Children's fiction finds a new hero in Just William's long-lost chum

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The Independent Online
IT IS BEING described as a rediscovered classic. Stories by Just William author Richmal Crompton that appeared briefly in the 1940s, and were then forgotten for nearly 50 years, are to be relaunched next week.

The hero is a seven-year-old boy. He gets into scrapes; disasters just seem to happen to him, usually when he is doing his best to be helpful. There is the time he paints his tortoise green and red in the hope that it can replace his neighbour's lost parrot. There is the time he gives the little girl next door (on whom he has a crush) a mouse for her birthday, when what she really wants is a mousse.

Sounds familiar? It is. "Jimmy" is in literary terms a remarkably close relation of the accident-prone William Brown, Just William himself. Such a close relation that it is unlikely any author now would get away with inventing a character so reminiscent of her most famous creation. But in 1947 when the late Richmal Crompton was delighting the country with her William books, London's old Star evening newspaper asked her for more stories to serialise. The William tales were under contract to a publisher, so Miss Crompton came up with Jimmy.

His adventures appeared in the newspaper, were published in book form as Jimmy and Jimmy Again in 1949 and 1951, and then went out of print. Now Richmal Ashbee, Crompton's niece, has asked Macmillan, as the original publishers of William, to put them back into print. When they appear next week they will be with the original illustrations by Thomas Henry (the William illustrator) which did not appear in the original Jimmy books. These illustrations were located in the Star archives.

Macmillan believes that the enduring popularity of William could now ensure similar success for Jimmy and create a new hero in children's fiction. As well as publishing Just Jimmy this month, they will publish a second volume Just Jimmy Again next year.

A further 25 Jimmy stories have been found in the British Library. These have never been published, and Macmillan hopes to publish these in a future volume, though it as yet has no contract to do so.

Lesley Taylor of Macmillan Children's Books said: "Just Jimmy is that rare literary beast - a rediscovered classic. These stories disappeared in the early Fifties, and have been forgotten about until now. We are particularly pleased to be able to publish them with their original illustrations."

Richmal Ashbee agreed yesterday that aside from the difference of a slight stammer there were clear similarities between Jimmy and William. "Richmal Crompton wanted to make Jimmy different," she said, "but he is again her sort of boy - mischievous, inventive and original, and often achieves good when he doesn't intend it.

"I like the stories, but Jimmy can't, I think, avoid being a shadow of William. I don't think Richmal Crompton was surprised that the Just Jimmy stories didn't take off. She knew people really wanted William. But the climate is different now, and people who like William will be interested to read these."

Richmal Crompton, the child of a curate schoolmaster, was born in 1890. She never married, and in 1923 an attack of polio left her permanently disabled. The first collection of William stories, Just William, was published in book form in 1922. The enormous popularity of William kept Crompton writing about him up to her death in 1969.

The inspiration for William is believed to have come from Crompton's nephew, Jack, the son of her sister Gwen. Jack was a lively boy and Crompton studied his more colourful exploits and drew on them for her writing.

Her first story to be professionally published appeared in the Girl's Own Paper in 1918 and was called "Thomas", again inspired by her nephew.

Her last book, William the Lawless, was published posthumously in 1970, with one uncompleted story, "William's Foggy Morning", finished from notes which she had left, by Richmal Ashbee.

William has delighted generations of adults and children alike since his first appearance in 1919. He had his own society, The Outlaws Club, which manages to unite in a common love of mischief such diverse personalities as Alan Coren, Joanna Lumley, Norman Tebbit, Denis Healey and Victoria Wood.

Jimmy never enjoyed the same fame. But London's Star newspaper did endeavour to make him something of a hero, running a competition in 1947 to find a local boy who was most like Jimmy. The winner won a fortnight's seaside holiday for himself and his family. The newspaper cutting gives a flavour of the times. Nearly 2,000 Jimmy fans were at the Odeon Cinema in Kensington for the finals to hear the nine-year-old winner recount his scrapes.

Apart from the 38 books, William has appeared on film, television (played by Dennis Waterman, Adrian Dannatt and, most recently, Oliver Rokison) and radio - most recently on BBC Radio 4, read by Martin Jarvis.