Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not Just William

How peculiar to discover Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) included in The Independent Forgotten Author’s series in an article dated 23 May 2010. William Brown has hardly been forgotten if the over 8,000 results for books, CDs and DVDs that came up on Amazon today is anything to go by. Since their debut in 1919, the Just William stories have been translated into 28 languages and have spawned numerous radio and TV spin offs, the best of which to my mind are the BBC audiobooks read by the fabulous Martin Jarvis.

If anything has been forgotten about Richmal Crompton, it’s the fact that she actually wrote books for adults. Even Christopher Fowler, the author of Forgotten Authors No 54, only mentions this in passing: “Crompton wrote for adults too”. That’s all he has to say on the subject. But for Crompton it was a source of regret that her 41 novels and 9 short story collections were overshadowed by her children’s books. Yes, 41 novels. I had no idea either but now, thanks to Persephone Books, I have discovered and read a Richmal Crompton novel – and it was very good.

Family Roundabout (1948) is a family saga centring around the figures of two widowed matriarchs, Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby, each with five children. Mrs Fowler is “down at heel gentry” and lives in a beautiful but shabby house; Mrs Willoughby is new, commercial money (the Willoughby wealth comes from a hideous paper mill which spoils the Fowlers’ view) and her house is expensive and ugly. Mrs Willoughby keeps a tight grip on her family, expecting and getting “implicit obedience”. Mrs Fowler is “the quiet, beneficent ruler of the household…tranquil and unchanging, in the background of [her children’s] lives”. While the patriarchs lived the families met at public functions but “did not visit each other”. Gradually, though, they have begun to mix: Judy Fowler and Cynthia Willoughby are school friends, Helen Fowler plays tennis with Max Willoughby at the Bellington Tennis Club. When Helen and Max marry the families are drawn closer together, and the novel follows the familys' mingled fortunes up to 1939.

It’s a wonderfully readable book, with a terrible sense of disappointment and disillusion running through it. “But then, have any of us got what we wanted from life?” muses Judy Fowler towards the end. For all that, there are flashes of humour and some witty social observation as the two families interact. In particular, writers come in for deliciously satirical treatment. Would-be author Oliver Willoughby characterising a wedding as a “senseless parade of fashion and snobbery to mark the mating of a couple of animals” congratulates himself on his “rather daring sentiment that he hoped to develop later into a piece of vers libre and send to one of the more advanced literary weeklies”. In the end he can’t cope with rejections and setbacks and gets stuck at the research stage of his historical novel. Successful novelist Arnold Palmer on the other hand is vain and self-obsessed, carelessly scattering favourable book reviews about the room before a party and formulaically writing the same book over and over again.

Crompton made enough money from the William stories to build herself a house in Bromley – there’s a blue plaque commemorating her on The Glebe, Oakley Road, Bromley Common. Really, though, according to Juliet Ackroyd in the preface to Family Roundabout, she regretted “that her ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ had ambushed recognition she would have welcomed for her serious fiction”. Having read the book, I couldn’t agree more and I’m on the lookout for more of her wonderful, witty novels. Thanks to Persephone for publishing Family Roundabout – who knows, perhaps there’ll be some more novels forthcoming soon?

Forgotten Authors No 54 – Richmal Crompton, The Independent, 23 May 2010

Persephone Books -