Savour this moment. I am unlikely to sing the praises of a suffragette again very soon.
And indulge me in what may seem an off-topic post. It isn’t.
I was not a great reader as a child – I was a boy, after all. I did read several of the Just William books, though. I loved them. My experience was the common one. I went right off them when I discovered that Richmal Crompton was a woman. Clearly, my misogyny set in early. But it wasn’t misogyny, of course. (I doubt that a 10 year old boy is capable of such a thing). No, it was shock. Shock at the realisation that an adult woman understood me so well. Because I was William Brown, you see – or I would have been had I been possessed of his chutzpah.
William Brown, like Richmal Crompton, was raised in a middle class home when the middle classes were properly bourgeois. The constant references to the Brown household’s domestic staff may grate upon the modern reader. But the William stories are all about exploding social pretentions. It is remarkable how well they stand up despite the huge changes in our society since the first story appeared in 1919. The same types of character are to be found inhabiting today’s world as they did nearly a century ago. And they are still eminently in need of having their conceits pricked. The fact that the William stories remained unchanged in nature during the 50 years they were being written is testament to the timelessness of the psychologies involved. Throughout, William remained stubbornly 11 years old.
William himself is the star, and he is a conceit-free zone. He stands in glorious contrast to the cast of pompous adults against whom he is in permanent opposition. Admittedly his ethics are somewhat elastic, but in the important things he has admirable standards. The phrase ‘loveable rogue’ was surely invented especially for William Brown.
Which brings me to the burden of this post. The affection in which Richmal Crompton holds her little hero shines forth on every page. There is no trace of toxic masculinity here – though, heaven knows, William’s exploits might provide adequate ammunition for such a thesis. Moreover, the contrast between the former suffragist and a modern feminist could hardly be more stark when Crompton exposes some specifically female character flaws.
We need to pinch ourselves on occasion as a reminder that what we are reading was penned by the adult female Richmal Crompton, and must therefore reflect her own understanding – and, we suspect, her own opinion too. Crompton’s understanding of small boys is all the more remarkable in view of her having had no children of her own, remaining unmarried all her life. There’s no trace here of any desire to redefine masculinity: only to record its juvenile foibles.
The contrast between the warmth which Richmal Crompton displays towards William, an attitude towards boys which was once normal, and the vilification poured upon boys today makes my heart bleed.
But, to the books…
William’s bête noire, Violet Elizabeth, is not introduced until the fifth book, some 6 years after the first story was published. In the story The Sweet Little Girl in White William has been obliged by his mother to meet Violet Elizabeth. This is their opening skirmish…and it contains more truth about the male-female power dynamic than in all the feminist texts ever written…
‘Whath your name?’ said Violet Elizabeth
She lisped? She would, thought William bitterly, with those curls and those skirts. She would. He felt at any rate relieved that none of his friends could see him in the unmanly situation – talking to a kid like that – all eyes and curls and skirts.
‘William Brown’ he said, distantly, looking over her head as if he did not see her.
‘How old are you?’
‘My nameth Violet Elizabeth’
He received the information in silence.
He made no comment. He examined the distant view with an abstracted frown.
‘Now you muth play with me.’
William allowed his cold glance to rest upon her.
‘I don’t play little girls’ games’, he said scathingly. But Violet Elizabeth did not appear to be scathed.
‘Don’ you know any little girlth?’ she said pityingly. ‘I’ll teach you little girth gameth’, she added pleasantly.
‘I don’t want to’, said William. ‘I don’t like them. I don’t like little girls games. I don’t want to know ’em.’
Violet Elizabeth gazed at him open mouthed.
‘Don’t you like little girlth?’ she said.
‘Me?’ said William with superior dignity. ‘Me? I don’t know anything about ’em. Don’t want to.’
‘D-don’t you like me?’ quavered Violet Elizabeth in incredulous amazement. William looked at her. Her blue eyes filled slowly with tears, her lips quivered.
‘I like you’, she said. ‘Don’t you like me?’
William stared at her in horror.
‘You – you do like me, don’t you?’
William was silent.
A large shining tear welled over and trickled down the small pink cheek.
‘You’re making me cry’, sobbed Violet Elizabeth. ‘You are. You’re making me cry, ’cause you won’t say you like me.’
‘I – I do like you’, said William desperately. ‘Honest – I do. Don’t cry. I do like you. Honest.’
A smile broke through the tear-stained face.
‘I’m tho glad’, she said simply. ‘You like all little girth, don’t you?’ She smiled at him hopefully. ‘You do don’t you?’
William, pirate and Red Indian and desperado, William woman-hater and girl-despiser, looked round wildly for escape and found none.
Violet Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears again.
‘You do like all little girth, don’t you?’, she persisted with quavering lip, ‘You do, don’t you?’
It was a nightmare to William. They were standing in full view of the drawing-room window. At any moment a grown-up might appear. He would be accused of brutality, of making little Violet Elizabeth cry. And, strangely enough, the sight of Violet Elizabeth with tear filled eyes and trembling lips made him feel that he must have been brutal indeed. Beneath his horror he felt bewildered.
‘Yes, I do’, he said hastily, ‘I do. Honest I do.’
She smiled radiantly through her tears. ‘You with you wath a little girl, don’t you?’
‘Er – yes. Honest I do’, said the unhappy William.
‘Kith me’, she said raising her glowing face.
William was broken. He brushed her cheek with his.
Brilliant. Coercive control, anyone?
I trust I have no need to labour the significance of this extract nor to defend further the claim that this post is not off-topic. The mass psychological delusion which feminism has exercised upon the world rests upon a narrative of female powerlessness and their oppression by powerful men. You need to be very naive to think so. Or very Machiavellian to pretend to do so. In truth, feminism’s tyranny of feigned powerlessness plays to exactly the same power dynamic as illustrated above by the 6 year old Violet Elizabeth. The finer feelings of the male target – call it chivalry or just common decency – are used against him. He is left “feeling he must have been brutal indeed, and beneath his horror he feels bewildered“. In other words, moral blackmail.
Underwriting this psychological coercion lies an Ultimate Authority. In the case of Violet Elizabeth this is the adult world. In the case of feminism, it is the State. While female power was confined to the domestic and social worlds, men were free to control their own lives in the ‘external’ world of work. There was thus a balance of power between the two worlds and the two sexes. But when women entered the ‘external’ world in comparable numbers, they brought their domestic power with them and deployed it there too – propelled by feminist theory.
The reason why feminism has been able to sweep across the globe within my lifetime is because the body politic is no more able to counter female social power than was William in the above extract. The body politic can raise no effective immune response to feminism, because feminism presents itself as women’s wishes and the arrangements of the ‘external’ world were designed to deliver those wishes, not to frustrate them. Feminism is therefore not self-limiting. The analogy with cancer is very apposite.
The story ends with Ginger lamenting that Violet Elizabeth’s involvement has spoiled their day…
‘Girls always do’, said William. ‘I’m not going to have anything to do with any ole girl ever again.’
‘ ‘S all very well sayin’ that’, said Douglas who had been deeply impressed that morning by the inevitableness and deadly persistence of the sex. ‘S all very well sayin’ that. It’s them what has to do with you.’
Violet Elizabeth’s dearest wish is to be included in The Outlaw’s games – and, of course, to control them completely. Here’s the beginning of Violet Elizabeth’s Party…
‘She’s still coming’, said Ginger, throwing a hasty glance behind him.
‘Let’s dodge into the wood an’ throw her off the scent’, suggested Henry.
‘We’ve tried that’, said Douglas with a hollow laugh. ‘It’s never been any good yet.’
‘Let’s hide somewhere’, said Ginger.
‘That’s never been any good either’, said Douglas with another hollow laugh.
‘No, she’s as many eyes as an octopus’, said William morosely.
‘Let’s try it anyway’, said Henry. ‘Come on.’
They dodged into the wood and hastened down the narrow path.
Ginger glanced back. The small resolute figure of Violet Elizabeth could be seen winding its way behind them through the trees.
‘She’s still coming’, he said.
‘Let’s run’, said Douglas.
‘Gosh, I’m not goin’ to run away from her’, said William with spirit. ‘I’m not goin’ to run away from a kid like that. She’d start thinkin’ no end of herself if we ran away from her. She’d think we were scared of her.’
‘Well, we are’, said Henry simply.
Yep, that’s about the size of it.
And why would they be scared of her? Because she’s powerless?
Violet Elizabeth is in particularly fine form in Mrs Bott and the Portrait (and by this time Crompton is writing as late as 1964). Perhaps we should not be too hard on her. She was, after all, the product of the ogress Mrs Bott. The self-proclaimed true gentry despised none more than the nouveau riche, and the more the latter aspired to ape their ‘betters’ the more they were despised…..
Mr Bott sighed. He had suspected for some time that his wife was due for another outbreak of social ambition.
On this occasion Mrs Bott has a yen for portraiture. They need to persuade Violet Elizabeth to sit. There’s no doubting in this story what Richmal Crompton thinks of Violet Elizabeth’s character.
‘Would you like to have your portrait done, love?’ said Mrs Bott.
Violet Elizabeth’s small red tongue performed an adroit circular lick that encompassed the entire surface of her ice lolly.
‘Will you give me a nithe prethent if I do?’ she said.
For all her air of angelic sweetness Violet Elizabeth was a calculating child.
‘We’ll see’, said Mrs Bott. ‘We’ll see if you’re a good little girl and sit still’.
‘I don’t want to thit thtill’, said Violet Elizabeth.
She gave another circular lick to the lolly and the remaining fragment detached itself from the stick and fell onto the parquet floor.
‘Pick that up’, said Mr Bott.
‘I don’t want to pick it up’, said Violet Elizabeth. ‘I’ll thquath it’.
She ground the piece of ice into the parquet with a miniature sandal.
‘Now don’t give her exhibitions*, Botty’, said Mrs Bott, seeing an expostulation quivering on her husband’s tongue. *she means inhibitions
‘She’s givin’ ’em to me’, said Mr Bott.
Violet Elizabeth licked the wooden stick clean then put it among her curls behind her ear and turned her attention to the subject under discussion.
‘Who’th going to paint it?’ she said.
‘Well, that’s the question, love’, said Mrs Bott. ‘There’s Archie Mannister and there’s this nephew of Mrs Lane’s that’s coming to stay with her. Seems he’s an artist, too. So we’ve got to make up our minds between them.’
Violet Elizabeth fixed limpid blue eyes on her parent. They held their usual expression of wondering innocence, but her mind was working quickly. She was not an unintelligent child and she saw the possibilities of the situation.
Those youthful desperadoes, known as The Outlaws – William, Ginger, Henry and Douglas – used Archie’s cottage and garden as their playground. Archie was so vague and absent-minded that they could turn his garden into a Red Indian camp, raid his larder, and use his studio as the cockpit of an aeroplane, without his even realising that they were present. There were occasions when he suddenly noticed them and drove them in exasperation from the scene, but the occasions were few. The result was that William and his friends cherished for Archie a deep and ardent loyalty. They would, Violet Elizabeth knew, go to any lengths to secure the portrait commission for Archie. And it was the greatest desire of her heart to be accepted by the Outlaws as their playmate, to join in their games and accompany them on their lawless expeditions over the countryside.
So far all her efforts had been in vain. They continued to treat her with contempt and derision, to eject her when she tried to join them, to ignore her threats, her tears, her blandishments. And suddenly she saw a way of gaining her ends. The fact that Archie’s rival was a member of the Lane family added piquancy to the situation. For Hubert Lane was William’s inveterate foe. She would be able to play one off against the other to her heart’s content.
‘Now will you promise to be a good little girl and have your portrait done?’ coaxed Mrs Bott. ‘Then I’ll give you a lovely present.’
But Violet Elizabeth had lost interest in the present. She was after bigger game. She maintained her air of wondering innocence.
‘I will if it’th a nithe painter’, she stipulated. ‘I couldn’t thit thtill if it wathn’t a nithe one.’
Upon gaining her parent’s agreement that she, Violet Elizabeth, should choose the artist…
Drunk with her sense of power, Violet Elizabeth gamboled gleefully through the French window.
The situation developed exactly along the lines that Violet Elizabeth had hoped. News soon leaked out in the neighbourhood that Violet Elizabeth had been given the choice of artist. William immediately accosted her in order to sing the praises of Archie in emphatic tones.
Violet Elizabeth gave him a smile of radiant sweetness.
‘I’d like to come and play Red Indianth in the woodth with you, William’, she said.
‘All right’, he said ungraciously. ‘You can come tomorrow.’
William mansplains the virtues of Archie (original Thomas Henry)
The next time Violet Elizabeth emerged from the Hall gates Hubert Lane was waiting for her. Hubert was fat and smug with a large oily smile. He carried a box of chocolates.
‘I thought you’d like these, Violet Elizabeth ‘ he said, baring his teeth in the oily smile. ‘They’re the most expensive in the shop.’
Violet Elizabeth fluttered her eyelashes at him.
Hubert Lane extols the virtues of the alternative artist – via a bribe (Thomas Henry)
‘Thank you for the chocolatth, Hubert. I like chocolate, Hubert. An’ I like lollypoth and caramelth and pear dropth and thugar mithe and jelly babieth and candy floth’, said Violet Elizabeth.
There followed for Violet Elizabeth a period of bliss that surpassed her wildest dreams. The lust for power that lives in every six-year-old breast found ample and almost incredible outlet.
Hubert rang the changes on chocolates, lollypops, sugar mice, jelly babies, caramels and pear drops – and Violet Elizabeth found fault with everything he brought. Still intoxicated by the sense of power, she flung her weight about, tossing her curls, elevating her small nose, keeping him running backwards and forwards to the sweet shop, draining every last penny of his pocket money, lavish though it was. Hubert’s smug face began to wear an anxious, driven look.
And the Outlaws fared even worse. Ruthlessly, Violet Elizabeth organised their games. Where before she had been rigorously excluded, she now lorded it as squaw, exploress, and highwaywoman. She insisted on having the chief part in every game they played. She even forced them to play an outrageous game of her own invention featuring the Outlaws as courtiers and herself as Queen.
Invasion of male space, anyone? And, of course, abuse of power. Crompton herself uses the word ‘power’ three times in this short extract. I cannot recall her ever describing William as possessed of power. On the contrary, the stories are generally about William battling against the unwelcome powers of others, sometimes adult power, sometimes not. I’ll not regale you with the further twists and turns of the plot, though you may rest assured that Archie gets the commission in the end.
Young men are invariably portrayed by Crompton as love struck, pathetic fools – and none so pathetic as those who are in love with William’s sister, Ethel. We read in William and the Hoop-la Stall,
“William shook his head compassionately. He couldn’t understand what Ethel’s many admirers saw in her but, though willing to exploit them in every possible way, he pitied as well as despised them.”
Middle-aged women, on the other hand, are unassailable powers whose wills cannot be challenged head-on but can only be successfully countered by craft and subterfuge – the arts to which William is wholeheartedly dedicated. For example, again in William and the Hoop-la Stall,
“Everyone knew what Mrs Monks was. Beneath her bland exterior lay a will power and tenacity of purpose that brooked no opposition. Her tactics were simple. She selected her victim, issued her orders and thereafter ignored protests, resistance and even open rebellion.
‘Why didn’t you jus’ say no?’, queried William.
‘I did’, said Archie.”
By William and the Psychiatrist we find William having a mid-life crisis. It’s not surprising, by this time he has been 11 for some 45 years. He clearly understands his allotted role as a doer of deeds…
‘Here I am’, he muttered, ‘ gettin’ older an’ older every year an’ done nothin’ yet to make the world ring with my name. Gosh! I haven’t even started. I bet Christopher Columbus was thinkin’ out how to discover America when he was my age. I bet that Watt man that invented steam had started boilin’ kettles. There’s not much time left. I’ve got to start soon.’
So William sets up as a psychiatrist, perhaps because he’s tried everything else by this time: “Mental Trubbles Kured. Threppence Eech”. He soon gets his first patient who explains his problem…
‘Amanda. My fiancée’, said Mr Peaslake, fixing his eyes gloomily in front of him. ‘At least, she was my fiancée, but in this letter I’ve just received she breaks off the engagement. She’s coming this evening to return my presents. She has to come in person with her car because one of them’s a spin dryer and she can’t very well post it. I thought she’d be pleased with the spin dryer, but she said it showed a lack of imagination. She said that all my presents showed a lack of imagination. I knew, of course, that she found me – disappointing in many ways. She says I lack the vital spark. But this letter – well, it’s shattered my world to its foundations. I realise that I’m not worthy of her – she’s so vibrant and alive – but I simply can’t face life without her.’
‘Well, I think you’re jolly lucky gettin’ rid of her’, said William. ‘They’re all bossy. Gosh! Even when they seem all right at first, they always turn out bossy before they’ve finished an’ they get bossier an’ bossier an’ bossier.’
Tut, tut, William – or, rather, Richmal – that’s a banned word, don’t you know. But let me not give you the impression that William was immune to feminine charms. Here he is in The Fall of the Idol having a crush on his teacher, Miss Drew,
There was a faint perfume about her, and William, the devil-may-care pirate and robber-chief, the stern despiser of all things effeminate, felt the first dart of the malicious blind God. He blushed and simpered.
“Malicious”, eh, Miss Crompton? An interesting choice of word. So smitten is William that he actually starts doing his homework. Alas, William goes on in the story to lose faith in his beloved due to her fickleness in floral preferences.
Joan, the dark haired girl next door, figures frequently – sometimes in the guise of William’s admirer (“To Joan, William was a godlike hero. His very wickedness partook of the divine”, William’s Christmas Eve) – sometimes as the target of William’s desire to impress (as in The Rivals). And girls often feature as William’s partners in crime (e.g., the delightfully laddish Dorita in William and White Satin) or as the beneficiaries of his schemes, as the following two examples illustrate.
These final two examples are not so redolent of feminism but they serve to emphasise Crompton’s positive portrayal of William, and by implication a positive portrayal of masculinity (albeit here in its juvenile form).
We are never in any doubt that William’s heart is in the right place, regardless of sex. In William’s Christmas Eve we find our hero being importuned by a little guttersnipe name of Sheila. Stung though William is to be verbally attacked in such a manner, and by such a one, he cannot help but be impressed by little Shiela’s command of street language and her positive pride in her father’s imprisonment. “Softie! Swank!” she calls after him, but not before she has revealed her dream that Father Christmas will deliver a sumptuous Christmas dinner this year. “I tol’ you it was rot’, says William. ‘There isn’t any Father Christmas“. But the episode prays on William’s mind…
“William had a strong imagination. When an idea took hold upon his mind, it was almost impossible for him to let it go. He was quite accustomed to Joan’s adoring homage. The scornful mockery of his auburn-haired friend was something quite new, and in some strange fashion it intrigued and fascinated him. Mentally he recalled her excited little face, flushed with eagerness as she described the expected spread. Mentally also he conceived a vivid picture of the long waiting on Christmas Eve, the slowly fading hope, the final bitter disappointment. While engaging in furious snowball fights with Ginger, Douglas and Henry, while annoying peaceful passers-by with well-aimed snow missiles, while bruising himself and most of his family black and blue on long and glassy slides along the garden path, while purloining his family’s clothes to adorn various unshapely snowmen, while walking across all the ice (preferably cracked) in the neighbourhood and being several times narrowly rescued from a watery grave – while following all these light holiday pursuits – the picture of the little auburn-haired girl’s disappointment was ever vividly present in his mind.”
So William, with the help of the ever-adoring Joan, sets out to provide the desired Christmas feast – succeeding admirably and earning punishment from his family as a result (well, he did steal their food). Overly saccharine, blatant pathos? Yes, of course. But that is not the point. The point is the portrayal of a positive masculinity: William’s compassion and conscience, and the determination to translate these into action.
The May King provides another example of William championing the cause of a deserving girl, in this case in preference to one less deserving. The class is to have a May Queen. The less deserving candidate…
“…Evangeline Fish began to canvass for votes methodically. Evangeline Fish was very fair, and was dressed always in that shade of blue that shrieks aloud to the heavens and puts the skies to shame. She was considered the beauty of the form….
Evangeline Fish was elected May Queen by an overwhelming majority. She was, after all, the beauty of the form and she always wore blue. And now she was to be May Queen. Her prestige was established forever. ‘Little angel’, murmured the elder girls. The small boys fought for her favours. William began to dislike her intensely. Her voice, and her smile, and her ringlets, and her blue dress began to jar upon his nerves.”
“It was not until a week later that William noticed Bettine Franklin. Bettine was small and dark. There was nothing ‘angelic’ about her. William had noticed her vaguely in school before and had hardly looked upon her as a distinct personality. But one recreation in the playground he stood leaning against the wall by himself, scowling at Evangeline Fish. She was surrounded by a crowd of admirers, and was prattling to them artlessly in her angelic voice.
‘I’m going to be dressed in white muslin with a blue sash. Blue suits me, you know. I’m so fair.’ She tossed back a ringlet. ‘One of you will have to hold my train and the rest must dance round me. I’m going to have a crown and…’. She turned round in order to avoid the scowling gaze of William in the distance.
William had discovered that his scowl annoyed her, and since then he had given it little rest. But there was no satisfaction in scowling at the back of her well-curled head, so he relaxed his scowl and let his gaze wander around the playground. And it fell upon Bettine. Bettine was also standing by herself and gazing at Evangeline Fish. But she was not scowling. She was looking at Evangeline Fish with wistful envy. For Evangeline Fish was ‘angelic’ and a May Queen and she was neither of these things. William strolled over and lolled against the wall next to her……”
Bonding is instantly established through the exchange of gifts. (“William plunged his hands into his pockets and brought out two marbles, a piece of clay and a broken toy gun. ‘You can have ’em all’, he said in reckless generosity“).
‘She’ll look ever so beautiful when she’s a May Queen’, opined Bettine.
‘You’d look nicer’, said William.
Bettine’s small pale face flamed.
‘Oh, no!’, she said.
‘Would you like to be May Queen?’
‘Oh, yes!’, she said.
‘Umm’, said William.
‘I’d hold your train if you was goin’ to be queen’, he volunteered.
‘I wouldn’t want you to hold my train’, she said earnestly. ‘I’d – I’d – I’d want you to be May King with me’.
‘Yes. Why don’t they have May Kings?’, said William, stung by this insult to his sex.
‘Why shouldn’t there be a May King?’
No prizes for guessing how the story subsequently unfolds. William discovers Evangeline’s weak spot – her greed for cakes – and uses it against her. Inveigling her to a massive feast of cakes and pastries, Evangeline is fatally delayed whilst William and Bettine steal the show as King and Queen of the May. It ends, “Bettine, standing on the platform with William’s hand holding hers and the maypole dancers dancing around her, was radiant with pride and happiness. Evangeline Fish in the woodshed was just beginning the last currant cake.”
(Drawing by Thomas Henry)
For those readers who are bewildered as to why I have bothered with this particular post, let me reprise the reasons – there are two. The modern world has little love for laddishness. Yet only a very short time ago even an ex-suffragette was able to appreciate its positive aspects and regard even juvenile masculinity with affection. This is how far we have sunk. But secondly, I wished to provide elementary examples of the nature of gender-related social power, about which I will have much more to say.