Those who, very kindly and indulgently, read even the more ephemeral of the ephemera I publish will have noticed that I recently took an interest in the Just William stories of Richmal Crompton, especially a short story William and the Nasties.
I have learned an important lesson. And I thank all of you who helped me to find this text for your part in advancing my very limited education! Here is the Lesson you have taught me:
Never jump to conclusions. Never assume the obvious.
That story, written in 1935, shows William proposing to imitate 'Him Hitler' and the 'Nasties' and the Storm Troopers; to drive out of their English village a Jewish shopkeeper and to ransack his vast supply of sweets. In fact, the subtext of the story is elegantly anti-Nazi; it is made clear that, in England, Hitler's treatment of the Jews would be illegal. One would go to prison! William and his associates gradually realise this and lose all confidence in their plans of exspoliation. (In a somewhat mannered twist of the plot, all ends happily with a real 'thief' dragged off to prison by the police, while William and Mr Isaacs join together in happy amity.)
I assumed ... mea maxima culpa ... that the story was expunged from the canon at the time of WW2.
I was very wrong.
It wasn't. It was expunged in 1986.
It appeared, in reprint after reprint, throughout the testing years of the War. But it was meat far too strong for the sensitivies of (what Vatican II called) hodiernum tempus.
What did 1986 find so objectionable?
Possibly, the typecasting of the Jew; he is an entrepreneur; he speaks in an English in which W becomes V. Possibly, the presentation of something as vile as Hitlerism as a mere joke (cf also the tribulations of P G Wodehouse ... "the German Army ... a fine body of men ...").
Richmal Crompton, the author(ess), was the daughter of a clergyman who was also a Classics Master. She herself read Classics at the Royal Holloway, and went on to teach it. She was a sophisticated ironist and stylist. Her Narrator's English is literate and highly latinate; it sets off the naive illiteracy in the dialogue of the small boys whose words and exploits she presents as objects of satire. Indeed, a real 'William' would not be able to understand most of her texts at all!
I suspect that she began by intending what she wrote to amuse literate and latinate adults. She offers us a comfortable and amused viewpoint, sitting at her own side, chuckling when she chuckles.
Readers will recall that C S Lewis explained that he did not set out, as he visited Narnia, to write stories for children ... but what he did want to write presented itself in the genre of Children's Stories. How many child-readers would fully appreciate, for example, the passage where Lewis argues that abominable should be etymologically derived, not from abominabile, but from ab homine?
Wozzat you say? In Middle English, and in the Shakespearean folios, abominable is indeed spelt abhominable? (Holoferne favente scribo.)
Exactly. This gets us to the heart of the matter. Censorship tries to cut us off from our cultural past. It attempts to slam shut the doors into other human worlds. Writers of the 1930s, or 1430s, were not always right, but they were not always wrong. And writers of our own time are not always wrong ... but they are most certainly not always right. And, in a generation's time, this will be embarrassingly clear.
Lewis (On reading Old Books) recommended that we should never read something new until we had (re)read a couple of old books.
I suggest that the many volumes of Just William deserve to be added to the Official Canon of Old Books which need to be reread. William and the Nasties is a good starting point.