Best Laid Plans

Richmal Crompton’s William seems to personify the ultimate survivor as he charges about his middle-class family home and village creating havoc wherever he goes. Although, it is the story of the people who may, or may not, manage to survive this chaos that often makes us laugh. ‘Just William’ stories present us with stories about a fiercely enthusiastic and unruly eleven year old boy, although his behaviour often seems almost sensible when compared to the behaviour of the adults around him. This is often exposed as petty and ridiculous, as Mrs Brown, William’s mother, suggests in “The Best Laid Plans”. William cannot eat his supper because he has gorged so much at the local fair, spending half-a-crown given to him by his sister’s suitor: ‘“It’s perfectly absurd of people,” said Mrs. Brown indignantly, “to give large sums of money to a boy of William’s age. It always ends this way. People ought to know better”’. The suitor is keen to avoid exposure:

Furtively Mr. French pressed a two-shilling piece into his hand.

Glorious vistas opened before William’s eyes. He decided finally that Mr. French must join the family. Life then would be an endless succession of half-crowns and two-shilling pieces.

As Mrs Brown comments, Mr French’s initial behaviour is ridiculous and this is compounded when he has to give William even more money to keep him quiet.

In “William and the Psychiatrist”, William is convinced that his future career lies in psychiatry. He invites his first customer, Mr Peaslake, to sit down and talk to him, although his client is concerned that, ‘“it is utterly ridiculous … my coming in here like this”’ (10), something with which many readers would concur. He nevertheless goes on to explain that his fiancé has decided to break off their engagement because he lacks imagination. Having had the opportunity to talk, William asks him if his ‘mental troubles’ are cured: ‘“No,” said Mr Peaslake. He rose from the packing case. “They’re only just beginning. My whole life is shattered to its foundations. Existence will be meaningless from now on”’. William does not understand that he has to pay attention to what the conversation is actually about to be able to help anyone. William then mistakenly goes on to decorate Mr Peaslake’s fiancé’s home in bright colours and this prompts her, before she rushes off to a meeting of the Society for the Abolition of the Conventional in Life and Art, to agree that the marriage is back on. Apparently she now believes that her husband-to-be has ‘the vital spark’ that makes him unconventional and more attractive as a result. This story shows up avante-garde disdain for the ordinary, a contemporary fashion in society at the time Crompton was writing.

In another ‘Just William’ story, “William’s New Year’s Day”, William makes a New Year resolution and decides to be polite. His family is nonplussed and confused:

“Does it hurt you much?” inquired his brother tenderly.

“No thank you, Robert,” said William politely.

We can all think of examples when being polite has seemed absurd and pointless and in laughing at William and his family we can laugh at ourselves. William never seems to accept that he is out of control, even if his behaviour might be described as such, as he reflects wryly on the absurd behaviour of others. It is as if he is quite convinced that it is his family and people connected with them in the village where he lives, never himself, who do not have a hold on life.

The novels of Crompton are often not laugh-out-loud funny like ‘Just William’ stories. However, a few take a rather sardonic view of life. The humour in Crompton’s more light hearted writing is often based on a subtle irony which also seems to pillory the behaviour of conventional middle-class people. For example, The Gypsy Baby (1954) is a social comedy. Drusilla is a housemaid who works for the local vicar. She is pregnant, although she claims not to know who the father is and her lack of concern about this, and the vicar’s wife’s dismay about her attitude, kicks off the social comedy in the novel: Mrs Medway asks, ‘”who’s the father?”:

“I don’t know, ma’am,” said Drusilla, and added in a tone of wistful innocence, “I don’t know how you tell which it is.”

Much of the comedy lies in the extent to which the reader believes, as Mrs Medway does, in Drusilla’s apparent innocence. A series of women in the village decide that they would like to adopt Drusilla’s baby. They are all, of course, terribly concerned about the baby’s future and allegedly not at all interested in meeting a lack in their own lives. The reverse is actually the case as we learn in a series of chaotic scenes in which a bizarre game of ‘pass the baby’ is played out across the village.

A Monstrous Regiment

Richmal Crompton published nine books of short stories and seven of these were published in the period 1926-1929; four were published in 1928. I have been reading these collections and have been thinking quite a bit about the main theme in one of these books.

A Monstrous Regiment (1927) is dedicated to promoting the voice of women, but I am not sure that I can make a claim that it has feminist credentials. Crompton as a young woman did not join the suffrage movement, but she writes about the concerns of women who want to have professional careers and more independence from their families and husbands in many of her novels and stories. I have been reflecting in particular on the idea of ‘a room of one’s own’.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was published for the first time on 24 October 1929. The essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, in October 1928. It makes a plea for women writers to find somewhere to write and earn their living doing so. She asks her peers, famous or unknown, to find their own voice because, “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else”. Crompton wrote a sister piece that reflects comparable concerns. In A Monstrous Regiment, published in 1927, is a story called “Martin Ford”.

The opening lines of this story are as follows: “Evelyn Ross entered her study, closed the door, and drew a deep breath. The study was her sanctuary. It was the only room in the house that did not reflect her husband’s taste—blatant, obvious, and bordering on the vulgar”. She loves her husband, but feels suffocated by his invasion into every corner of her life: “She has felt as some sensitive water creature must feel dragged from its watery hiding-places, panting its life away on a curious hand”. Writing literary articles becomes an escape for Evelyn: “It was a refuge and a perpetual delight”. She publishes articles and books under a male pseudonym, Martin Ford. One of the authors she criticises is Milner Lawson. One evening her husband confesses that he has been writing novels under this pseudonym and her world falls apart as he suggests that his novels are kept in her study: “She knew now what she must do. If he was Milner Lawson, she could not be Martin Ford…. Nothing—nothing was to be left to her”. In a short piece of only ten pages this story is not a subtle piece. It is blunt and partisan in its message: “She clung blindly and doggedly to the two great realities life held, her love for him and his love for her”. In the end, it is her love for her husband, rather than her life as a writer, that must come first. This seems a frustrating and disappointing response. Crompton’s story is not the ‘call to arms’ encouraged by Virginia Woolf. Crompton’s feminism is tempered with constraint.

A Young Richmal Crompton
A Young Richmal Crompton

The stories in this book are all about the lives of women from different classes and age groups. In another story, “Freedom”, the main female character has been having an illicit affair with a married man for seventeen years. She finds out that he has decided to trade her in for a younger model and she warns, rather than attacks, her younger rival. Her relationship with him ends and as a result, “she felt as if she had been eased of some intolerable burden. And life lay before her”, although there remains no suggestion that her ex-lover’s behaviour will change.

Some might argue that the tone of this collection reflects an underlying conservatism, what Alison Light, in her book Forever England: Feminity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (1991), calls “conservative modernism”. Light argues that this is representative of other women middlebrow writers who, with an eye on advocating change in the lives of women for the future, are at the same time still rooted in the traditions of the past.

The title of this collection is worth a comment too. A friend pointed out to me that The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was published by John Knox in 1558. This is an attack on women as rulers in a period when Mary, Queen of Scots and Mary I of England were in power. Knox was a staunch Protestant, but his arguments against Catholicism met a hostile reception with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Crompton’s collection explores the lives of all sorts of women, but none of them reach these dizzy heights of power, they are just perceived as dizzy.

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.

My Family Loves ME

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.

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

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).

Name Plate (Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton)
Name Plate (Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton)

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.

“The proper study of mankind is man”

Richmal Crompton’s last novel, The Inheritor (1960) has a more serious tone than some of her novels and a clear moral purpose. In some cases her stories are interesting for the characters she creates and you become wrapped up in their lives. But it is worth starting each novel with an open mind, because in quite a number of cases she has a moral purpose. I would argue that some of her novels can be read as allegories in which the plot is carefully structured to lead us towards a less than dramatic, but no less important, ending.

Di is a prolific and very popular author. But, she struggles to find new plots and her publisher warns that her stories are becoming dated and the market for them is declining. She is in awe of her husband’s more literary and intellectual tomes and is conscious of his distain. She contemplates giving up:

“She did not herself quite understand the sense of release that had come to her when she decided to give up writing. Her whole life had been wrapped up in her books. Nothing held reality for her outside them.”

In Richmal Crompton’s novels writers are often observers and manipulators, using people as material for their work without understanding or caring about them. Leonard, Di’s husband, is a case in point. He fails to connect with his wife and children and has little interest in the life of the village all around him. These writers are able to create characters that their readers connect with and they have a huge influence on their lives and yet they are unable to create a genuine bond with anyone in their own lives.

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

Nicholas on the other hand has had very little influence on anyone. He has no ambition and has drifted through life only caring about his childhood home and the memories of his happy family life as a child and young man. He returns to live in his old home in old age and, on the last page of the novel, relishes the fact that:

“He was back again where he started, he thought. In a sort of prison—a prison that he’d carried with him all his life and from which he never wanted to escape. But, after all, didn’t everyone carry their prison about them? You couldn’t escape from yourself…. Perhaps there was no such thing as freedom and, if there were, it would be unendurable.”

He is happy just being himself in the place where he has always felt at peace. There is a certain irony here in the image of a prison, both a place of punishment and one of isolation, from which there is no escape, and yet at the same time a place of sanctuary and safety. His sister and brother both escape in old age and leave their childhood home and the village where they grew up, but they too “had taken their prisons with them”. In the end, no matter how ambitious they are for success of whatever kind, the characters in this novel all carry their inheritance with them, rooted both in their childhood, although not necessarily tied to one place, and also something beyond themselves. Is Nicholas the inheritor in this novel and will he inherit the earth?

In the last chapter, two vicars discuss philosophy and agree that, “The proper study of mankind is man”, as Alexander Pope wrote in his poem, An Essay on Man (1734). A study that Richmal Crompton pursued all her writing life.

 

Social Comedy Unravels Village Life

You might think that I was bound to say this at some point in this blog, but The Gypsy Baby (1954) is a social comedy just waiting to be brought to life on the television screen. The novel is one of a number by Richmal Crompton which explores the behaviour of others from the perspective of a central figure who does not care about the social conventions and moral dilemmas which plague the lives of those around her. In this novel is Drusilla, a character who is not like William, but nevertheless manages inadvertently to create total chaos. She remains blissfully unaware, or so we are led to believe, of the mayhem around her.

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

Drusilla works for Mrs Medway, the Vicar’s wife, who notices one day that she has the look of a girl who is pregnant, and so it proves. The girl is not sure who is the father of her baby and the expected shock and horror follows immediately. There is subtle social comedy here as the Vicar’s wife’s plans to ‘help’ the girl spiral out of control; more out of control one might argue than the life of her allegedly immoral servant. Drusilla may not know who is the father of her child, but it soon becomes clear that once Mrs Medway has suggested that the child be adopted by someone in the village, she has no idea who is going to be the mother of her child either. Mrs Medway secretly wants to adopt the child herself and her reasons for wanting to do so are presented glibly as an attempt to help, but really she wants to fill the gaping hole left by her own grief at not having had children. Other women in the village also decide that the child will either help to save a failing marriage, or become the focus of a new life which will keep a grown up daughter from leaving home, or fill the gap if she does leave. In another family the apparently homeless child suddenly becomes the answer to another gap left by an older relative who is languishing in prison; they could not possibly invite him to live with them again if a small baby is occupying his room! For this family a life of immoral behaviour can be redeemed if they choose to help the mother and take in her baby, whilst the life of a wayward parent who drinks too much and resorts to crime is expendable.

In the meantime, a film director arrives with his crew to make a record of the quiet day to day lives of these moral, upstanding citizens. But who, yes, you guessed it, decides to fall in love with the pregnant girl and finds her life, or at least her physical beauty, surprisingly more interesting than anything else in the village.

Just in case the television series should ever be made, I will hold back and not tell you what happens at the end of the novel.

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

Drusilla has the temerity to live as she chooses to live, without plans or ambitions for the future. This lack of fear and the ability just to live in the moment might be understood as a lack of intelligence, or, if one is being more tolerant, as a lack of guile. Richmal Crompton could not possibly comment, although what happens in the end suggests that guile and the passions of a moment, whatever form this takes, can get the most conventional of people into an awful lot of trouble.

And, no, Drusilla is not a gypsy. But it is an innocent gypsy baby in the opening scene of the novel who serves as a catalyst for the decision that each woman makes as they ‘lust’ after her baby. It is almost as if this ‘other’ person, this someone from a different world who lives outside the social conventions of village life, is offering something that these women cannot achieve in any other way. This is foolish and serves the social comedy in this novel well, but I would urge any reader not to underestimate Richmal Crompton’s purpose here. Her novels tell different types of stories and she uses a number of styles and structures, but ultimately she has a serious purpose; read, listen and you might learn something, for the lives of ordinary people are never quite what they seem. I will discuss this aspect of her writing further in forthcoming posts.

Richmal Crompton’s library tells a story

The archive at Roehampton includes Richmal Crompton’s personal library which was moved from her last home. This tells its own story about her reading and writing life. In forthcoming posts I will dip into this aspect of her life and share some of the material that the archive holds.

One such story lies in a number of books that are included in the library and were all published in the 1950s when Richmal Crompton was in her sixties. In one of these books she had placed within one of the pages a small inscription from the inside page of a long forgotten treasure. It looks like this:

(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

You can just see the initials C.L. under ‘Christmas 1911’. Clara Lamburn was the name of Richmal’s mother. This is her married name. Crompton being her maiden name and one that Richmal carried into her professional writing life. In 1911 Richmal would have been 21 year’s old, so perhaps this page comes from a special book given to her by her mother on her birthday. Although, this is only speculation on my part.

This is a fragment found in another book from the library. The front cover of the card has been torn off.

(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

My understanding is that John was the name often used for Richmal’s brother, Jack. So, this is another fragment, this time from her childhood, which she kept all her life.

And in another book from her library was this family momento. This is the front of a home made Christmas card:

(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

And this is the inscription inside the card:

(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

Now, Edward was the name of Richmal’s nephew and lying beside the card in the same pages of the book in which this Christmas card was found lay this portrait:

(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
(University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

Edward was blonde as a boy and it is possible that she has been sent a portrait of him. Perhaps it was painted by her sister, Gwen.

In the moment of looking at these books and fragments from her past we can feel a connection between the value of Richmal Crompton’s library, her individual books and these fragments which resonate so strongly with her family life. Of course I have made some connections of my own, but they feel authentic?