Ebenezer Scrooge may be English literature’s most famous scorner of Christmas, but he has a powerful rival in William Brown. The perpetually 11-year-old hero of the hilarious stories written by Richmal Crompton between 1919 and her death, in 1969—and collected in 38 books seldom out of print—wreaks havoc all year round, but the holidays provide a special stage for his anarchy.
The scruffy, snub-nosed William—debunker of 20th-century fads, bane of the pompous, vain, and affected—doesn’t object to Christmas per se. What he resents is his middle-class family’s unimaginative approach to its rituals and “the final bitter disappointment” occasioned by their dreary gifts. In William’s Truthful Christmas, he idly desecrates the book of Church history and brush and comb he receives.
In the same priceless story, William is inspired by a sermon to “cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy.” He feels it incumbent on him not to lie when an elderly titled lady bestows a flattering portrait of herself on his aunt and uncle and asks William his opinion of it. He bluntly informs the room, “It’s not got as many little lines on its face as what she has an’ it’s different lookin’ altogether. It looks pretty an’ she doesn’t … ”
What William resents is his middle-class family’s unimaginative approach to its rituals and “the final bitter disappointment” occasioned by their dreary gifts.
William’s mother plans to report him to his father for this infraction, while his grown-up sister, Ethel, says he’s mad. William’s uncle, meanwhile, surreptitiously presses a half-crown coin into his hand. Crompton—who also wrote adult fiction—excelled in such delicious Austenian ironies.
William and his friends (collectively, “the Outlaws”) compensate for their families’ feeble Christmas spirit by wolfing down seasonal feasts while unintentionally ruining Ethel and their disdainful brother Robert’s Christmas party, and sabotaging—with maximum intent—a party hosted by William’s oily arch-rival, Hubert Lane.
William wrecks, too, a carol-singing expedition led by Mr. Solomon, the Sunday-school superintendent. Dressed consecutively as Santa and the Pied Piper, William mistakenly switches the age-appropriate gifts the prissy young churchman would have delivered to separate parties of seniors and infants had he not been busy succumbing to the beauteous Ethel’s insincere attentions.
Ahead of another of Hubert Lane’s parties, William deliberately switches cheap presents Hubert has spitefully bought the Outlaws with the expensive presents he has bought for his toadying cronies. This tale, The Christmas Truce, “is one of Richmal’s greatest Christmas stories,” says Martin Jarvis, the veteran British actor who has brought a magnificent polyphony of voices to the nearly 200 William stories he’s been recording for BBC Radio since 1973.
“Richmal poured her genius into William’s genius, so we have a lot to thank her for—just for widening our appreciation of character and motive, even for his social conscience,” Jarvis says. “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I do like William. He’s such a mischievous little scamp!’ And I have to say, ‘No, he isn’t at all.’ He isn’t naughty. He can be belligerent, he can be deceitful, but always for the best of reasons, it seems to me. He’s trying to do good, right wrongs, and pursue happiness. Things often go very wrong, but sometimes they go gloriously right—and that is William.”
Martin Jarvis’s Just William recordings are available on CD, Kindle, and Audible
Graham Fuller is a New York–based film critic