Thursday, 17 March 2011

"Richmal Crompton: the woman behind Just William" by Mary Cadogan

Let me confess straight away that I am a lifelong William fan, and being put onto Frost at Morning by Simon of Stuck-in-a-book had also shown me that Crompton was a serious author. Ever since then, I have looked for her books regularly whenever I am in second hand book shops.

Early on in this biography, which is clearly a labour of love, for Cadogan has also written a companion to the Wiiliam books and is also the editor of the Just William magazine, she admits that she nearly changed her mind about writing it, as she was unable to find anybody with anything to say about her subject which was not universally positive. Indeed, it seems that Richmal Crompton was genuinely a very good and nice person, despite battling against the handicap of polio. However, as Cadogan acknowledges, this does not necessarily make for interesting reading.

Perhaps because of this, she embarks upon the approach of juxtaposing extracts from the William books with similar themes in Crompton's serious books. While this is an interesting exercise, since the two are usually diametrically opposed, does it actually tell us anything about Crompton the person and, if so, which version is closer to the truth?

Books like this should never be discouraged, and I did enjoy reading it, but I came away wondering if I really understood much more about this thoroughly nice but rather enigmatic person than I had before. It was worth reading for at least two things which will stick in the memory.

First, she saw Enid Blyton, an almost direct contemporary, as a distinct competitor, remarking on one occasion when she feared she was dying "Enid Blyton, here I come". Interestingly, she regretted repeatedly that nobody had ever written a really good girls' boarding school book., at one of which she had been a teacher herself for some years Since she must have known Blyton's work, this must mean that she didn't think much of Mallory Towers et el.

Second, she seemed to have a strange premonition about when she was going to die, even though she was not ill at the time and, indeed, in the end died almost instantly from what seems to have been a not particularly severe heart attack. Contrary to her usual practice, which was to fill her diary for the new year with engagements months in advance, she refused to accept any beyond 11 January 1969, which did indeed prove to be the day she died. Spooky.

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