Back in 2007 I posted an entry about Richmal Crompton (link here) and made the point that though she is well known for her William books, the fact that she wrote reams of adult novels is largely unknown. The other week I came across this link to an article in the Times about this author and this revived my interest in her and I went back to my bookshelves to check my collection.
Her books are very difficult to track down and very expensive, but I have acquired a few in the last year or two by negotiating. I see I mentioned in my earlier post that I knew the Haunted Bookshop in Cambridge had several of her titles but they were incredibly expensive and that I might make an offer next time I was in. Well, I did. One title at £55 which had been on the shelves for four years (I know because I checked it regularly) came home with me eventually for £35 which is really all I was prepared to pay, or could afford. A higher priced Richmal was also negotiated for a year or so later is now also in my possession. I had had these titles but had never got round to reading them, just knowing they were there was a nice thought. I just needed the moment to arrive when I would read them and this Times article spurred me on and yesterday and today I sat down and read three Richmal Cromptons and, as I finished each one, I was struck all over again by just how good they are, how fluently written, how clear sighted and clear eyed she is about human foibles and relationships. In this, she is very like Dorothy Whipple another author, alongside Richmal, who has been resurrected by Persephone Books, the only difference being that while this publishing house has reprinted several Whipples, the only Crompton title in their catalogue is Family Roundabout. I do wish more of her work was available - Bloomsbury are doing their bit to fly the flag for this type of literature with reprints of works by D E Stevenson, Ada Leverson and others - so with two such outlets there is scope for a Crompton revival.
And what of the books I have read?
Naomi Godstone - the story of a young girl who is well aware that her mother prefers her brother Roddy to her, in fact one shocking day she realises that her mother does not like her: " ....she realised the way Imogen kissed her was quite different from the way she kissed Roddy.....but now - that unguarded look of weary disgust had opened the child's eyes." Later she discovers the reason for her mother s dislike and in her anger and misery she makes a hasty marriage and has to live with the consequences.
There are Four Seasons - a young girl Vicki finds herself in a similar situation. This time it is her father who hates her and this is because of her startling resemblance to the wife who ran away and left him for another man. This hatred marks Vicky and her behaviour all her life and even married and with a family, she is never sure that she is truly loved for herself. This book starts when she is a little girl and continues to her old age, through her marriage, birth of her children and grandchildren and her relationship with Andrew, who she first met as the gardener's boy, and who is the one true friendship in her life: "He was maddeningly obstinate, deliberately stupid and careless sometimes, but he was Andrew. it began and ended there. Life without his help and loyalty was unthinkable"
Four in Exile - four children are farmed out to relatives while their mother is in hospital having an operation and each of them finds their time away brings them new experiences, some of them unwelcome, and when they return to their home, they are all marked in some indefinable way. Their mother senses this: "Had she got them back unchanged or had something happened to them in the weeks they had been away from her, something she didn't know and would never know, something irrevocably for good or ill to the making of them? Oh, well she'd got them back and that was the main thing."
Richmal Crompton never married or had children of her own and when I read her biography by Mary Cadogan, I found myself slightly surprised that she led such a seemingly routine life, no peaks and troughs, no highs and lows, though as I also mentioned, having so many books published is perhaps not so routine. Difficult to get to know the real woman and the more of her books I read the more I wonder. I have read about twenty of her adult titles and there is a recurring theme in all of them, and that is the stresses and strains between families and, in particular, the recurrence of a child being disliked by one or both his/her parents (as in two of the books described above), or the effect a separation from their family can have on a child. Richmal was a clergyman's daughter and I sometimes wonder if she was treated in this way, if her family had no deep affection for her. The description of unmarried Aunt Charlotte and her relationship with her demanding old mother who she cares for, is perhaps a little too close to home for comfort, I feel. I hesitate to raise this question but it comes up in so many of her books, as do abandoned babies, that I cannot help but wonder. The thought also crosses my mind that the world of William and Douglas and the Outlaws and Mr and Mrs Brown and his elder brother and sister, Robert and Ethel, were created as a wish fulfillment and an antidote to her own lack of family life.
She went out of fashion in the late 1950's: "“There’s not much call nowadays for quiet stories about families and village life — that’s rather a vanished world,” she apparently told a friend. Her bitterness echoes that of other women novelists, among them Barbara Pym and Dorothy Whipple, who found themselves victims of the market forces of the postwar social revolution." She was realistic and described herself as a 'second rate novelist'. I know the writer of the Times articles agrees with this, but I don't. Her writing is perceptive and intuitive and her dismantling of relationships is as sharp as anything that might be written today - it is the setting and, perhaps, the style of writing that is out of fashion, but the plots and characters are as real in 2009 as they were when they were first written. Very little changes in that regard.
The final judgment for me is that when I sat down with these three titles, I neglected other things that I had planned for the day and became totally absorbed in them. I finished Four in Exile just half an hour ago and am already looking at my other titles, some of which I have read and some not, and contemplating which one I will look at next.....