The Way of William
A psychotherapist's view of 'Just William.'
First published in the Just William Society Magazine, Number 21, Winter 2007/8. Reproduced by kind permission.
Yet, with the passing of the years, that initial disappointment has gradually turned into sheer delight at such a transgression of gender roles and barriers. With a humour not often equalled in Western literature Richmal Crompton demolished all the sacred cows about education and childhood that adult society uses to protect itself against the vitality and intensity of children.
A vicar's daughter, the writer became a teacher in a conventional girls' school and led a quiet life in leafy Kent. In her thirties she suffered an illness that left her a partial invalid. She never married or had children, though she became a kind of friendly father-figure to the children of her divorced sister.
It seems that Richmal Crompton adopted a detached attitude towards her literary offspring, referring to him as "the boy", and denying any suggestion that he might be the child she never had. She would only admit mischievously that perhaps by expressing all her anti-social impulses through him, she had thus been able to lead a blameless life. Perhaps, through William's passionate voice, she found expression not only for her antisocial impulses, but also for her highly critical views of much of the nonsense with which adults burden children. It was her secret and innermost self that found expression in the stories and provided her with a therapeutic experience that allowed her not only to remain law-abiding but, more importantly, beautifully sane. Behind her non-threatening image lay a very sharp observer of much of what is absurd, stupid and inane in adult life.
In choosing to give voice to the child's view of life she gave herself a very powerful instrument with which to portray society's follies, in particular as they affect children. The stories contain many serious truths about the lives of children and the way in which we bring them up.
In recent years, I have returned to the William books, partly out of nostalgia for childhood, but also because I have found in them a philosophy of child-rearing and education close to the writings of radical educators, like A.S.Neill or John Holt, whose ideas I find are close to my own. In fact, I once commented ironically to my friend Bryn Purdy that sometimes I wondered if A.S.Neill, the founder of Summerhill school, ran the school during the day and wrote the William books under a pen name by night. Bryn sent me a letter that he had received from Richmal Crompton in the sixties in reply to his enquiries regarding her opinion of Summerhill. In it she admitted, with disarming honesty, that she knew very little about Child Psychology and, it appears, even less about Summerhill. All she knew was that it was one of those schools referred to by the enigmatic term "experimental", but that she had no doubt that both William and herself would approve of it.
There is a deep hostility between William and adult regulations and between him and the adult tendency to read the worst possible motives into his every action. The central conflict is one between life and imagination on the one hand and dullness and deadness on the other. And what savage indictments William makes of the adults' lack of logic when his own views are dismissed!
Of course, I don't think for one minute that Richmal Crompton meant these to be taken seriously. She would probably have been either horrified or amused by the idea that anybody would see William's opinions as anything other than childish rantings designed to satirize English adults. Yet the universality of their appeal to children in spite of changes in family life and social habits - in the 1980s over 9 million copies had been sold around the world - and the books' capacity to appeal to the more humorous side of the adult reader prove that this a very special literary phenomenon indeed.
Maybe the books touch on what remains of the child inside even the most uptight and authoritarian of adults, conjuring up hidden memories, grudges and longings and drawing upon them to bring about the identification of the reader. All adults, even those of us who were quite unlike William as children, have something of this ugly, brave, imaginative and generous boy inside our soul. Or so one would hope.
Much of the humour in the books relies on William's dialectical resources and the willingness of the author to take the side of the child in his conflicts with adults. This is combined with a biting dissection of adult hypocrisy. The reader is left in no doubt as to the peculiar inanity of most adults, who compete with each other for ridicule without losing that measure of credibility as characters that makes them realistic.
William's magnetism depends on the near-universal experience of humiliation that afflicts children. He is endowed with almost superhuman powers to endure the relentless hostility and sarcasm of his elders. In this sense his is not the portrait of a real child, but the archetype of the hero, never to be humbled even in defeat. No real child would survive unscarred what William survives. Where real children would feel guilty, sad, depressed, frightened or inhibited, William displays an unshakeable self-assurance, never undermined by adult moral blackmail:
"William," said Aunt Lucy patiently, as he passed, "I don't want to say anything unkind, and I hope you don't remember all your life that you have completely spoilt this Christmas Day for me."
William simply replies here that he doesn't think he will. Aunt Lucy disguises what is, at heart, a viciously hostile wish - I hope you feel guilty for the rest of your life - as kindly concern. Aunt Lucy is not an important person in William's emotional family constellation, but when such double-edged messages are repeated by significant adults, they can inflict mental damage on children. William's rock-like indifference to his aunt's poisonous verbal web brings the reader relief and hilarity.
Many of William's aphorisms are a welcome contribution to Western thought on Education and Morals. William is a first-rate thinker and particularly at ease in the area of logic. He is a supreme rationalist and has raised the art of dialectical argument to new heights, giving the lie to that modern psychological blasphemy which sees children, even adolescents, as unable to reason or follow the rules of formal logic.
In fact, so subtle is William's understanding of this art that he can exploit it for his own ends without letting his adult partner become aware of it:
William was very clever at not understanding Compound Interest. He had an excellent repertoire of intelligent questions about Compound Interest. At school he could, for a consideration, "play" the Mathematics master on Compound Interest for an entire lesson while his friends amused themselves in their own way in the desks behind.
It is no mere jest to claim William as a major contributor to Child Psychology. He provides an alternative to official twentieth-century Child Psychology, whether Freudian, Piagetian or Behaviourist. One would look in vain in our manuals of Child Psychology for a comparable understanding of some of the real concerns, conflicts and longings of children. (I say some, because in William the whole realm of children's vulnerability and the feelings that go with it - sadness, fear, tenderness, guilt - are mostly absent.) The so-called Science of Child Psychology distorts or simply ignores most of them. This Science has, in rather insidious ways, degraded children mentally and emotionally.
Richmal Crompton is outstanding in providing us with a far more varied and vivid picture of the nature of children's wars with adults, of the many ways and areas in which it takes place and of the nobility, altruism, curiosity, imagination and creativity of children. This may sound paradoxical in view of her stated belief that she was doing no more than describing original sin as it manifests itself in the spontaneous naughtiness of children. Yet her vision of original sin is remarkably more appealing than Freud's or Melanie Klein's. It is also totally different from that twentieth-century literary attack on children, William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Golding describes a horrifying world of children whose descent into a nightmare of torture and murder is, as he sees it, the unavoidable consequence of their being released from the civilising presence of adults. On the other hand, Richmal's William is a worshipper of all things living and adventurous; if he represents original sin, one can only wish that Adam and Eve had taken a few more bites of the apple.
Unlike Golding's characters, who are always set in a vacuum and whose destructiveness is meant to appear as gratuitous and innate - without history - Richmal Crompton's children and their actions are always intelligible in terms of the social world around them and the frustrating ways in which adults control it. Her capacity and willingness to let children speak for themselves forces the reader both to like and to justify her heroes. William, even at his most perverse, remains extremely engaging and invites benign smiles rather than stern horror. If he flings the occasional stone at a cat, it is not as an expression of an innate drive to cruelty, but as a result of a a possible similarity of character between the animal and its owner, against whom William holds fully justifiable grudges.
William is never sadistic. Though the occasional rat meets its doom through William's efforts to train Jumble in some portentous circus skill, nothing suggests that William intended this to happen or that he gets any special pleasure from it. His physical fighting is not bullying, nor the expression of uncontrollable violence. It doesn't lead to lasting resentments and it is not the main means by which he maintains his position as leader of the Outlaws. His leadership emerges naturally from his qualities of daring, imagination articulateness. None of the Outlaws are bullied into membership or obedience; if William is the leader it is thanks to his undeniable capacity to make life more fun for all of them. Each new adventure is, in a sense, a fresh test of his position. He continually puts himself on the line in a way that few adult leaders would.
The books provide a devastating critique of orthodox educational attitudes. William's philosophy is radically libertarian and opposed to pedagogical coercion. This links him to authors like A.S.Neill, John Holt and Alice Miller. If anything, William is more penetrating in his views:
"What have I just been saying William?"
William sighed. That was the foolish sort of question that schoolmistresses were always asking. They ought to know themselves what they had just been saying better than anyone.
This vignette sums up the absurdity of forcing a live mind to pay attention to the musings of another when this attention is not the result of the spontaneous curiosity aroused in the child, but the result of compulsion.
William and his friends debate compulsory schooling with a wisdom often absent from similar adult debates:
"Makes me feel mad," he said. "Miners havin' Trades unions an' strikes an' things to stop them doin' too much work an' us havin' to go on an' on till we are wore out. You'd think Parliament would stop it... "
"Yes," said Ginger in hearty agreement. "I think that there ought to be a law stoppin' afternoon school..."
And when Henry suggests banning morning school as well, Douglas corrects him:
"No, we'll have to keep mornin' school.. schoolmasters'd all starve if we didn't have any school."
"Do them good," said Ginger bitterly.
Homework is, of course, the source of much resentment, since it is the school's attempt to step outside its boundaries and deprive children of the few hours of free play they can enjoy, thus transforming the day into the sort of educational nightmare that seems to be the ideal of many psychologists and educators. The control of time is the precondition of all other controls:
"...look at our fathers and grone-up brothers they don't have to do homework when they come home from work eggsausted and weery why should we... "
Adults would hesitate to allow the sort of totalitarian controls over their own lives which they take for granted in the rearing of children. One of the basic functions of school is the provision of a system of guardianship, over and above its overt educational and learning objectives.
William doesn't approve of moderate educational reformers. When a do-gooder comes into his school to enquire about the children's suggestions to improve school life, William offers a lapidary answer: "The abolition of schools."
And mealy-mouthed souls who see themselves as the messengers of some new way of improving children's minds don't fare well with him either. William doesn't fit the ideal image of children, nurtured by certain progressive educators, who manage to persuade themselves that children are what their fairy fantasies tell them they should be. One example is Mr Bennison, who writes books on children and believes that children should be led, not driven, that their little hearts should be won by kindness, that their innocent curiosity should always be promptly satisfied. He believes that children trail clouds of glory. From the beginning, William, who is an excellent physiognomist, dislikes him, not so much for his creed as for the insincerity and condescension he senses in him. In the end, he more than shakes poor Mr Bennison's smug self-image as someone who is liked by children.
William proves to be larger than any visions of children as educational objects needing improvement: William was neither quiet, nor gentle, nor courteous, nor intellectual, but William was intensely human.
It is the world that misunderstands William: William was an entirely well-meaning boy. That fact must be realised in any attempt to estimate his character, but Fate had a way of putting him into strange situations, and the world in general had a way of misunderstanding him. At least so it always seemed to William.
As William says in one of his many moments of bitter disappointment in the adult world: "...they always blame us for everything." A sentence which could be taken as a summary of much of twentieth-century Child Psychology. Either sick or perverse, illogical or chaotic, Psychoanalysis. Educational Psychology and other varieties of adult theorising on children seem to assume a basic fault in children which it is the task of the parents, educators and therapists to correct. It is as if Child Psychology starts from the hidden premise that, as regards children, the presumption of innocence has been abolished. The child is, by nature, guilty. One seldom finds in these theories any understanding of the hostility endured by children at the hands of adults, of the intensity and pervasiveness of the anxiety created by child-rearing methods and of the manipulations and moral blackmail most children endure as part of normal educational practice. Nor does one find in them an adequate portrayal of children's qualities and capabilities: the clarity of their thinking, the complexity, depth and nobility of their emotions, the scope of their curiosity, the humanity of their concerns, their capacity for spontaneous empathy and altruism.
Much of what we think children are is only explainable in terms of how adults behave towards them. The prolonged crying of babies, the temper tantrums of the toddler, the antagonistic behaviour of adolescents, for example, are not expressions of the innate nature of children, but results of their experiences at the hands of adults. As William puts it: "They are jolly queer, grownups are... jolly queer!" Or in a more negative vein: "There is not a single grown-up around me that I would like to be like when I grow up."
Objectionable as most adults seem to be, there are some notable exceptions. There are people who accept William as he is and are willing to enter into his world and take it seriously. These Richmal Crompton characters provide us with a very precise standard by which to judge the qualities of those who are genuinely good with children. Their traits are a sounder guideline for parents, teachers and therapists than most of the advice found in manuals of Child Psychology. The essential element seems to be an attitude to the child that comes from the heart and is an authentic reflection of the totality of that person's way of being:
Mrs. Roundway had always been a friend of the Outlaws. She was a small stout woman with a perpetual smile and a very large heart... She seemed to regard boys in a light that was novel and touching to the Outlaws. She talked to them and liked to hear their views. She made cookie boys for them... The Outlaws felt very grateful to her - not so much for the cookie boys as for what the cookie boys stood for, an oasis of grown-up understanding and kindness in a desert world.
Then there's gullible Cousin Mildred, who is desperately hoping for a psychic revelation, which William duly provides in characteristic gratitude for the strange experience of being treated like a fellow human being by a grown-up. The best summing-up of what William wants from adults occurs in the portrait of down-and-out, Bob Andrews:
He was tall, handsome, white-bearded and gloriously lazy. He had a roguish twinkle in his blue eyes and a genius for wasting time - both his own and other people's. He was a great friend of William and the Outlaws. He seemed to be free of all the drawbacks that usually accompany the state of grownupness. He was never busy, never disapproving, never tidy, never abstracted. He took seriously the really important things of life such as cigarette-card collecting, the top season, Red Indians and the finding of birds' nests ...He could carve boats out of wood, make whistles and bows and arrows and tops. He did all these things as if he had nothing else to do in the world.
Children have fewer and fewer chances of meeting people like Bob Andrews nowadays. He is a relic of an older, rural England, where roads were not yet uninhabitable for human beings on foot and along which children could ramble and explore, coming into contact with adults who would widen the experiences of home and school. William undoubtedly lives in a very safe world, with an irate farmer or indignant housewife being the worst danger he is likely to encounter. The world today is probably a far more ominous place to children of Williams age.
In stark contrast to the minority of friendly adults stand the vast majority of family members, teachers and respectable neighbours. They never cease to amaze William with their inexplicable lack of gratitude. Perhaps the most unforgettable of these adults is William's own father, whose brief exchanges with his son are masterpieces of irony. Distant, sarcastic and impenetrable, a grown-up to the hilt, he can nevertheless acknowledge the elimination of the dreaded presence of some unwelcome relative, thanks to William's activities, or admit to his wife, in a moment of weakness, that life would be much duller without William.
His acid remarks leave William seething with indignation or are simply lost on him entirely. Sometimes, the son explodes into magnificent monologues, in which the reader can sense all the fury and disappointment that only a child can feel. There is an Old Testament Prophet lurking inside William. For example, he is sitting at the table daydreaming about joining the circus that has just arrived in the village and wishing he had a clown for a father. Then his father tells him not to speak with his mouth full:
William looked at him coldly. A clown would not have said this. He wondered on what principles parents were chosen. He sometimes wished he had been given some voice in the choosing of his...
And when his father passes a sarcastic comment that he can't grasp, he continues along the same line of thought in silent monologue:
Clowns, he thought to himself smoulderingly, didn't say things that no one knew what they meant.
William's attempts to turn to the path of virtue and gain the admiration of his elders always meets with a wall of indifference; his efforts to draw attention to his self-denial result in some wonderful dialogues:
"Good mornin, Father," said William in a voice of suave politeness.
His father grunted.
"Did you hear me not singing this mornin', Father?"
The gist of the Outlaws' grievance against their families is summed up by Ginger:
"Seems to me that people outside your own family always give you more 'f a chance to explain what you mean than people in your own family. They don't start bein' mad at you before you've really got to what you want to say like people in your own family do."
This listening is what all children want from adults. It is an essential
ingredient of parenting, teaching and healing, but it is still ignored in many
families, schools or therapy centres. It accounts for much of the legitimate
anger present in our children.
With rebellious girls William establishes good relationships and is even proud to be seen in their company - like the working-class girl whose London accent and freedom arouse William's envy. William doesn't hate girls as girls, he hates what girls are trained to be, and the passivity and the devious ways they are forced to adopt as a result. True, he relishes Joan's devoted admiration, but who can blame him for that?
However, these rebellious girls only make brief appearances in the stories, perhaps so as not to overshadow William as protagonist. Maybe a female William would have been less popular with the public, as seems to have been the case with the Jane character.
I do not wish to give the impression that William is free from a certain sexist idea of masculinity. He never cries, he is never afraid, he is never sad. Except for romantic love he is never tender. But the books would be different books if William wasn't endowed with the unreal strength that allows him to withstand the trials and tribulations of an uncomprehending world.
Real childhood is not that funny, and if William had revealed the vulnerability of an ordinary child, if Richmal Crompton had opened the door to Dickens, the stories would have had a very different kind of humour. Many of the smiles are stirred by the unconscious revenge offered to the reader for his own painful memories of childhood. William's invulnerability is the means to bring about this catharsis.
There is only one attempt at lyricism in the stories that I can recall. It occurs in one of the earliest, where William meets Jumble for the first time and becomes his ecstatic owner:
There was a picture in that year 's Academy that attracted a good deal of attention. It was of a boy sitting on an upturned box in a barn, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands. He was gazing down at a mongrel dog and in his freckled face was the solemnity and unconscious, eager wistfulness that is the mark of youth. His untidy, unbrushed hair stood up round his face. The mongrel was looking up, quivering, expectant, trusting, adoring, some reflection of the boy's eager wistfulness showing in the eyes and cocked ears. It was called "Friendship".
But as if slightly alarmed at the temptation to enter into a different emotional key, Richmal Crompton quickly returns to irony in the next lines:
Mrs. Brown went up to see it. She said it wasn't really a very good likeness of William and she wished they'd make him look a little tidier.
Mrs Brown's dull but unshakeable love for William, in spite of the exaggeratedly maternal way in which she expresses it, may secretly account for much of William's impressive self-assurance. It is the authentic confidence in themselves that only well-loved children can feel. William enjoys, in John Bowlby's terms, a very secure base, at least on the maternal side, his father's sarcasm being a less healthy influence on his psychological well-being. This maternal love "was one of the most beautiful and touching things the world has ever known".
The female adults constitute some of the best characters sketched in the stories. And there are subtle psychological distinctions carefully recorded by William in relation to male and female attitudes to children: "His experience had taught him that while women can be much nicer than men, they can, on the other hand, be much more objectionable."
In the last analysis, William is perfectly impartial as regards the sexes, judging adults according to whether they are the sort to write letters to your parents or not. Those who don't write such letters enjoy his unreserved loyalty, and he shows enough awareness of their problems and feelings to give the lie to those who - following Piaget - see children as intellectually and morally egocentric. William can go to great lengths - and for no reward at all - to help the people who show him respect. William is not the primary drive automaton of the psychologists, only motivated by the rewards and punishments that satisfy his elementary needs. He has a soul, and a noble one, capable of feeling empathy, gratitude and altruism. His sense of dignity - for which there is no accounting in any school of Child Psychology - feeds his courage and allows him to dismiss the negative consequences likely to derive from his generous actions.
Child Psychology has tried unsuccessfully to explain away the whole realm of human mutuality, spontaneous social empathy and concern for truth and dignity that is obvious to anyone who opens his or her heart to children. These are seen as the idols of a pre-scientific age. William and his Outlaws, however, prove conclusively that children search spontaneously for activity and a variety of experience as ends in themselves and not as mere means to achieve some nirvana of basic drive satisfaction. If there is something William dreads above all else, it is boredom. Imagination becomes the centre of his existence as the best weapon to breathe life into life. If he hates school it's not because it demands work and mental activity, but because it restrains action, spontaneous curiosity and experience of the real world. Rather than worrying about stimulating and motivating children, parents and teachers should worry about not choking the motivation children arrive with.
William gives continuous evidence of his capacity and willingness to assess adult interests, characters and their peculiar sense of values. He is able to exploit, for his own purposes, adult fears and conventional or unconventional adult values. What emerges from comparing Richmal Crompton's child with Freud's, Klein's, Piaget's or Skinner's is the wholeness and convincingness of the former. Any discussion of the Outlaws on any topic is vastly superior in the use of formal reasoning powers, in the quality of the logic, to the Piagetian child's curious inability to reason logically. Of course William is a fiction; it is Richmal Crompton's reasoning that is portrayed, and some would say, not a real child's. The question is this: is the Piagetian child not a fiction too, a fabrication full of unjustified prejudices about the minds of children, rather than the scientifically precise snapshot it is claimed to be.
And the sense of truth and accuracy derived from the writing of Richmal Crompton is too powerful to be easily dismissed as fiction. There is more than a grain of truth in her children and their abilities. Her penetration in revealing many aspects of childhood put her on a special level as a writer. And her tough stance in favour of the child places her above most Child Psychologists or most twentieth-century creators of fiction. I doubt if many children would be convinced, were they given an explanation of the ideas disseminated about them by Freud, Piaget, Skinner or William Golding, yet they recognize themselves in William.
There are as many blind assumptions and hidden value judgements in scientific Child Psychology as in any purely literary effort to reveal their nature. Children meet their own suppressed voices in William. All children identify with him when he objects to receiving extra tuition to improve his mind: ...for one thing his mind didn't need improving, and anyway it was his mind and he was quite content with it as it was... a statement that highlights again the parallels between William's philosophy and libertarian claims to self-ownership.
In the end, the message of the William books is one of optimism and confidence in human nature. William is a source of creative energy and renewal in a rather stale adult world. It is no coincidence that his colourful ability to bring about the unpredictable literally cures a couple of neurotic women of their symptoms. He is a true therapist, a healer who has that mysterious something that changes lives. As he puts it with his usual Cartesian clarity: "I bet there's not many things that I can't make interestin' even if they are not interestin' to begin with."
Many years ago, I asked an eight-year-old girl what she thought of the
William books. "They're amazing!" she replied. Her family was very
different from William's. Her parents were separated, and her feminist mother,
who had been a teacher in a free school, was now living with a new partner in
1980s London rather than in William's 1930s village. Yet there was some common
and lasting element that allowed her to respond with eagerness to these magical
The war with adults seems to continue, and children still look to William for inspiration and fun. As the girl who donates Jumble to William ("Jumble" in Just - William) so curiously put it:
|Copyright © 2007 Juan Campos. Web page created
First published in the Just William Society Magazine, Number 21, Winter 2007/8. Reproduced by kind permission.