When I’m asked who my favourite authors are, I often find myself immediately giving the answers I would have given ten years ago or more: A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, Richmal Crompton. I would have unhesitatingly rattled those off in 2002, because they were the three authors I had discovered for myself in my first ventures beyond obvious, in-print choices. I’ve written before about discovering A.A. Milne, and these other two weren’t very dissimilar. I started reading Richmal Crompton’s novels because I loved her William series and stumbled across Family Roundabout in Hay-on-Wye; I started reading E.M. Delafield because I’d bought a 1940 anthology called Modern Humour (featuring A.A. Milne) and loved an extract from Delafield’s As Others Hear Us. Perhaps not the usual way to discover EMD, but I’m grateful for it.
Picking up that old red hardback of Family Roundabout changed my life in enormous ways. I don’t know if things would have happened anyway, somehow, but the path would have been different. I loved Family Roundabout, and so was surprised when (in 2003) I saw that it had been reprinted. I picked up the Persephone edition in my local library, and started to explore what else they had republished – seeing ‘E.M. Delafield’ in their catalogue confirmed that I might rather like this publishing house. Exploring reviews of Family Roundabout on Amazon led me to one by a lady called Lyn. This was in the days when Amazon included reviewers’ email addresses, so (with the boldness of youth) I emailed Lyn to say how much I loved Crompton, and had she read many others? You might know Lyn as I Prefer Reading. Very kindly, she didn’t quietly ignore the enthusiastic email of an 18 year old, but instead told me about an online book discussion group – which I joined and, over a decade and a third of my life later, am still a member of. It was that group that helped form my reading tastes further, which led to my choice of DPhil topic (and, I daresay, to me doing a DPhil at all), not to mention StuckinaBook and, thus, my job at Oxford University Press. Basically almost everything in my day-to-day life can be traced to picking up that Richmal Crompton novel in 2003.
But is she still one of my favourite writers? Now, I would find it too difficult to give a list, in all probability – but, if pushed, I wouldn’t question including Milne and Delafield. I’d umm and ahh over Crompton. Yes, I still want to collect everything she’s written – but that’s partly the thrill of the chase. Some of her books are entirely impossible to track down (though not as many as before, given Bello bringing them back into print – including the Print on Demand review copy I’m writing about today). But buying books and reading books are entirely separate pleasures, and I’m no longer quite sure that Richmal Crompton deserves such a high place in my affections. Is she a great writer? No. Is she even consistently very good? I might have to conclude not. But is she a delight to read? Absolutely.
My criteria for favourite writers might now include an adept or unique style, or a way with humour that sets apart. Crompton doesn’t have those things. But what she does have is a knack for putting together a domestic novel which, if not par excellence, is certainly astonishingly archetypal. Somehow she is the quintessential interwar writer. Her subjects tend to be three or four families in a village, interacting and fighting, learning about themselves, and often changing for the better. Under the quiet surface of her extremely readable prose are alcoholism, abuse, affairs, and that’s just the ‘a’s. She packs in more than a soap opera. In fact, her novels are almost like soap operas – the amount of incident, the slightly exaggerated characters. Sometimes she excels herself – I would argue that she does this in Family Roundabout, Frost at Morning, and Matty and the Dearingroydes. Occasionally she significantly under-performs, and that is when she is saccharine (see, for instance, The Holiday).
What of Portrait of a Family (1932)? This is one that I’ve never been able to track down – despite once buying a second copy of Family Roundabout when I confused the titles. As with many Crompton novels, it looks at a sprawling family of people who are very different from one another. It starts with Christopher remembering the deathbed revelation of his wife Susan…
Suddenly she opened her eyes. She was smiling – just as she had smiled at him across the Rectory lawn. A feeling of hysterical relief seized him. It was all right. She couldn’t be dying if she smiled at him like that. She began to speak, but so faintly that he had to bend down his head to hear what she said.
“Did you – never guess?”
“What?” he said breathlessly.
“About Charlie – and me.”
Then her eyes closed and she lay motionless, as if her looking at him and speaking had been an illusion.
She seems to be confessing to an affair – or is she? The thought haunts Christopher, and he determines to discover the truth by asking his various children and acquaintances, in the most subtle way possible. This might be deemed enough plot for many novelists, but Crompton is determined to give every character their due. Christopher has three children, and they each have a spouse. Throw in some grandchildren, Charlie’s sister, a housekeeper, and each of them has a certain frenzied vitality. One of Christopher’s children is trying to escape a loveless marriage, another is seeing his destroyed by a selfish and paranoid wife, while the third seems genuinely content.
Characters tend to be either good or bad, and react morally or immorally to any set of circumstances that present themselves – so the woman who treats her husband badly will also smother (metaphorically!) her children, ruin people’s parties, snap at the maid etc. etc. Crompton certainly delineates characters differently, with their own set of neuroses or tics, but – though they are very different from one another – the same types appear and re-appear throughout her novels. I had a very strong sense of deja vu while reading Portrait of a Family, to the extent that I genuinely began to wonder if I’d already read it – but I couldn’t possibly have done. The same scenarios, the same character thoughts, the same outcomes – all have appeared elsewhere in her writing, and will reappear later. Goodness knows why she returned so often to the same wells.
BUT – and it is a really significant but – her novels are such a compulsive delight to read. Portrait of a Family is in the stronger half of her novels, certainly; in that body of hers (below the best and above the worst) that differ from one another only slightly. And it’s addictive. It’s unputdownable. It’s oddly relaxing, given the amount of strife that happens. I would wholeheartedly recommend it for an afternoon or two of delightful reading – even while recognising that Crompton is not the calibre of novelist I once thought.
So, where does this leave me and Richmal? I will still continue to read her every now and then, with my expectations adjusted appropriately. I will forever be grateful for the path she inadvertently led me down, but – on the strength of her writing alone – she might not be one of my favourites any more. But there are still few more entertaining ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than reading one of her soap operatic novels.