I spent most of my childhood reading Enid Blyton (before I moved onto Goosebumps and Point Horror… eugh, don’t remind me) and thus missed out on quite a lot of classic children’s literature. But one series I did include alongside a diet of all things Blyton is the William series by Richmal Crompton. I’m sure everyone knows about the escapades of this eternal eleven-year-old, but if not – hie thee to a library. Anarchic without being too anarchic, and always well-meaning, William Brown is one of the great creations of children’s – indeed, any – literature.
It was about eight years ago that I started reading Richmal Crompton’s novels for adults, and I was hooked. (This all fits in nicely with Polly’s post that I highlighted at the weekend.) There are over thirty, and plenty of them are very scarce, so it gave me a treasure hunt with wonderful rewards. Frost at Morning is one of my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, over in the right-hand column, but there are plenty of other wonderful books by this neglected novelist. They are a bit patchy, and the quality is variable, but at her best Crompton is infectious and very comforting.
I’ve recently re-read one of my favourite Crompton novels, Matty and the Dearingroydes. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it does what it says on the tin. Matty Dearingroyde makes her living buying clothes door-to-door, and selling them in a secondhand shop. Her method of going door-to-door is a little unusual:
“We’ll go down this street and we’ll go into the first house with blue curtains.”… “We’ll go into the first house we come to with a bird-cage in the window.”… “I’m going to say the beginning of Paradise Lost to myself and we’ll go into the house we’ve got to when I’ve reached ‘And justify the ways of God to men’.”
You begin to sense the sort of character Matty is: irrepressible, a little eccentric, and exactly the sort I always love. Anyway, she knocks at a door and gives her card… and by coincidence she has stumbled upon her extended family.
The rest of the Dearingroydes are well-to-do, and Matty is something of poor relation crossed with a family secret. Some misplaced family loyalty, and some inherited guilty, prompt supercilious Matthew Dearingroyde to ‘welcome’ Matty into the family circle. But it would be too burdensome for her to live solely with his family, and instead she is to spend a section of the year in various different households.
The plot and its many characters would be too much to summarise here, because Crompton always wields huge casts in fairly short novels, but it’s all well drawn. There are parents using their daughter to battle with each other; aging members of respectable families forced to live in a hotel; a shop-owner who pours a little too much alcohol into her cups of tea; a pair of teachers in a silent power struggle – a whole canvas of characters.
Crompton does often use the same sorts of characters across her novels (the pair of friends, one sucking the other dry of energy, crops up a lot and is always affecting) but they’re so involving that I can forgive her. In Matty and the Dearingroydes, because Matty is peripatetic, characters do tend to be left and forgotten once Matty has moved onto the next house – but so, I suppose, they would be. As long as exhuberant Matty is always in the foreground, then that’s fine.
Crompton will never be a prose stylist of genius, or even of a very high standing. Her writing certainly isn’t bad – it will never make you squirm – but it is mostly just functional. It gets the job done, without being in itself memorable. But Crompton’s novels are, and they are definitely comfort reads. I have a stock of ones I’ve yet to read, and I love knowing they’re there waiting for me. Matty and the Dearingroydes is quite tricky to track down, although Oxford country library has it and probably others do too, but you can pick up one of many Richmal Cromptons and be equally diverted. As I said, they are variable, but ones I’ve loved include Family Roundabout (published by Persephone; currently reprinting), Frost at Morning, Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, Narcissa, Millicent Dorrington, Four in Exile, There Are Four Seasons, Linden Rise, Westover, The Ridleys…
Books to get Stuck into:
So many suggestions I could make for this sort of book, but looking back through my past posts, I’m going to plump for…
Miss Mole – E.H. Young: similarly irrepressible older woman encountering a staid and jaded family…
Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker: always popular here, can’t blame a boy for trying – if you haven’t read this novel yet, and the idea of an eccentric lady appeals, then you can do no better than this novel which is hilarious, moving, and even sinister, in turns.