Why Be Normal?

Richmal Crompton’s novels, like her short stories about William, are interested in the lives of people who are different and do not conform to the conventions of middle-class early to mid-twentieth century English life. She does write about middle-class young women who want to find husbands but struggle to have their voices heard amidst the tea party chatter of parents, vicars and local do-gooders. However, these novels also feature characters who are not part of the hard core bourgeoisie. In some cases they are concerned with the lives of people who have experience of learning or physical disabilities, or are carers. Five of the eleven e-books published recently by Bello feature this theme. These stories explore the relationship between those who need help and those who think they are helping; sometimes it is the carers, or others in the lives of disabled people, who need most help.

In The Holiday (1933), Timothy and Miriam are on holiday with their children – they go to have tea with Mr. Lindsay and his wife who have a very severely disabled daughter. The description of her disability has a blunt edge and a harshness that is unexpected: “The girl walked awkwardly with shambling, unsteady footsteps. Her head dropped forward, and as she came nearer they saw that her mouth hung open in a meaningless smile, and that her blue eyes were fixed vacantly in front of her”. Miriam, despite being a vicar’s wife, feels very uncomfortable and believes that they really “oughtn’t to bring the girl out before visitors like this. It was too painful”. In a quiet moment alone with Timothy, Mr. Lindsay himself admits that he has problems accepting her, confessing that he had once even tried to kill her. In Merlin Bay (1939), Agnes is another peripheral character who finds life difficult and has real problems knowing when a story is true, or just a dangerous fairy tale. She does not understand that we should not always believe everything someone tells us. A friend of the family befriends Agnes and tells her a story about a world of chocolate in the sea. She asks for this story to be repeated over and over again. Agnes dies because others who were meant to care for her think of themselves as great carers and never even try to understand life from her point of view. Frank, in Steffan Green (1940), is another character who finds it difficult to know how to deal with all the pressures of day to day life and other people’s expectations. At first he seems like a lazy drunk and a petty thief, but gradually through the eyes of his mother, we come to understand that he is “not quite – normal”. He has a childlike quality that cannot differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, but he is far more unlucky than the hapless William and his experience is not at all funny.

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

In Narcissa (1941), Stella’s complete inability to understand her fiancé Hugh’s love for his sister, Pam, is the first step in the total destruction of all her hopes for the future. She contemplates her physical beauty in a mirror and then “looked down to find Pam standing by her side … The odd likeness between them, the utter fatuousness and imbecility of Pam’s smile, sent a blind rage through Stella…. She raised her hand and struck the child as hard as she could across the face”. Hugh has seen this, but he does not call off their engagement. Stella does this herself: “To marry him would be to condemn herself to a lifelong contemplation” of what she had done – by rejecting him, she could try to reject the memory of her shame.

Finally, other novels by Crompton feature characters who have sensory or physical disabilities. In Chedsy Place (1934), Mr Fielden is blind and is supported by his wife. To his horror, he realises that he only married her because she was keen to look after him. He avoids other blind men, and “he refused to learn Braille. Both seemed somehow to emphasise the disability that he was determined to ignore, seemed to brand him as an exile from the normal world to which he was determined, in spite of everything, to belong”. In the wonderful, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) by Jeanette Winterson, she explores what on earth it means to be normal. Richmal Crompton’s novels also ask this question and why it so difficult for some of her disabled characters to be accepted as normal, whatever that means.

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