WHAT WE ARE THINKING: Richmal Crompton – Not Just William

Article published on October 21, 2015.

Richmal Crompton’s creation, William Brown, is well known as a scruffy, mischievous schoolboy with scraped knees and a crooked tie. It is perhaps surprising to discover that the first William book was published as long ago as 1922. There have been many more books since then as well as stage, radio and television adaptations but while William has become famous, Richmal Crompton has remained in the shadows and, because of her unusual first name, was often assumed to be a man. It is not widely known that she also wrote about forty adult novels and received many excellent reviews.

I had read and enjoyed a few of these but for years they have been very difficult to find and, if one was found, very expensive on the second hand market. So I was delighted to hear that Bello, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, is re-issuing many of her titles. I’ve just been immersed in three of these and found them absorbing and entertaining.

There Are Four Seasons

Several of Richmal Crompton’s books are family sagas where we follow the achievements and aspirations of two or three generations . She takes time to establish her characters and gives them a depth and warmth so the reader really cares about them. The ups and down of family life are described with a real insight into feelings and emotions.  In this one we first meet Vicky when she is seven and follow her life till old age. She thinks her mother is dead though actually she has run away and Vicky is disliked and ignored by her father because she has her mother’s looks. Spoilt by her governess and lonely, she imagines herself as one of the heroines of her story books until her dreams are shattered when her father remarries. We then see her through school, marriage and bringing up children. I love the way the author shows that Vicky’s life follows from her character and from her childhood experiences.

The Old Man’s Birthday

This is a delightful story, sensitive and poignant yet filled with dry humour. Matthew is celebrating his 95th birthday. We are introduced to his family and their concerns and problems – the “jolly hockey sticks” granddaughter wondering whether to have a romantic adventure, the lonely bachelor son who avoids responsibility, the unhappy daughter-in-law, the clever great granddaughter neglected by her parents and expected to become a typist at her father’s firm. Matthew has invited his grandson, Stephen, who is shunned by the rest of the family as he is living “in sin” with Beatrice. During the day Matthew reminisces about his life and then walks round the village with Stephen and Beatrice visiting his family and in each case this acts as a catalyst, resolving or casting new light on the various issues. As well as being an engrossing story, this novel  beautifully captures the social pretensions and snobbery of the age.

Marriage of Hermione

Another family story, this starts in 1882 with Hermione, whose father died when she was eleven, now seventeen, enjoying roaming in the countryside which she loves. She is sensitive and impressionable and without really thinking about it, finds herself engaged and then married. As the title suggests the focus of this story is the relationship between Hermione and her husband through a long marriage.  As in There Are Four Seasons there is a large cast of characters and we get to know and feel involved with them. Again the observations of family life are perceptive and understanding of human nature.

About the author and further reading

Richmal Crompton seems to have been quite shy, never courting publicity. She was born in 1890, went to boarding school in Warrington, then to the Royal Holloway college getting a degree in classics. She returned to her old school as classics mistress but, after ten years, contracted polio wich left her very lame. By then her books were just starting to be successful so she was able to retire from teaching and concentrate on writing. She never married but seems to have been an affectionate and involved aunt and great-aunt. The last William book was published just after her death in 1969. I think her adult novels have been unjustly neglected and am so pleased that Bello are reissuing them. All the ones I have read have been enjoyable, satisfying and full of psychological insights.

Another of her family sagas, Family Roundabout, is available from Persephone Books and this is an enjoyable thought-provoking story contrasting the ways in which two mothers raise their children. Two others have been published by Greyladies – Matty and The Dearingroydes, about a woman who is a shameless meddler, and Mrs Frensham Describes a Circle, set during the war and about a bombed out grandmother who goes to stay with her daughter’s family. For anyone who wants to know more about her life there is also a warm and very readable biography, The Woman  Behind William by Mary Cadogan.

Berwyn Peet

Oct 21st, 2015

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