Frank Richards a.k.a. Charles Hamilton by Norman Kadish

I must confess that the decision to write about P G Wodehouse in this series of literary classics has opened up the floodgates, in a manner I find immensely pleasurable. Discussing someone whose main contribution, indeed his only one if we accept David Cecil’s characterization, was humour suggests a much more extensive, or perhaps I should say liberal, interpretation of the parameters of this series. It seemed obvious then that I should also write about the man who, at least according to his Wikipedia entry, has written more words that have been published than any other writer ever.

I had to have recourse to Wikipedia because, once again, after many years of not reading the man’s work, I felt that memory required to be supplemented by research. This was a good thing, because I found that the man I wanted to talk about was called Charles Hamilton. I had previously thought of him as Frank Richards, writer of the Billy Bunter series. I had thought that was his actual name, rather foolishly, for I also knew that he was also called Hilda Richards, author of books about Billy’s sister Bessie.

In fact he wrote under different names a few other series of books about schoolboys too, at a period in which this was a well established and popular genre. The usual books of the genre dealt with public schools, what seems a strange British locution for private schools, where boys were sent to become gentlemen, and potential rulers of other breeds, as Kipling termed them, in the Empire.

The locution was not however quite so strange, because the term originated at the time when, following a Royal Commission on such schools, they ceased to be bastions of irresponsible privilege for scions of the aristocracy. They were expected to develop a sense of social responsibility and educational achievement, and under a selection of remarkable headmasters, they developed into really rather good training centres for young men who could think as well as lead.

In the process they opened their doors to the emerging middle class, which saw such education as a key to social acceptance. In fact it could be argued that Britain avoided the radical social and political changes that occurred in other countries where an industry and service oriented middle class challenged the feudal landed aristocracy, precisely through this system of gradual but continuous absorption of potential rivals.

They were thus public schools in a very real sense, meaning they were open to people outside the original charmed circle. This did lead to tensions on occasion, but by and large the system allowed for merit to be recognized, and facilitated the expansion of the British ruling elite to fit growing requirements, whilst maintaining a consistent ethos.

Greyfriars by Norman Kadish

That ethos was held to encompass all sorts of virtues necessary for ruling an empire, courage and loyalty and honestyand moral integrity and self-restraint and so on. Frank Richards however, who was the most popular of writers about public schools, stood the ethos on its head in the character of Billy Bunter, who flaunted the opposite of these virtues. It is true that the ethos is upheld by the laudable characters in the Greyfriars series, notably the Famous Five, the worthy class captain Harry Wharton (of Wharton Lodge), his dependable study mate Frank Nugent, the irrepressible Bob Cherry, the dour Yorkshireman Johnny Bull and, typically in those days of empire, the Indian prince Hurree Jamset Ram Singh (also called Inky, for obvious reasons that would not be acceptable in the modern world). They are always around to boot Bunter when he misbehaves but rescue him in times of woe, to stand firm against the Bounder (Herbert Vernon-Smith, higher up on the social ladder but much lower down morally) who smokes and bets on horses, to score goals and do well but not brilliantly in class – but their virtues are not half as interesting as the preposterous vices of the Fat Owl.

Gerald Campion as 'Billy Bunter'

Bunter is breathtaking in his effrontery, which he develops step by step with perverse logic. In one of the stories I reread, he takes a postal order from his form-master’s desk, believing it to be his, then loses it and runs away before he can be expelled, because he is convinced he had not done anything dishonest. His exploits to find ‘grub’ to eat while he is on the run are hilarious, as is the scene when the interfering Coker decides to stay up all night to catch him foraging for food. Unfortunately Bunter’s form-master Quelch has the same bright idea, and it is Quelch on whom Coker leaps in the middle of the night.

A much earlier book begins on an even more preposterous note when Bunter decides to crash a Christmas party at Mauleverer Towers, the home of the ineffably laid back Lord Mauleverer. He arrives in a taxi which he cannot afford, jumping out in the driveway and falling into a well which leads into a secret passage into the castle. He thus possesses knowledge of a secret known only to the wicked valet who kidnaps Lord Mauleverer and hides him in the secret passage. Thinking Bunter has deduced his guilt, the valet tries to kill Bunter by throwing him into the well and filling it with snow, but that enables Bunter to find Mauleverer and rescue him. He is thus of course entirely welcome for the rest of the holiday.

The happy ending with regard to the postal order is equally fortuitous, since it turns up in a repaired vacuum cleaner just as Bunter has been discovered hiding in the Headmaster’s study and been sacked. In short, fate in the form of his creator is usually on Bunter’s side, and he generally manages in each book to achieve several moments of bliss in terms of food, before ending up escaping from whatever scrape he has got himself into. The same it should be added goes for his mates, virtuous or less so, for Wharton and Cherry and Vernon-Smith all suffer unjustly in various books before their names are cleared – but Bunter is unique in that he endlessly creates trouble for himself, suffers mildly, and then triumphs.

Perhaps this moral subversion does not really merit analysis, but ironically the most significant critical attention the Bunter books received was from George Orwell, who criticized them as snobbish. He also thought the books were written to a formula, so that different people could easily and interchangeably write the different series that used that sort of formula. This led Charles Hamilton to declare that he had in fact written all these series himself, though whether that led Orwell to admit that there was some sort of special genius involved is not recorded.

Certainly, though the style and the words – several lines in each book are simply ‘Ha, ha, ha’ in response to not very funny jokes or to Bunter saying ‘Ow! Wow!’ in the throes of a painful escapade – seem formulaic, they are also unique, for no one else as far as I know has been able to produce quite so many plots to convey essentially the same story. In the process too there are delightfully evocative pictures of the various settings, albeit simple and, alas, formulaic – the winds howl round Mauleverer Towers and the snow falls, the river flows gently under a halcyon sky in ‘Billy Bunter Afloat’, a particular favourite for its description of an ideal holiday.

I cannot imagine the Billy Bunter books appealing to many adults, so it would be extravagant to claim that nostalgia is part of their charm. However I suspect even schoolboys would have been delighted by descriptions of a world of scenes and types they could recognize, taken to an excess that produced irrepressible laughter.

The Island 22 July 2010