I’ve been meaning to write about Richmal Crompton for absolutely ages, and have finally been propelled into doing so by the Family Roundabout book group I went to last week. You may well know Richmal Crompton as the author of the ‘William’ (or ‘Just William’) stories, written between 1922 and 1969, when she died. I, like many others, devoured these hilarious books as a child (alongside Thomas Henry’s brilliant illustrations – mine very much with apologies to him. Though mine looks rather more like a Chinese woman…) What I didn’t know until 2002 was that Richmal Crompton had written over 40 novels for adults. Scandalously, Family Roundabout is the only one in print (step forward Persephone Books – and it was actually via Crompton that I found this publishing house).
Richmal Crompton’s novels have fans across the internet – notably Elaine, who has joyfully borrowed many of the thirty or so Crompton novels I’ve managed to find, and who wrote about RC here – but she remains famous primarily for the William books she considered ‘potboilers’. These come under the category of “difficult to explain how wonderful they are”, so I can only say that they spark booklust in the unlikeliest candidates, and nothing else can quite satiate the thirst for another Crompton novel. Their scarcity may be frustrating, but hunting down the elusive novels is quite a fun pasttime…
Crompton’s novels are all quite similar, and there is some overlap. Children grow up together; people in a village exist alongside each other; parents are disobeyed or thwarted; beautiful people take advantage of others; wise, older women dispense advice to all and sundry; unhinged authors write dozens of romance novels whilst being wholly unconnected with reality… not all of these appear in every novel, of course, but they represent the mixture of fun and pathos which characterise Crompton’s books. She is perenially the author of William, and cannot avoid that tone forever (one of my favourite quotations concerns an author, in Family Roundabout: ‘Of his own novels there was no trace [in his room]. Their absence impressed his modesty on people, and Mr. Palmer spent a lot of time and thought impressing his modesty on people.’) – but this humour is balanced with characters who experience understated struggles or genuinely touching revelations. I can’t do them justice – the only thing you can do is read one. I can’t encourage you to do so enough.
Shall I pick one for you? Ok. Frost at Morning. Let’s put it in the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. If you prefer the easy route, or don’t like secondhand books (is this possible?) then go for the one in print, Family Roundabout, but I don’t think it’s the best. It’s in Frost at Morning (1950) that Crompton demonstrates her most subtle understanding of children and their vulnerable position in families; it also has her most amusing of the crazed-authors, in Mrs. Sanders, who dictates several novels at once, and muddles them all. A group of children are gathered as companions for a Vicarage daughter – their personalities shine through the opening section, as they play with modelling clay. Angela, Philip, Monica and Geraldine are all immediately unique personalities, and continue to be so as we witness them separately and together throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Read it, you won’t regret it. Lots available at abebooks here, and Amazon here.
Oh, and special mention to Our Vicar’s Wife, who took these photos from my RC pile in Somerset.