Frank Richards - The Most prolific children's story writer ever!
I have often thought that the question 'Who is the most prolific writer of children's fiction?' would make an excellent question for televised quizzes. I can imagine 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' providing three good possible answers plus the obligatory outsider to beguile the competitor, eager to grab the £1,000,000 prize: Enid Blyton, W.E.Johns, Roald Dahl would be the obvious frontrunners.
Or perhaps University Challenge could offer this starter for ten: 'Which prolific writer of children's fiction's name never appeared on any of his works?' The answer is the man the fiftieth anniversary of whose death passed almost uncelebrated last Christmas Eve, Charles St-John Hamilton. He never wrote under that name, preferring a plethora of pseudonyms, the most common of which was Frank Richards of Billy Bunter fame.
He started writing at the start of the previous century and kept on writing until his death (more than an estimated 85 million words later). At first, his main output was for boys' comics, 'The Magnet' and 'The Gem', but after paper shortages at the end of the Second World War restricted this genre, he turned to writing books. It was in the former manifestation that I first came across his work, not in the originals but in the magnificent collections put together by Howard Baker. It was the series 'Bunter of Bunter Court' that first got me hooked and I read several more.
What surprised me was not just how entertaining and well- constructed the plots were, but more impressively, considering the general superficiality associated with boys' comic stories, the depiction and development of interpersonal relationships in the best of them. There is naturally a lot of stereotyping in the portrayal of subsidiary characters, but read 'Terror of the Form' and try to find a better, more subtle tracking of how relationships between pupil and teacher can go step by step down hill!
Although the comic forms are well worth reading, I decided to concentrate on his books. Inevitably, the stories here are more compact and better flowing than in their comic version, with the need to break off every week and to remind readers constantly what had gone before. I am about half way through reading the Billy Bunter books, but I have become side-tracked. Being a bit low on funds, but having no Frank Richards to read, I scoured through Stella and Rose's catalogue and came across a 'Martin Clifford' book, at a fraction of the cost of a Billy Bunter. I knew that 'Martin Clifford' was another of Charles Hamilton's pseudonyms and that he wrote not only about Greyfriars School, but also a rival school, St Jim's, with a similar group of characters, so I decided to give it a go. I am very glad that I did.
Although Billy Bunter is the main character of his Greyfriars School, I do find his character annoying, over stereotypical and predictable. He is used really to highlight the worthy characteristics of the Famous Five by contrast and to act as some sort of 'deus ex machina' to help stories move on to a conclusion. In how many books does Bunter overhear a vital conversation, find a vital scrap of paper or blunder unwittingly upon a crucial scenario which provides a pivotal clue to solve the mystery? I find the characters of St Jim's much more sympathetic and the stories more entertaining as a result. Even the exaggerated Arthur Augustus D'Arcy is not too far removed from reality to jar on the nerves and be obtrusive. I understand that St Jim's was Charles Hamilton's favourite venue but I imagine that he was obliged to give greater prominence to Greyfriars as the public had been struck by the character of Billy Bunter and it was that which sold the comics and books.
Ironically, it was the character of Billy Bunter which led to the demise of Frank Richards and the reason whereby he has sunk into relative obscurity and Charles Hamilton with him. While Enid Blyton and W.E.Johns have been rehabilitated to some extent, their earlier perceived snobbery and jingoism having been slightly forgiven or modified in reprints, it is unlikely that the cruel portrayal of Billy Bunter will ever be able to be modified sufficiently to transcend the requirements of political correctness, to say nothing of the racial stereotyping evidenced by Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
But Charles Hamilton is worthy of continued recognition. Forget him as Frank Richards - read him as Martin Clifford, Owen Conquest or even Hilda Richards. Do not limit yourselves to Greyfriars - visit St Jim's (Martin Clifford), Rookwood's (Owen Conquest) or Cliff House School (Hilda Richards), or, if you want to read him as Frank Richards, leave the school stories altogether and read the stories of Jack Free, a young urchin trying to make his way in the world, recently re-found and republished by the Friars Chronicles, an excellent organisation dedicated to keeping the memory of Charles Hamilton alive.
But always keep the odd Billy Bunter book on the shelf ready - despite all their perceived shortcomings, they are still an excellent read!!
Stella & Rose's Books wish to thank William Caldwell for submitting this article.
(Published 1st Oct 2013)