconventional behaviour. This is a novel set in 1934 after all.

Admittedly, Beatrice is perhaps too perfect, but I have learnt one important lesson during this reading journey. Some of Richmal Crompton’s novels can be read as family sagas, often focusing on the life of one particular person. However, it is a mistake to expect each novel to be read as a realist narrative with a chronological plot and a satisfying and clear beginning and ending. And this particular book is one of Richmal Crompton’s stories which is harder to place. When taking up one of her novels I now wait to see where the narrative will take me. This novel is based on one very important day in the life of an old man and ultimately what I realised was that I was seeing Beatrice through his eyes. She comes to represent key values in his life and she serves a purpose, but one which is based on his vision. Towards the end of the novel Matthew takes Stephen and Beatrice to tea in a local hotel: “Silence had fallen in the red parlour of the White Swan…. The old man in particular felt shut away by it into some enchanted place where the discords and annoyances of real life could not reach him”.

Roofs Off (1928)

Richmal Crompton's typewriter (University of Roehampton archive)
Richmal Crompton’s typewriter (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

I am just over halfway through my first reading of Richmal Crompton’s forty one novels. As reading journeys go this seems to be a good point to start writing about mine. I am caught amidst the thrill of discovering new writing and the exciting prospect of the unknown stories yet to come.

In this blog I have decided not to write about Richmal Crompton’s novels chronologically, but instead I will explore a range of themes in her writing, such as issues of social change, the lives of women, the representation of place and houses in the novels, and the implications of old age and having a disability. I am also interested in the types of journeys and holidays her characters take, how she handles the passage of time as the life of her characters slips by, and the extent to which these novels are concerned with the experience of people who are different and have special stories to tell. So, for my first post I have chosen to start in 1928. In this year more books by Richmal Crompton were published than any other. A ‘Just William’ collection, William the Good, two novels, including The Thorn Bush and four collections of short stories were all published in this year.

I will return in a later post to Richmal Crompton’s first novel, The Innermost Room (1923) which introduces her interest in, what she calls, ‘the enemy within’. This is a theme in a number of her novels and in Roofs Off (1928), the novel I have chosen for this post, one of the young characters, Diana, is fighting the claustrophobia of her life, living with her unhappy mother:

She mustn’t meet him in this mood. She made a great effort to throw it off. Once the atmosphere of this pleasant little room had been enough to throw it off, but the room was failing her. It was not holding its own against the rest of the house. Its defences were being beaten down and the enemy was entering through the breaches.

But more of this interest in the inner life and the importance of rooms and houses in the lives of her characters in a later post.

Another important theme in a number of Richmal Crompton’s novels is how life changes as her characters grow older and come to terms with the disappointments of adult life. In a couple of novels, Portrait of a Family (1931) and The Old Man’s Birthday (1934), the lead character is a man whose wife has died and he is facing old age and dwelling on the consequences of his past. I will write about these novels next month. In Roofs Off (1928), Martin has lost his wife and decides to move completely away from the area where he spent most of his adult life. He moves to a new housing development outside a village which has been developed on an area of land belonging to a local estate. This has been sold off to help the rich land owner make ends meet. When he arrives Martin is invited to join in the social life of his neighbours, encapsulated in the novel in a gathering for afternoon tea.

Martin discovers that the owner of the estate, Mrs Glendower, is an old flame and they excitedly rekindle their old attraction for each other. But her husband returns unexpectedly and Martin is faced with the loss of the new life he had dreamed of, the life he might have had instead of marrying his wife and being trapped in a staunchly middle-class world. He blames her in many ways for denying him everything that his life might have been, although he is reconciled to his past by the end of the novel.

In the modern estate people from different walks of life have been brought together. Mrs Copeland lives with her daughter, the aforementioned Diana, forced because of lack of money to take what she sees as a step down from the life of privilege that she sees as her right. She is not coping, refuses to leave the house for much of the time, and dreams exclusively about the wonderful marriage that her daughter will make which will return them both to the style of life that she believes they deserve. Her daughter, however, despite being engaged to someone that her mother approves of, and who could give them both the life that her mother wants, falls in love with the son of her neighbours, the owners of a village shop. They are delighted to be in their new house and have spent much of their working lives dreaming of owning a home of their own.

Mrs Glendower talks about a game she was asked to play as a child:

She gave us each some building bricks and a little red cardboard roof and a handful of dolls and furniture from her dolls’ house and we had to build little houses and arrange the dolls and furniture inside and then put on the little red cardboard roof and then Susan would blow on her little whistle and say, ‘Roofs Off!’ and we had to take off the cardboard roof and Susan would come round and judge whose dolls were doing the more interesting things.

Martin wonders “which would be the most interesting life in Woodlands Avenue if someone said ‘Roofs Off!’”. Mrs Glendower, not surprisingly perhaps, believes that they would “all be indescribably dull”, but the local doctor disagrees: “I believe that there isn’t such a thing in the whole world and never has been such a thing as a dull life. What you see of it may be dull but you only see a part of the pattern or a back side of the pattern. If you could see the whole you’d be amazed. You’d be thrilled. A life may be sad or even uneventful, but it can never be dull”. This novel by Richmal Crompton makes a very convincing case that this is certainly true. It offers a social commentary on ordinary life in a rural community in early twentieth century England. In Roofs Off tensions between people from different classes are unpicked at a time of significant social change, resented by the older members of the rich and traditional middle class, but embraced by the young.

Introducing my Reading Journey

Richmal Crompton.1


I would like to share with you my reading journey through the work of Richmal Crompton. She published her first ‘Just William’ story in 1919 and they have been read and enjoyed by thousands of readers, adults and children alike. Richmal Crompton also wrote many novels and other books of short stories. Many of these books are forgotten today.

I hope that this blog will contribute to bringing more of her work to a wider audience, celebrating not only the impact of the ‘Just William’ stories on many readers across the world, but the richness of other aspects of her writing. Initially my reading will focus on her novels published from 1923 until 1960. If you have a favourite William story please do let me know.