Roofs Off (1928)

Richmal Crompton's typewriter (University of Roehampton archive)
Richmal Crompton’s typewriter (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

I am just over halfway through my first reading of Richmal Crompton’s forty one novels. As reading journeys go this seems to be a good point to start writing about mine. I am caught amidst the thrill of discovering new writing and the exciting prospect of the unknown stories yet to come.

In this blog I have decided not to write about Richmal Crompton’s novels chronologically, but instead I will explore a range of themes in her writing, such as issues of social change, the lives of women, the representation of place and houses in the novels, and the implications of old age and having a disability. I am also interested in the types of journeys and holidays her characters take, how she handles the passage of time as the life of her characters slips by, and the extent to which these novels are concerned with the experience of people who are different and have special stories to tell. So, for my first post I have chosen to start in 1928. In this year more books by Richmal Crompton were published than any other. A ‘Just William’ collection, William the Good, two novels, including The Thorn Bush and four collections of short stories were all published in this year.

I will return in a later post to Richmal Crompton’s first novel, The Innermost Room (1923) which introduces her interest in, what she calls, ‘the enemy within’. This is a theme in a number of her novels and in Roofs Off (1928), the novel I have chosen for this post, one of the young characters, Diana, is fighting the claustrophobia of her life, living with her unhappy mother:

She mustn’t meet him in this mood. She made a great effort to throw it off. Once the atmosphere of this pleasant little room had been enough to throw it off, but the room was failing her. It was not holding its own against the rest of the house. Its defences were being beaten down and the enemy was entering through the breaches.

But more of this interest in the inner life and the importance of rooms and houses in the lives of her characters in a later post.

Another important theme in a number of Richmal Crompton’s novels is how life changes as her characters grow older and come to terms with the disappointments of adult life. In a couple of novels, Portrait of a Family (1931) and The Old Man’s Birthday (1934), the lead character is a man whose wife has died and he is facing old age and dwelling on the consequences of his past. I will write about these novels next month. In Roofs Off (1928), Martin has lost his wife and decides to move completely away from the area where he spent most of his adult life. He moves to a new housing development outside a village which has been developed on an area of land belonging to a local estate. This has been sold off to help the rich land owner make ends meet. When he arrives Martin is invited to join in the social life of his neighbours, encapsulated in the novel in a gathering for afternoon tea.

Martin discovers that the owner of the estate, Mrs Glendower, is an old flame and they excitedly rekindle their old attraction for each other. But her husband returns unexpectedly and Martin is faced with the loss of the new life he had dreamed of, the life he might have had instead of marrying his wife and being trapped in a staunchly middle-class world. He blames her in many ways for denying him everything that his life might have been, although he is reconciled to his past by the end of the novel.

In the modern estate people from different walks of life have been brought together. Mrs Copeland lives with her daughter, the aforementioned Diana, forced because of lack of money to take what she sees as a step down from the life of privilege that she sees as her right. She is not coping, refuses to leave the house for much of the time, and dreams exclusively about the wonderful marriage that her daughter will make which will return them both to the style of life that she believes they deserve. Her daughter, however, despite being engaged to someone that her mother approves of, and who could give them both the life that her mother wants, falls in love with the son of her neighbours, the owners of a village shop. They are delighted to be in their new house and have spent much of their working lives dreaming of owning a home of their own.

Mrs Glendower talks about a game she was asked to play as a child:

She gave us each some building bricks and a little red cardboard roof and a handful of dolls and furniture from her dolls’ house and we had to build little houses and arrange the dolls and furniture inside and then put on the little red cardboard roof and then Susan would blow on her little whistle and say, ‘Roofs Off!’ and we had to take off the cardboard roof and Susan would come round and judge whose dolls were doing the more interesting things.

Martin wonders “which would be the most interesting life in Woodlands Avenue if someone said ‘Roofs Off!’”. Mrs Glendower, not surprisingly perhaps, believes that they would “all be indescribably dull”, but the local doctor disagrees: “I believe that there isn’t such a thing in the whole world and never has been such a thing as a dull life. What you see of it may be dull but you only see a part of the pattern or a back side of the pattern. If you could see the whole you’d be amazed. You’d be thrilled. A life may be sad or even uneventful, but it can never be dull”. This novel by Richmal Crompton makes a very convincing case that this is certainly true. It offers a social commentary on ordinary life in a rural community in early twentieth century England. In Roofs Off tensions between people from different classes are unpicked at a time of significant social change, resented by the older members of the rich and traditional middle class, but embraced by the young.

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