Journeying Wave by Richmal Crompton #1938Club

richmal-cromptonThis review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I’ve written about her a few times now, but Richmal Crompton still feels like an author who lives chiefly in my pre-blogging days. In those heady days, probably around 2002-4 mostly, there were few enough authors on my radar that I could afford the luxury of delving into everything a single author had written. In Crompton’s case, it wasn’t everything – partly because so many of her books were unfindable or unaffordable; partly because I read about twenty over a short space of time, and needed a bit of a breather. My blog may not have reviews of all the many Crompton novels I read and loved, but it’s beginning to reflect what a substantial part she played in developing my reading life: I went into that in more depth in a blog post entitled ‘Richmal Crompton and me’.

Journeying Wave is now readily available, thanks to Bello, but I have actually had a 1938 edition on my shelves for a little while. The 1938 Club was an excellent excuse to take it down, and I even read it a few weeks ago in an effort to be super prepared. Naturally that means I’ve forgotten some of the finer details – but, truth be told, I’d forgotten some of them before I’d even got to the end of the book. On the scale of Crompton novels, I’d place it in the top half – it was quite moving and very gripping in that must-read-on-even-though-there’s-not-really-any-tension way that Crompton was expert in – but, gosh, what a lot of characters and plotlines.

The event that kicks them all off is the revelation of Humphrey’s affair. Crompton’s theme here – thesis, even – is the ‘journeying wave’ that a single action can create. I think she made up the term ‘journeying wave’, but it’s essentially the butterfly effect. How will Viola asking Humphrey to leave affect their children and wider families?

The same ‘types’ of many Crompton novels are here. There is the studious young woman who never thinks about men (until one particular man makes her rethink her priorities). There is the man who is in business when he would be better suited for the rural world. There is the selfish mother who uses her children as props to her own social success.

And, most typical of all for Crompton, there is the pair of women, one dominant, one weaker; the dominant one is controlling the life of the other, always thinking it is for her own good. In this instance, it’s elderly twins Harriet and Hester. Hester clings to the recollection of the one day she could call her own, and starts to rebel. It’s curious that an archetype as specific as this sort of pairing should recur in almost every Crompton novel, but there it is – and it is just as moving as usual.

For some characters, the discovery that Humphrey could have a child from an adulterous affair rocks their sense of trust. For others, it shows that life can change, and that they need to grab opportunities. For others, simply having Humphrey or Viola on the scene, offering a fresh perspective, changes things that way. The ‘journeying wave’ motif is quite cleverly done; it makes it more realistic that so much would change in the lives of so many characters over a relatively brief period. In Crompton’s novels, often the same number of things (and sometimes exactly the same things) happen to as many people, but with less obvious justification for such a meeting of incident.

The one unusual portrait in Journeying Wave is Humphrey himself, and he is perhaps the least successful portrait at the same time – because he seems both too decent and too simple to commit adultery. Not ‘simple’ as in stupid; he just comes across as plainly happy with the life he has, and unwilling to rock any sort of boat. He has to, in order to set off the motions of the novel, but it never seems quite believable that he would have done.

But credibility hardly matters. More important is the joy of being in the surrounds of a Crompton novel. Nobody writes as captivatingly as she does, though even when the stakes are high for the characters, they feel low for the reader. We race through the novel, but we know that the high drama is happening in some sort of relief; there will probably be a happy ending and, even if not, very similar characters will appear in the next Crompton novel we read. But as soon as that first page is opened, and I get an opening paragraph like this…

The light filtered softly through the drawn curtains, grew stronger, and flooded the big square bedroom, which, despite the up-to-date furnishings, still retained a vague suggestion of Victorianism. The bay window, the high ceiling, the ornate marble mantelpiece, struck the note of more settled spacious days, and the chintz pelmeted curtains and chintz skirted dressing-table seemed tactfully to bridge the gap between the old and the new.

…I know that I’m going to have a wonderful few days of reading, and will enjoy every moment.

(Oh and, somewhat to my surprise, someone else read Journeying Wave during 1938 Club week! Do go and read the thoughts of the aptly-named RichmalCromptonReader.)

Mist and other ghost stories by Richmal Crompton

MistAt Christmas, a very kind lady (and fellow bibliophile) living in the village next to my parents’ village gave me a copy of Mist and other stories (1928) by Richmal Crompton. It was published last year in a nice (limited) edition by Sundial Press, in a series called Sundial Supernatural. I’ve been aware of this collection for many years, but it was virtually unobtainable – so this reprint is very welcome.

You might be surprised to hear the name ‘Richmal Crompton’ and the word ‘supernatural’ mentioned together. She is, of course, chiefly remembered as the author of the William books, starting with Just William; in our corner of the blogosphere, she may also be known for her addictive domestic novels featuring wide casts of family members or villagers. Yet, though Crompton often used the William books to tease those who believed in the occult (who can forget the spiritualists she lampoons in those stories?) she had a longstanding interest in the occult herself.

In novels, this only came to the fore in The House (published as Dread Dwelling in the US), which I was lucky enough to borrow from someone a while ago. In that novel, the evil spirit of a house manages to terrorise its inhabitants. As Richard Dalby writes in his introduction to this collection, The House presages works like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but it was also a theme very much in the air of the time.

It’s also returned to often in Mist and other stories; houses and their inhabitants have inextricable links or apparent enmities. Here, for instance, is a section from ‘Marlowes’:

It was a bitter disappointment to us. We’d looked forward so long to this. We’d found exactly the house we’d wanted. And then – it wouldn’t have us. We decided at the end of the first month that we couldn’t stand it. We’d have to go. You can’t live in an atmosphere of hatred like that. We felt bewildered and unspeakably wretched. We couldn’t sleep. We weren’t going to try to find another house. We wanted this and no other, and as this didn’t want us we’d have to back to America. Often when we were out on the fresh sunny downs behind the house the whole thing seemed ridiculous.

You’ll be pleased to know that things work out ok for them, once they’ve sorted out some of the anxieties the house has about its present and former occupants.

More often, the stories here deal with love triangles – often a previous spouse or lover haunting the current one, whether as a ghost or through possession. ‘Harry Lorrimer’ doesn’t deal with a previous lover, but does include possession:

They were not Harry Lorrimer’s eyes. Or, rather, they were Harry Lorrimer’s eyes in shape and colouring, but – it was not Harry Lorrimer who looked out of them. And there was worse. For the eyes were the eyes of a man without a soul. And if you’ve never seen eyes like that then pray God you never may.

I was a bit worried that the stories would be scary, particularly since I read most of them on dark winter evenings – but I needn’t have worried. Those looking for stories in the manner of M.R. James will be disappointed, but I welcomed stories that were interested in the psychology and minutiae of dealing with the supernatural, rather than trying to scare the reader.

Crompton, bless her, doesn’t do twists. In none of these stories was I shocked. The good people invariably remain good; the bad people are clearly bad. Never does it turn out that the haunted damsel was deviously behind everything all along – which could have been quite fun, thinking about it, but it was also reassuring to see short stories about ghosts that are preoccupied with other things than terror. Essentially, it is precisely how a domestic novelist would approach the occult.

 

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.

 

Still – William

Everytime I revisit Richmal Crompton’s William series, I have a nudging fear that they won’t be as good as I remembered, that what seemed screamingly funny to me when I was eight will have palled…

…and everytime I realise I needn’t have worried. (Photo credit, btw.) If you’ve never read one of the books, you’re in for a treat. Think how PG Wodehouse might have written about an eleven year old boy, if PGW tempered his exaggeration a little and developed an intimate knowledge with the minutiae of village life. Here’s one of the passing characters, for instance: ‘He was extraordinarily conceited and not overburdened by any superfluity of intellect.’

This isn’t a fully-fledged review or anything, it’s just a little overflow of joyfulness at revisiting William – in this case, Still William. Richmal Crompton wrote over thirty William books between 1922 and 1970, this being the fifth – each is a collection of stories about the well-intentioned mishaps of William Brown, who is eternally eleven. They’re hilarious, and warming. Although everything almost always goes lamentably wrong, and William ends up being hounded by his relatives and neighborus, there isn’t a malicious bone in his body. If anything, most of his misfortune comes from an irrepressible desire to help. In Still William he proposes on behalf of his brother, and later on behalf of his sister. He determines to be truthful on Christmas Day, with disastrous results. He determines to live a life of ‘self-denial and service’ with (you guessed it) disastrous results. He has only marginally more success when attempting to put on a show of ‘natives’, or teaching a visiting French boy idiomatic English.

I suspect most of us have read some William books at some point – but perhaps you’ve neglected them for a while, or somehow have never read one. Get one now. And get one with Thomas Henry’s excellent illustrations, not the more modern, awful ones. Richmal Crompton also wrote lots of wonderful novels (and some less wonderful ones) but, although she deserves wider fame for those, equally she deserves the immortality she has secured through William Brown.

In case you’re still not convinced, here is an excerpt between William and his uncaring older sister:William’s mother was out to lunch and Ethel was her most objectionable and objecting. She objected to William’s hair and to William’s hands and to William’s face.

“Well, I’ve washed ’em and I’ve brushed it,” said William firmly. “I don’ see what you can do more with faces an’ hair than wash ’em an’ brush it. ‘F you don’ like the colour they wash an’ brush to I can’t help that. It’s the colour they was born with. It’s their nat’ral colour. I can’t do more than wash ’em an’ brush it.”

“Yes, you can,” said Ethel unfeelingly. “You can go and wash them and brush it again.”

Under the stern eye of his father who had lowered his paper for the express purpose of displaying his stern eye William had no alternative but to obey.

“Some people,” he remarked bitterly to the stair carpet as he went upstairs, “don’ care how often they make other people go up an’ downstairs, tirin’ themselves out. I shun’t be suprised ‘f I die a good lot sooner than I would have done with all this walkin’ up an’ downstairs tirin’ myself out – an’ all because my face an’ hands an’ hair’s nat’rally a colour she doesn’t like!”

Ethel was one of William’s permanent grievances against Life.

Matty and the Dearingroydes – Richmal Crompton

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.

Not Just William

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.