Archive for the ‘Richmal Crompton’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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When I went to Croatia in June, I went prepared for a lazy beach and hiking holiday, looking forward to having hours to spend reading in the sunshine.

Well, I had hours and I had sunshine.  What I didn’t have by the time I reached Split were any books to read.  For the first time in my life, I had dared to travel with only my e-reader.  So, of course, this was the first time I lost my e-reader (I forgot it on my third and final flight and it was stolen from there).

What I did have was a smartphone with my Kobo app, giving me access to all the books in my Kobo library.  It wasn’t ideal but it was something.  I couldn’t read on the tiny screen as often as I would have liked so it turned into a selective reading holiday focused primarily on one author: Richmal Crompton.

I’d read a few of Crompton’s books before and enjoyed them, Leadon Hill being my favourite before this year.  But the more I read, the more I realise that she, like many prolific authors (looking at you, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer) liked to repeat the same plot over and over again.  From Crompton, it’s about a group of children (generally siblings but sometimes not) and watching them grow from childhood to (inevitably) unnecessarily warped adulthood.  If you’ve read Family Roundabout from Persephone, you’re going to find Frost at Morning, Quartet, and a host of other titles very familiar.  For my part, I think Quartet is the most enjoyable of this template but then I haven’t read them all.  Do I even need to read them all?  Probably not.

That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of writing different stories.  She was and was in fact very good at it as Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes show, but again the stock characters and scenarios tend to creep in.

And then there is Felicity – Stands By, which is so entirely not what I expected from Crompton and so thoroughly fun that I could hardly believe it.

Felicity – Stands By is a collection of stories written during the 1920s about the escapades of Miss Norma Felicity Montague Harborough, commonly known as Pins.  In the opening story she is sixteen-years old and has just left school.  She has managed to give her adult escorts the slip and is feeling very congratulatory as she boards the train to go home – treating herself to third-class seat rather than the socially-approved first she is usually forced to take.  And her adventure is rewarded with the making of a new friend: Mr. Franklin.  Darling Frankie, as she soon christens him, is a delightful young man who, since the end of the war, has been struggling to find work to support both him and his widowed mother.  He would love secretarial work but, having been unable to find any, is on his way to take up the post of valet to Sir Digby Harborough – coincidentally the grandfather and guardian of his new friend Felicity.  His term as valet is short-lived and within a few breathless pages Frankie has proven his worth by foiling a thief, had his ancestors and education (Harrow) approved by Sir Digby, and been elevated to the post of secretary.  With Frankie now installed in the house as Felicity’s friend and confidant, we are ready for her adventures to begin.

In addition to Frankie and numerous servants, Felicity shares her home with her beautiful but chilly sister Rosemary (with whom Frankie, like all men, instantly falls in love), her stiff Aunt Marcella, and her grandfather Sir Digby.  The youngest of five orphaned siblings, Felicity’s eldest brother and sister are both married and living in London while her favourite brother, Ronald, is in the guards and devoted to a rather jolly life of pleasure.  They all make appearances in the stories but in mostly superficial ways.  It is only the relatives with whom she lives that we get a good idea about, Sir Digby in particular who is just the kind of curmudgeonly, illustrious grandfather I like to come across in fiction:

Sir Digby Harborough suffered from the Harborough gout and the Harborough temper.  Aunt Marcella was proud of both the gout and the temper.  She would have felt ashamed of any elderly relative of the male sex who did not possess both the gout and the temper.  Common people might be immune from such things.  Not so the Harboroughs.

Being of a far better temper than her grandfather and possessing indefatigable energy, it doesn’t take Felicity long after leaving school to get caught up in enjoyable antics.  She excels at coming to the help of others: when Ronald is in need of cash, she takes up with an acting troupe for an afternoon in order to earn money for him (and ends the day with the much needed four hundred pounds).  When a friend’s father is in danger of being ensnared into marriage by a horrifying woman, it is Felicity once again to the rescue.  She rescues a friend’s love-sick writings from a past amour who won’t give them up and is instead joyfully sharing them with his new loves and, in possibly my favourite act of social good, artfully converts a friend’s hypochondriac spiritualist aunt into a hearty outdoorswoman.

And, occasionally, she entertains herself by running off an unwanted governess with the loan of a few exotic animals from a passing zoo-keeper, indulging in socialist-inspired acts of generosity, impersonating Russians, and sampling a life of pleasure.  It is this last which she finds most difficult to do, perhaps because it is the only one she must disclose to her family before attempting.  She does eventually find a suitable escort for an evening of dissipation (dancing, cocktails, cigarettes) in her dry brother-in-law but Aunt Marcella is not easily won over, despite Felicity’s succinct explanation of how young ladies are now launched on the world:

“I mean nowadays you don’t come out with a bang like you used to.  You unfold gradually like a flower.  It’s much more poetical.  I read somewhere the other day that nowadays girls begin to go out to dinner when they’re fifteen, and when they’re sixteen they begin to go to dances and night clubs and drink cocktails, and when they’re seventeen they do all those things till they’re simply sick of them, and when they’re eighteen someone gives a dance to mark the fact that life has no further experiences to offer them.”

Despite finding no pleasure in her evening of excess, the book ends with Felicity entering formally into the adult world.  Schoolgirl no more, she appears before her family as a beautiful, composed young woman ready to take society by storm.  They are all saddened for a moment at the loss of the impish girl in braids and holey stockings – until they look at her face.  The apparel may change but the irrepressible girl within does not.

I have a weakness for cunning optimists who will brazen their way through any situation and come out composed and ready for more.  It’s why I love Wodehouse’s Psmith, Angela Thirkell’s Tony Morland, and, now, Felicity.  These stories aren’t the best things Crompton ever wrote but they are fun and charming and I wish there were a dozen volumes more in the adventures of Felicity.

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Leadon HillI’m not entirely sure what I expected when I picked up Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton but it certainly wasn’t what I got. I have this idea of Greyladies books as cosy and entertaining, an entirely rational conclusion based on my very enjoyable experiences with their books by O. Douglas, Susan Scarlett, and especially Susan Pleydell. Well, Leadon Hill is entertaining but in a most unsettling way.

Published in 1927, Leadon Hill is a small English village where Marcia Faversham has recently moved with her husband and three children. As the novel begins, John Faversham sets off (with his wife’s blessing) on a four-month fishing holiday with his friends. If Marcia were left truly alone it might not be so bad – she is an intelligent enough woman to be able to amuse herself – but she is left at the mercy of her inquisitive neighbours who illustrate the more poisonous aspects of village life. And yet Marcia gets off relatively easily (with the gossip only that her husband is leading a double life with a woman or family hidden somewhere else) compared to Miss West, who becomes Marcia’s neighbour when she rents the house next door.

Born and raised in Italy by her English father, Helen West grew up hearing about the beauty of the English countryside. And, now living in it, she does find it beautiful. What she was not prepared for was the stifling small-mindedness of the village gossips, who are never happier than when spreading vile rumours about one another and gasping whenever someone does anything outside their narrow view of what is proper. As an artist and as a beautiful young woman living alone, Helen is a target for gossip immediately. But it is her open-mindedness and thoughtfulness towards others that truly challenges the village’s most firmly-held prejudices.

It is a rather horrific but all too realistic portrait of what it is like to live in a small community. There are those who are intelligent and broadminded – Marcia, for one, and a lovely couple called Elliott – but they are outnumbered by neighbours who are confident in their view of the world and unforgiving of any transgressions. The worst of these neighbours is Miss Mitcham, a woman whose capacity for cruelty is thinly veiled by the seemingly innocuous way in which she delivers her devastating character assassinations:

‘It’s a beautiful little place, isn’t it? And in the heart of it sits Miss Mitcham like a maggot at the heart of an apple, poisoning it. I think that woman will be rather surprised when she finds out, as please God she will one day, how wicked she is. She’s one of the wickedest women in the world. …There’s more humanity, less meanness in any drab woman of the streets than in that woman.’

Helen’s gentle philanthropy is twisted until it appears as an insult to those who received it whereas the outright cruelty of the local landowner is cheerfully overlooked when he marries the girl whom he bullied and impregnated. Used to an environment where curiosity is encouraged and kindness taken for granted, Helen wilts in her new surroundings until a visit from an old friend helps her find her way again – and provokes a new round of devastating rumours.

It is a chilling little book and a very well done one.  It has reminded me of how much I appreciate the anonymity that comes with living in a major city and the freedom of choosing who knows the details of my life.

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When I read Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton back at the beginning of February, I didn’t so much read as devour it.  Persephone seems to have a genius for publishing ‘unputdownable’ books and, as with The Home-Maker, Little Boy Lost, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, and The Shuttle, once I picked this up there was no way I was going to put it down until I had read the final page.  This was my first encounter with Crompton and my goodness but could she write an absorbing story.

Family Roundabout revolves around the Fowler and Willoughby families.  Both families are headed by a widowed matriarch, each the mother of five children, each with a very different approach to parenting.  Mrs Willoughby dispenses orders like a general, while Mrs Fowler generally allows her offspring to fumble along with very little interference from her.  Over the course of almost twenty years, from 1920 to 1939, the novel tracks the fates of these women and their children as they struggle with relationships, both romantic and familial.

Mrs Willoughby is my hero.  That is perhaps not what Crompton intended the reader to think but I adored her from the first page and hope desperately to be her when I grow up and have relations to boss about.  She is magnificently confident and has total authority over all her children (much to her sons-in-law’s despair).  There is no problem too small for her notice and she always knows what must be done.  And when Mrs Willoughby tells you what must be done, you do it.  It’s marvellously efficient to have a family so well-trained at taking instructions, though this universal obedience was perhaps the first sign that there were going to be moments and characters that didn’t ring true to life.  For Mrs Willoughby, family is paramount and all-encompassing: cousins, aunts, and all sorts of distant and aged relatives fall under her care.  She is bossy, yes, but also loving and generous: she becomes involved in other people’s lives because she wants to make them better.  When she acquires a daughter-in-law just as forceful as she, she views her not as a rival but as an apprentice to be tutored.  She is overwhelming and probably terrifying if it is your life she’s trying to organize but I adored her.

On the other extreme, there is Mrs Fowler, who is remarkably passive.  Years before, she fell in love with a man who liked weak, silly women so, to win him, presented herself as one.  She has separated herself into two personas: ‘Milly’ is the soft, yielding character her family knows so well, whereas ‘Millicent’ is the one with all the sharp comebacks, who comes out when Milly forgets to silence her.  Now, even after her husband’s death, Mrs Fowler keeps up her Milly-ish appearance so as not to confuse her now adult children who only know her as a dear, foolish lady.  She is generally content with her languid life, passing pleasant afternoons reading in the garden or engaged in other similarly strenuous activities.  Mrs Willoughby’s active interference is utterly foreign to Mrs Fowler, but where Mrs Willoughby drives the actions of her family members, Mrs Fowler’s are driven by her children and their expectations of her.  She dare not travel or let them glimpse her true intelligence, not when they might need her to be there for them to be the simple, sweet mother they know.  She loves her children and is deeply loved in return but knows her limits when it comes to parenting them.  She is always there to support them but would never think of trying to guide them in the manner of Mrs Willoughby.

As the novel begins, these two women and their families are awkwardly united by the marriage of Helen Fowler to Max Willoughby.  Helen was my favourite character from the moment she was introduced as a blunt, managing, unemotional young woman, practical and forthright but unaware of her own heart and of how much she really does love Max.  She was the character I followed with the most interest over the years, as she became fully assimilated into the Willoughby family and was taken up by Mrs Willoughby as her natural deputy (unlike Mrs Willoughby’s own, easily cowed daughters).  Whereas some of the dramatic situations experienced by other characters felt a tad contrived, the minor crisis Helen experiences later in life felt like a very logical consequence of her behaviour.

The novel was going along very nicely until suddenly an extraordinary amount of trouble is experienced almost entirely at once by almost everyone, as through Crompton had decided her characters were all far too happy and that it was now time to upset all their lives on very little pretence.  Okay then.  Max and Helen get off easily, as do his two sisters, but everyone else is tortured to some extent by bad marriages, desperate loves, or…I’m not really sure how to describe what happens to Oliver Willoughby, actually.  That had to have been the most bizarre twist, as he descends from passionate lover to fussy, neurotic bachelor in a breathtakingly short amount of time.  Even allowing for the contrived circumstances under which some of these characters found themselves in these frankly bleak situations, Crompton seems to offer very little hope to some of them for a more cheerful future.

As much as I loved Crompton’s writing style and her excellent sense of humour, in the end I was left pleasantly diverted but not wildly impressed.  The writing is utterly absorbing, the characters are wonderfully realised, and I do think she brings up some fascinating if disturbing points through her characters’ emotional struggles, but for me this was a manufactured drama which admirably served its purpose as entertainment but doesn’t leave you with anything more.  I enjoyed it and will happily reread it but it did not win me over in the way it has so many other readers.  I do know that I will certainly be looking out for more of Crompton’s adult novels (like Frost at Morning).

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Le Pradet, Jeune Femme au Hamac - Henri Lebasque

Having come to the conclusion that there was so much to do that she didn’t know where to start, Mrs Fowler decided not to start at all. She went to the library, took Diary of a Nobody from the shelves and, returning to her wicker chair under the lime tree, settled down to waste what precious hours still remained of the day.

– Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

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