taking things too literally

The facts

“I think I’ll go as a lion,” said William. “I should think you could buy a lion skin quite cheap.”
“No, William, darling,” interposed Mrs Brown quickly, “I think you’d find a lion skin too hot for a crowded room.”
“But I wun’t go into the room,” said William, “I want to crawl about the garden in it roarin’ an’ springin’ out at folks, scarin’ ’em.”

  • Number: 5.11
  • Published: 1925 (same year in magazine form)
  • Book: Still William
  • Synopsis: William has several hidden agendas at the Botts’ fancy-dress party.


There’s a lot going on in this one. And it all fits together very well.

At the Botts’ fancy-dress party, William has three objectives: first, to shed the Little Lord Fauntleroy costume his family had forced on him, and to replace it with that of a “brigand”; second, to remonstrate with one of his fellow guests, a Cabinet minister, who Mr Brown announces at breakfast is ruining the country” (see also William Enters Politics, 4.12); and, third, to humiliate Robert – and, to be fair to William, Robert’s relationship with his lady-love (who he ‘romantically’ nicknames “Gloire”) in this story is genuinely vomit-inducing.

“We’re not going to let you out till you’ve promised to go away from England and never come back. Because you’re ruinin’ the country.”

For example, his letter to her the day before the party: “It will be my first meeting with you for two days and I do not want it profaned by other people, who know and care nothing of our deep feeling for each other. Just for a few sacred moments let us tell each other all that is in our souls. The memory of those few sacred moments, just you and me and the moon and the roses, will be with us in our souls all the evening.”

William achieves all of his objectives (albeit not quite in the way that he intended), but the third one most of all, and by the end of the story, when his mother asks him if his new socks are OK, he is able to make Robert go “a deep purple” by loudly replying: “They’ve given an entirely new meaning to my life. I shall give up all my life trying to be more worthy of them. I’ve not got them on now because I don’t want them profaned by people who don’ know or care about them…”

Contained within all the lovey-dovey content of this story, though, are a surprising number of double entendres – I’m not sure whether or not they’re intentional but just for the record…

  • More than once Robert’s love affairs had afforded useful handles.
  • “Gloire, let us be gay for the rest of the evening.”
  • “Oh, Glor,” he ejaculated softly.

The facts

“Do you like the book and instruments that Uncle and I gave you?” said Aunt Emma brightly.
“No,” said William gloomily and truthfully. “I’m not int’rested in Church History an’ I’ve got something like those at school. Not that I’d want ’em,” he added hastily, “if I hadn’t ’em.”

  • Number: 5.9
  • Published: 1925 (1924 in magazine form)
  • Book: Still William
  • Synopsis: William casts aside all deceit at Christmas.


Inspired by a sermon, William determines to cast aside deceit and hypocrisy, and have a totally honest Christmas.

Aunt Emma said it had been a “beautiful service”. The only bright spot to William was when the organist boxed the ears of the youngest choir boy, who retaliated by putting out his tongue at the organist at the beginning of each verse of the last hymn.

The remainder of the story, then, is a rather predictable series of faux pas in which William is comically ungrateful for his presents and comically insulting of others’ appearances etc.

Mildly entertaining but I feel it exhausted its promise after the first few pages.

The facts

In English Grammar class the next morning, William’s thoughts were interrupted: “What have I just been saying, William?”
William sighed. That was the foolish sort of question that schoolmistresses were always asking. They ought to know themselves what they’d just been saying better than anyone. He never knew. Why were they always asking him?
“What’s a negative, William?”
William sighed. “Somethin’ about photographs?” he said obligingly.
No,” snapped Miss Jones. She found William and the heat (William particularly) rather trying.

  • Number: 1.6
  • Published: 1922 (1921 in magazine form)
  • Book: Just William
  • Synopsis: William’s family leaves him alone for an evening. He decides to host a party.


We’re all familiar with those news stories in which someone’s private party goes viral on Facebook and their house gets trashed by thousands of uninvited revellers.

But who knew that William managed to create comparable chaos even without a social media account?

“I’m goin’ to bed,” William said, “’cause my father don’t understand ’bout English Grammar, that’s why!”

When his teacher introduces to him the concept of double negatives, his mind immediately turns to a conversation he had with his father that morning (“Did you say I could have a party, father?” “No, I did not“).

Having learnt that two negatives make a positive, William goes ahead and organises a riotous party that tramples the garden, breaks windows, leaves muddy footprints on Robert’s bed and actually imprisons long-suffering Cook in the coal-cellar!

One is left wondering whether William honestly believed himself to be in the right on this one. Often he has no doubt genuinely misunderstood an instruction or offhand comment and the consequences that ensued were, therefore, somewhat innocent.

But could he really have believed that his father’s stern instruction was meant to be an expansive permission?

You decide…