William and the detectives

Richmal Crompton's lovable rogue could have emerged from her lively imagination, or he could have been based on her brother or nephew. But there's a darker theory, says Jonathan Sale
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``I see her as the 20th-century Jane Austen," says Mary Cadogan, the biographer of Richmal Crompton, "and I do see Mr Brown and Mr Bennet as very similar. He is a man of great sarcasm which is, of course, lost on William."

But it is not exactly Pride and Prejudice that is to be televised on the next six Sunday evenings, more a matter of Greed an' Prejerdice. The latest BBC dramatisation of Crompton's stories will feature not the emotions of a lovely heroine but the escapades of a lovable delinquent.

Britain's favourite naughty boy entertains adults as well as children. Serious grown-up fans meet on the annual William Day to make a pilgrimage to spots sacred to their hero. They join the newly formed Just William Society. What no one of any age knows is: just who was Just William?

It is a mystery that has divided the author's relatives and biographers. Was William the product of Richmal Crompton's fertile imagination? How much was he based on her brother Jack? Or her nephew Tom? Or was it plagiarism? It is a case to baffle even William the Detective.

It was a 1977 television series that stirred up an argument worthy of the fictional gang of Outlaws. For half a century, from 1919 to 1969, Richmal Crompton Lamburn (she dropped the surname for her books) produced her yarns of suburban mayhem. She also wrote grown-up novels about sensitive young women. She was a shy, academic child who grew up to be a classics teacher; partly disabled by polio at 32, she never married or had children. So from which garden shed of the mind did her 11-year-old "Frankenstein's monster", as she called him, crawl?

Mary Cadogan, author of Just William Through the Ages, says: "Even though so many of his exploits were inspired by Richmal's brother Jack, William has his own very vivid personality, quite distinct from that of any other fictional, or real, character."

"Not very much of William seems to me to be based on anybody," states Richmal Ashbee, one of the author's nieces. Mrs Ashbee was not only named after her famous aunt, but also appointed as her literary executor; she finished off the author's final yarn. She, too, is sure that the character sprang mainly from the writer's inspiration, to which were added "episodes from her brother Jack's childhood, and episodes from my brother Tom's".

Aunt, brother and nephew have all gone to the Great Bookshop in the Sky. But you do not have to shin far down the surviving Crompton family tree to find a dissident relative catapulting missiles at the party line. The industrial journalist Margaret Disher is Crompton's niece and Richmal Ashbee's older sister. Growing Up With Just William is the defiant title of the book written and brought out by Miss Disher (alias Outlaws Publishing Company), which argues that William was entirely based on her brother Tom, not her uncle Jack. Although Tom was only three in 1919, when the first story appeared in the pages of Home magazine, she puts the finger on him as "William's prototype", a real-life lovable rogue always in trouble with neighbours and village bobbies.

She reproduces a snapshot of Tom and "the first broken window". Jack, by contrast, was (a) a different sort of boy, very strictly brought up; and (b) abroad when the early stories hit the streets. "Not one of the books was dedicated to my Uncle Jack," she points out. "The first dedication was to Tommy."

Kay Williams in her biography of Crompton, Just - Richmal, reports on a more serious charge which hit the fan like one of William's stink bombs. At the end of his life, Jack is said to have sneaked on his sister, saying that she had cribbed the idea of her young malefactor from another writer.

Was this just a disagreement between relatives, like Mr Brown snapping at his dysfunctional family over the tea table? So it would seem - if it had not been for the letters page of Radio Times. The 1977 series prompted a correspondence about a lad named "Penrod", an American fictional character created before William's debut appearance by Booth Tarkington, author of The Magnificent Ambersons. Penrod was an 11-year-old with an attitude problem, a sister of 19 and a mongrel. Ring any bells? "Close similarities," said one reader. "Lifted wholesale," snapped another - lifted, that is, by Crompton. According to his father, Penrod is a "stark, raving lunatic"; similarly, William's dad declares him "stark raving insane". Each boy goes to the cinema and sees a film about a drunkard's road to ruin. Both have to make public appearances in their mother's clothes. And so on.

But having stacked up the similarities, Kay Williams backs down. Although Richmal Crompton might have copied the American version - accidentally or not-so-accidentally - there is no evidence that she had read any Penrod. The real origin of William, Kay Williams says, is Robert Green, a young lad who surfaced in a story a few months earlier - also by Richmal Crompton. But then, who was the real Robert Green?

For now, the William question remains one of those great literary enigmas such as the identity of the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan or Biggles - with the difference that being the inspiration for William is an honour most respectable adults would be only too happy to decline.