Richmal Crompton and me

richmal-cromptonWhen 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 RoundaboutFrost at Morning, and Matty and the Dearingroydes. Occasionally she significantly under-performs, and that is when she is saccharine (see, for instance, The Holiday).

Portrait of a FamilyWhat 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.

 

35 thoughts on “Richmal Crompton and me

  • November 19, 2015 at 3:47 am
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    I have Family Roundabout at home at the moment, on loan from the library. Very excited to read it after reading your post. I do love her William books!

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:34 am
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      Do report back when you read it, Arpita!

  • November 19, 2015 at 7:44 am
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    I have so enjoyed the two Richmal Crompton books I have read. Although perhaps not a truly great writer – she is someone who is a pleasure to read. Bello kindly sent me 3 of their print on demand Crompton books, The Old Man’s Birthday, Chedsy Place and Narciss.

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:35 am
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      The only one of those I’ve read is Narcissa – and it’s a very dark one!

  • November 19, 2015 at 8:56 am
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    I’ve only ever read the William books by Crompton, but the grown-up ones sound like fun – although I hardly ever am tempted by soap operas on TV.
    The fear of being disappointed means I am sometimes reluctant to revisit old favourites from my youth. I have the feeling Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer may not quite do it for me anymore, I did attempt a Monica Dickens a few years back and was nonplussed. Then again, others have continued to delight me: The Diary of a Nobody, for instance, or Dorothy Parker.

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:36 am
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      That is always the worry, isn’t it – that the glories of the past will fade. Sometimes they do hold up, and sometimes they get even better. But sometimes…

  • November 19, 2015 at 10:54 am
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    I loved ‘Frost at Morning’, which I read on your recommendation.

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:36 am
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      Oh yes, of course! That one is probably my favourite.

  • November 19, 2015 at 11:10 am
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    Richmal Crompton forms the bedrock of your whole blog.Always has done,always will.
    Must be nice to own most of her books.

    Tina

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:37 am
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      I guess it is nice – it has required a lot of patience and hunting!

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:37 am
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      Sorry I wasn’t very clear on that – I have the Bello edition, having never been able to track down an earlier edition.

      And yes, I have read the Provincial Lady books many, many times – so wonderful!

      • November 25, 2015 at 9:55 am
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        A book seller once told me that paperbacks do not count with collectors.
        Do you agree?

        • November 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm
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          I’ve no idea, I’m afraid! To be honest, the idea of collecting books for their value is anathema to me. They certainly count to me, because they are books!

  • November 19, 2015 at 12:30 pm
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    I’ve liked the one Richmal Crompton book I’ve read, but she’s in the list of authors I hope my grandmother read and would happily read again, rather than anything more elevated.

    I understand your feelings, because I’ve had much the same feeling about Leo Walmsley. There are a few books of his that I really love but many of them are much of a muchness.

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:39 am
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      That’s a good benchmark for an author! And not a bad category to be in.

      I have been acquiring Leo Walmsleys for years, but still haven’t read any of them – but I am now warned!

  • November 19, 2015 at 2:52 pm
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    I hadn’t heard of Richmal Crompton before your comments on her, on this blog and on Tea or Books, but I have since bought my first book. Haven’t read it it yet (and I can’t remember which one it is), but once it surfaced on my pile, I’ll be very interested to see what I think of her.

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:39 am
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      Oo, yes, do let me know which one it is and what you think of it :)

  • November 19, 2015 at 4:36 pm
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    A powerful demonstration of the significant impact that even artistically insignificant books can have; not to mention proof that libraries can have a huge impact on our lives. Reading this led me to speculate what the modern day equivalent of the Rectory would be in a quintessentially English novel? Sadly it would probably just be a vastly over-priced house in the country of the kind that feature in that popular daytime tv show about comfortably-off house hunters: will there be enough land for the horse, space for a granny flat and an office from which to run the business marketing designer wheely-bin covers?

    • November 20, 2015 at 12:41 am
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      That’s quite the picture! Maybe in the internet-filled world, such centres of local community don’t exist in quite the same way any more.

  • November 20, 2015 at 1:10 am
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    Hey, I read this post all the way through! I thought it was very good.

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:26 am
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      Ha! YAY thanks Col :D

  • November 20, 2015 at 5:38 am
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    Fascinating read, Simon. It’s interesting to see how our reactions to certain authors and books change as we change (and, perhaps, as our critical analysis skills sharpen with time). I’ve only read three of Crompton’s books and have had very different reactions to all of them. Family Roundabout I found unputdownable but very melodramatic; Leadon Hill delighted me with its chilling perspective on village life; and Merlin Bay I just found a bit meh. I have three of the new Bello releases sitting unread on my e-reader (purchased just this week, in fact) and, despite no expectations of greatness, I’m eager to start reading them. Her plotting is tight and her humour is just my style – that’s enough to keep me well entertained!

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:28 am
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      Thanks Claire! I think you’re right about our critical analysis skills sharpening. I wondered about that, since I know so many other, wiser, people who loved them too – but then realised that they were loving them as comforting, not-particularly-brilliant books. I.e. the level I am now enjoying most of them on. They are without doubt entertaining!

  • November 20, 2015 at 9:27 am
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    I have read “THERE ARE FOUR SEASONS” and liked it a lot.Similar to “FOUR GARDENS” by Margery Sharp.Stories of middle class ladies and their families from 1900 to 1940 approx.

    Tina

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:29 am
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      Thanks for the reminder that I must read some more Margery Sharp, Tina!

      • November 24, 2015 at 10:58 am
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        To be honest i only “love” “FOUR GARDENS” by Sharp.The others i can take or leave.
        I have heard that Nicola Beaumann does not rate Sharp.(head of Persephone Books)

        Tina

  • November 20, 2015 at 3:57 pm
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    I never read Just William, I received them as audiobooks read by Martin Jarvis when I was growing up, and now I don’t enjoy them any other way.

    Through Greyladies publisher, I’ve been becoming a little more familiar with Crompton’s adult work. The first was Leadon Hill, which I didn’t enjoy. Perhaps because it doesn’t end happily or with finality. It was a little while ago. More recently, Matty and the Dearingroydes which I enjoyed. And I was most of the way through Mrs Frensham Describes a Circle which I was enjoying but I’ve misplaced the book somewhere during a house move in June. Most irritating.

    From what you’ve said, I think I’m happy to have publishers like Greyladies and Persephone do the sifting for me and they’ll reprint what is worthy of being read today.

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:31 am
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      Martin Jarvis IS William for me. I hear his voice when I read them now, and can’t quite buy him playing any other role! We used to listen to those cassettes over and over.

      I’ve not read Leadon Hill, but I am surprised that nobody has republished Frost at Morning yet, which does seem to me to be one of her strongest. I guess it might depend who holds rights to what? Hope you manage to find the missing RC!

  • November 22, 2015 at 8:15 am
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    Oh dear, what did I start?! I’m glad that Richmal & I were there at the beginning of your brilliant career. I’m yet to read another Richmal although I have several on the tbr shelves. It is great that Bello have reprinted her, the more interear authors we can read, the better.

  • November 22, 2015 at 8:15 am
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    Oh dear, what did I start?! I’m glad that Richmal & I were there at the beginning of your brilliant career. I’m yet to read another Richmal although I have several on the tbr shelves. It is great that Bello have reprinted her, the more interwar authors we can read, the better.

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:31 am
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      You have a lot to feel responsible for, Lyn ;)

  • November 23, 2015 at 12:06 pm
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    A friend just bought me a copy of Matty and the Dearingroydes, which I’m very much enjoying. Previously, I’ve only read her William books which I loved as a child.

    • November 24, 2015 at 9:32 am
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      An excellent friend! Matty is such a fun character.

  • December 8, 2015 at 2:50 pm
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    It is interesting how our favourites change. The ones I was introduced to by my dear neighbour in my teens have stuck with me ever since: Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Comyns. I would have said Anita Brookner, but as I have aged with her, I’ve found her books increasingly hard to bear! Hooray for happenstance and people’s recommendations, for libraries and for reading!

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