#indiechallenge – Family Roundabout (Richmal Crompton)

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The blurb

There isn’t one. One extract is quoted on the inside of the dust jacket, and a different one on the bookmark. I’m going to reproduce neither, and choose one that I prefer:

Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade, and she had startled and hurt him by what he called her ‘oddness’, but on the whole they had been happy. She had known the price she must pay for his love and she had been willing to pay it.

Her name was Millicent, but Henry, who liked diminutives, had called her Milly. She always thought of the quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who still existed somewhere within her as Millicent and Henry’s wife as Milly. ‘Now, Millicent…’ she would say to herself warningly, as she bit back some trenchant comment, some shrewd rejoinder.

The author

Richmal Crompton Lamburn, 1890-1969, the daughter of a schoolteacher-curate, went to a Derbyshire boarding school, to which she returned as a teacher in 1914 after having read classics at Royal Holloway College. She then moved to Kent to live near her married sister and was a much-loved classics mistress at Bromley High School. She published her first short story in 1918 (using her mother’s maiden name); after polio left her lame she became a writer full time. The first of the popular William books appeared in 1922. For the next 45 years she was always at work on two books simultaneously, one for children (generally a William book) and one for adults. In Richmal Crompton’s lifetime thirty collections of William stories sold over eight million copies; but she once hinted that her ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ had ambushed recognition for her forty serious novels, of which Family Roundabout (1948) is perhaps the best.

The publisher

Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their reprints are made distinctive by the elegant grey covers and the endpapers chosen from contemporary designs to go with the book.

The bookshop

I got this from Persephone’s own bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

The bingo card

Persephone Books definitely counts as ‘A Women’s Press’, and it might just qualify as ‘A press over 20 years old’. And this is another book that I’d count as a ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

This is not the edition in which I first read Family Roundabout. That one was a red cloth-covered hardback, shelved alongside the William books that we were read as children. When I’d run out of William I moved on to Felicity (much like William, but female and sixteen), and by that point I was just about old enough to appreciate Family Roundabout.

It’s a gently-paced novel following two families headed by two very different matriarchs through the years before the Second World War. Mrs Fowler (Milly/Millicent in the extract above) is a hands-off kind of a parent; Mrs Willoughby is quite the opposite. The plot follows their children, who are all grown up or almost grown up at the beginning of the book, through more or less ill-advised marriages, love affairs, careers, and attempts to leave the home town.

Crompton is very good on the nuances of family dynamics, on the equally strong desire to escape and to be supported, of small feelings that become big problems. And the sense of comic timing that makes the William books hilarious serves her well here, although of course it’s more subtle, somehow meshing wonderfully well with the wistfully optimistic tone.

There’s always a danger, re-reading old favourites, of a visit from the Suck Fairy – who has in fact left most of this untouched. The one exception would be Mrs Fowler’s daughter-in-law Belle, whose awfulness now feels very heavy-handed and rather misogynistic. The other characters, however, are neither too bad nor too good; one rather wishes that some of them would get their respective acts together, but sympathises with them nevertheless and understands why they just can’t.

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