Narcissa (1941) has just been published as an ebook by Bello and any new reader wanting to challenge their expectations about Richmal Crompton’s writing for adults could start with this story. They will be surprised and disturbed by this novel. This is a tale, as any reader of ‘Just William’ stories might expect, which is concerned with the ups and downs of family life and the trials and tribulations of relationships between children and their parents. The story follows the lead character, Stella, as she attracts her first lover and secures a longed for engagement. However, the clue is in the title and she selfishly expects her fiancé and the rest of his family to focus all their attentions on her. During her first formal dinner party with his family she makes a fatal mistake when she becomes bored with the general conversation which does not focus on her every whim and she lashes out at one of his family. What happens as a result takes her life in a particular direction that steers her away from her dreams of wealth and status. We then continue to follow her as she seeks out the attention of other potential admirers. She goes on to influence the lives of her husbands and children in ways that bring little comfort to anyone. This is not a nice, safe story about a happy family and, whilst this is true of many middlebrow novels of the interwar period, this novel is very dark and akin to the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Narcissa is a dark and troubling story about someone who does not understand the difference between supporting others and seeking to control and manipulate every aspect of their lives. It is a novel that suggests murder and a creepy sense of wickedness.
Caroline (1936) is another of the eleven novels just published by Bello as ebooks. Both of these novels by Crompton offer powerful characterisations of women who hide behind a mask of duty and respectability. They explore the nature of empathy and goodness and ask questions about the motivations of some women who on the face of it seem to be committing their lives to helping others. These are not gentle, comforting tales of middle-class family life, but stories that suggest that duty can be a burden for everyone involved.
An antidote to Narcissa lies in reading another of Crompton’s novels, An Old Man’s Birthday (1934). As I discussed in an earlier post, the main characters in this novel seek reconciliation and a sense of peace, although not everyone can find it. Despite the antics of his children and their struggle to offer genuine empathy and love, the novel offers us a talisman, a beacon of hope, in Matthew himself and also in his son’s lover, Beatrice. I also wrote about another of these novels in my March post, Portrait of a Family (1931).
In fact, I would urge readers to explore any of these ebooks and ideally read at least a couple. They adopt different styles and approaches. In a number of her novels, Crompton focuses on a particular time period when the lives of her characters are changed, such as on one day in An Old Man’s Birthday, or on a holiday as in The Holiday (1933), Chedsy Place (1934) and Merlin Bay (1939). These novels are also important because they are concerned in part with characters who have disabilities, whose experiences as explored in these stories make these novels unique. More on these aspects of her writing in next month’s post.