Having received an early Christmas present from my British goddaughter, in the form of a new Kindle, I have been happily downloading and reading books from the Gutenberg Project website. This is a pleasant supplement to a practice I began some time ago, and about which I have written previously, of downloading audio books from the Librivox site for my iPod. In the case of both ventures, the books are in the public domain, as their copyrights have expired. Thus if you visit either site, you will not find free downloads from contemporary writers high and low – no Orhan Pamuk or Stephen King. However, you will find works from a host of authors in all genres, high-brow literature and philosophy to popular fiction and non-fiction, from Aristotle to Zola.
As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are settling into the chill of winter, with many afternoons and evenings spent indoors out of the weather, it is a wonderful time to read, and to explore works with which we may not be familiar. While normally I do tend to stay in the company of individuals usually considered serious authors, such as Balzac and Galsworthy, like anyone with a reasonably normal disposition I do need some light humor from time to time. Many times in the search for such material, I stumble across authors whose books, while popular in their day, are not often talked about now. For example, I suspect that most of my readers will not be aware of the works of E.M. Delafield; her “Provincial Lady” series from the 1930’s is an ongoing comedy of middle-class manners that often proves to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Such is the case with another collection of works, often known collectively as the “Just William” series after the title of the first book in the group, by Richmal Crompton. Though probably well-known to my British readers, American audiences of my generation are likely unfamiliar with the character of William Brown and his adventures. This terrible oversight must be remedied, dear reader, as soon as possible.
William is an eleven-year-old middle-class boy who lives with his parents and older brother and sister in a large house with well-tended gardens in an English country village during the 1920’s, and attends the village primary school. Though the setting is essentially rural, it has suburban overtones and we can glean that the location is within commuting distance of London. William’s father holds some sort of business executive or other white-collar position, while his mother stays at home and looks after the household. William’s girl-crazy brother Robert is in college, while his sister Ethel stays at home and is something of a popular socialite. The cook and the parlor maid complete the list of permanent residents at the Brown home, though there are frequently house guests in the form of relatives, as well as friends and neighbors, who round out the picture.
As boys of his age are wont to do, William is something of a mischief-maker, and it is in the combination of his activities as well as Crompton’s uncanny ability to get into the mind and thought process of a boy of William’s age that end up making this series. If William was merely a miscreant, the stories would lose their charm, as I must say I always found to be the case with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Yet even as he brings about random acts of destruction, William has flashes of genius, charity, and compassion that keep us from rejecting him as simply a badly-behaved little boy.
Last evening I found myself laughing lustily and long over a story in which William and his pals rig up a sideshow in his bedroom and charge admission to the other children in the village. The highlight of this involves William exhibiting his visiting Great Aunt Emily, a woman who is not only self-righteous but morbidly obese and of giant stature. Aunt Emily had come a month earlier, and was supposed to have stayed for a week; to the despair of William’s father, she had now been there a month, and shows every sign of intending to stay for several months more, claiming to be ill when in fact she is as healthy as an ox and is simply mooching off the Browns.
When Aunt Emily is napping, her snores are something so out of this world, that William decides he is going to put her on exhibit as a “Genuine Fat Wild Woman”; she becomes the highlight of the sideshow:
Those who came out simply went to the end again to wait another turn. Many returned home for more money, for Aunt Emily was 1d. extra and each visit after the first, 1/2d. The Sunday School bell pealed forth its summons, but no one left the show. The vicar was depressed that evening. The attendance at Sunday School had been the worst on record.
And still Aunt Emily slept and snored with a rapt, silent crowd around her. But William could never rest content. He possessed ambition that would have put many of his elders to shame. He cleared the room and re-opened it after a few minutes, during which his clients waited in breathless suspense.
When they re-entered there was a fresh exhibit. William’s keen eye had been searching out each detail of the room. On the table by her bed now stood a glass containing teeth, that William had discovered on the washstand, and a switch of hair and a toothless comb, that William had discovered on the dressing-table. These all bore notices:
FAT WILD WOMAN’S KOME
Were it not that the slightest noise meant instant expulsion from the show (some of their number had already suffered that bitter fate) there would have been no restraining the audience. As it was, they crept in, silent, expectant, thrilled, to watch and listen for the blissful two minutes. And Aunt Emily never failed them. Still she slept and snored.
They borrowed money recklessly from each other. The poor sold their dearest treasures to the rich, and still they came again and again. And still Aunt Emily slept and snored.
It would be interesting to know how long this would have gone on, had she not, on the top note of a peal that was a pure delight to her audience, awakened with a start and glanced around her. At first she thought that the cluster of small boys around her was a dream, especially as they turned and fled precipitately at once. Then she sat up and her eye fell upon the table by her bed, the notices, and finally upon the petrified horror-stricken showman.
She sprang up and, seizing him by the shoulders, shook him till his teeth chattered, the tinsel crown fell down, encircling ears and nose, and one of his moustaches fell limply at his feet.
“You wicked boy!” she said as she shook him, “you wicked, wicked, wicked boy!”
This is just one example of what to expect in the series, which encompasses numerous books. The first two, “Just William” and “More William” are currently available on the Project Gutenberg site. The Librivox site at present only has a recording of the “More William” collection.
For a briefer introduction to William Brown, I highly recommend downloading the short story available on Librivox entitled “The Christmas Present”, which was my first introduction to the adventures of this unforgettable boy and his family. If you enjoy the book/film version of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”, then you will certainly enjoy this tale of William’s Christmas disasters. Even with the mishaps and misunderstandings, it is ultimately a warm and – did I mention? – very funny book about family life, which I am sure all of my readers will be able to relate to.