Where do ideas for novels and stories come from? Well, in the case of Richmal Crompton we have some evidence in her archive. She wrote ideas and potential themes for her stories on fragments of paper, in notebooks and on the back of letters, bills and other correspondence. The picture of one of these fragments above suggests an interest in an “old (man) woman spending the year after husband death with children – a few months with each. old lover?”. It is not clear at all when this was written and why she wrote this short note to herself at all. Where did she keep it? Did she know where to look for it when she came to think about a new novel? I am not sure that the answer to these questions really matter. What we know is that this was a theme which interested her. It suggests a concern about old age and what happens to a man or a woman when they lose their formal partner and enter a new kind of relationship with their children. Perhaps they find out something new about their wife or husband, or have to come to terms with an early love affair. This fragment also draws attention to a key theme in Richmal Crompton’s writing about the importance of memory and how this shifts and turns depending on who we are with and our state of mind. Her novels Portrait of a Family (1931) and The Old Man’s Birthday (1934) are two novels which explore these concerns.
In Portrait of a Family (1931) Christopher has been travelling after his wife’s sudden death and the novel opens as he arrives home again. As she lay dying she whispered something to him which implies that she had an affair with a close friend. The novel explores Christopher’s new relationship with his children as he decides whether to ask them if they knew about the affair. However, Derek and his wife Olivia, Frank and his wife Rachel and his daughter Joy, who is married to Bruce, are totally caught up in their own lives. Towards the end of the novel Christopher realises that he has been unable to ask them about his wife, Susan: “He thought of the day when he had gone to see Olivia to ask if she knew anything about Susan and Charlie, and had found her more unhappy, more driven, more tormented than he was himself. Ever since then his anxious thoughts had been with her”. He realises that he has to seek some resolution alone. The novel offers a moment, a portrait, in the life of this family as it faces one particular tragedy amidst the mess and turmoil of each of their lives. Christopher turns to the portrait of his wife: “He flung open the drawing-room door, and entered it for the first time since his return from Cornwall”. Sometimes our thoughts and recollections of those closest to us, even those we have lost, can mean more than a room buzzing with people, even if they are members of our own family.
Matthew Royston has similarly lost his wife and today is his 95th birthday. In The Old Man’s Birthday (1934), he lives with his eldest daughter, Catherine, who tries to control his day to day life, and another daughter, Charlotte. Matthew wakes and thinks about the family dinner in his honour later that evening: “Catherine had disapproved of the idea from the first. It was Catherine’s disapproval, of course, that had made him resolve to carry the arrangement through in the face of her opposition”. She is furious that Matthew has invited his grandson, Stephen and his married partner, Beatrice. She is estranged from her husband and Catherine is appalled at the idea of inviting such a person to her home. Matthew seems to delight in the idea of challenging her.
Beatrice arrives to meet him and Matthew decides to visit each family member to introduce them to her before the evening’s main event. Beatrice reminds him of a young woman he loved before his marriage and he journeys back to thoughts about his life and “suddenly, as if a dam had been broken, a torrent of disconnected memories began to crowd upon him”. There is something special about Beatrice. She has “a tender, radiant serenity, [which] seemed to emanate from her very being”, as well as a “childlike gravity and candour”. I hope this does not come across as a somewhat romanticised portrait. The point is that Beatrice is special because she has a beauty which is based on more than sexual attraction. The novel challenges the notion that her value as a woman can only be judged by her unconventional behaviour. This is a novel set in 1934 after all.
Admittedly, Beatrice is perhaps too perfect, but I have learnt one important lesson during this reading journey. Some of Richmal Crompton’s novels can be read as family sagas, often focusing on the life of one particular person. However, it is a mistake to expect each novel to be read as a realist narrative with a chronological plot and a satisfying and clear beginning and ending. And this particular book is one of Richmal Crompton’s stories which is harder to place. When taking up one of her novels I now wait to see where the narrative will take me. This novel is based on one very important day in the life of an old man and ultimately what I realised was that I was seeing Beatrice through his eyes. She comes to represent key values in his life and she serves a purpose, but one which is based on his vision. Towards the end of the novel Matthew takes Stephen and Beatrice to tea in a local hotel: “Silence had fallen in the red parlour of the White Swan…. The old man in particular felt shut away by it into some enchanted place where the discords and annoyances of real life could not reach him”.