A matter of words

I have been learning about Richmal Crompton’s love of words and her careful phrasing as I burrow away in her archive at the University of Roehampton. In a handwritten article, she shares part of her life as a wordsmith. She believes that each word has “a life & personality & character of its own quite apart from its meaning – some friendly, some unfriendly, some gloomy, some cheerful, some beautiful, some ugly”. She is interested in the feeling and meaning that words evoke and how this is connected to their sound:

“COSY You can’t say the word without being drawn into an atmosphere of closed curtains, a heaped up fire, the right book, the right person & the sound of rain on the window.

SUCCULENT You have to roll your tongue around the word. Just to say it makes the mouth water.

Say FRIGID aloud and the temperature will drop several degrees.”

You can hear some of her attention to tone in audio recordings of her interviews. In 1966 Richmal is responding to a criticism about the effect that William has allegedly had on many unsuspecting families:

“I did once get a message that William ‘has wrecked our home’ – I sent a message back that original sin was created long before I put pen to paper.”

The 1938 Club

This month I am excited to join The 1938 Club. You can browse posts about all sorts of books published in this year on the Stuck in a Book blog. Take a look.

Richmal Crompton.1

Journeying Wave (1938) by Richmal Crompton, available as an ebook, is a social satire about lives on the cusp of change, whilst others remain firmly rooted in the past. The imagery in the first sentence sets the tone for the novel: “The light filtered softly through the drawn curtains … and flooded the big square bedroom, which, despite the up-to-date furnishings, still retained a vague suggestion of Victorianism”. This is Viola’s room. She comes from a privileged upper class background and her marriage to Humphrey, her second, caused some consternation in her family. Humphrey runs a draper’s shop. Viola has all sorts of cultural interests that she cannot share with him given his limited education and one “part of her had been starved throughout the long years of their marriage”. As a result, she feels that she had “deliberately renounced her birthright for him”. She thinks they have been happy, but Humphrey is leaving her for a younger woman. Humphrey’s unfaithfulness is a “shock to her self-esteem”, and “her cheeks hotly flushed…. The whole thing was horrible”, but this is as much as we see of her emotions.

The novel then goes on to trace what happens to different relatives who are influenced by this upset in their insular and protected lives. Hester is older, supported in all aspects of her life by her twin sister, Harriet. She in turn looked after Humphrey for a short period when he was a child and news of his affair shatters her belief in him and her memory of the idyllic time they spent together. She feels lost and goes on a holiday during which she finds a new memory to enrich her life in a relationship with young friends who need her help: “The little episode existed in her mind perfect and complete in itself … It was her Escape, the one part in her whole life in which Harriet had no share, the part that gave her identity”. The memory of her time with Humphrey is a small fantasy, one that Hester replaces with this new experience as she withdraws once again into a life of inaction. A life in which she is happy, relying as she does on Harriet looking after her hand and foot.

Humphrey’s influence is more direct in the lives of other members of his family. Bridget, his young niece, feels over wrought amidst the social expectations of her relatives, especially her mother, but with Humphrey “she lost the feeling of uncertainty and bewilderment that was her usual attitude to life”. She feels that he accepts her for who she is, something that her mother seems unable to do. When Bridget learns about his affair this shatters her confidence in her decision to become engaged to someone that her mother does not like. However, she comes to realise that it was “as if she had been in a boat in a quiet stream and an electric launch had passed whose backwash had driven her boat from its course and nearly upset it”. This self-awareness helps her to get her life back on track and she decides to marry the man she loves, whatever her mother thinks about his class and background. Hilary, Viola’s son and Humphrey’s stepson, is also knocked off course by news of their separation and he is lead astray by a group of friends. However, despite the impending divorce, he realises that he still believes in Humphrey, in “his goodness and kindliness”, and this helps him to restore his sense of purpose as he rejects his friends’ dissolute way of life. In the meantime, Viola is being tempted into an affair with Adrian, although she comes to realise that he depends on her, whilst she has always been able to rely on Humphrey up to now.

Richmal Crompton Collection, Archives and Special Collections University of Roehampton

So, what of Humphrey? We learn that he has always felt that Viola “looked down on him from superior heights of breeding, education, intellect”. He feels her coldness when he tells her about the affair, as she remains locked “in her fortress of fastidiousness”. We also learn that lots of people rely on his kindness and care about him. The novel describes how Humphrey is called on to help both Bridget and Hilary. Bridget’s mother, Doreen, demands that Humphrey does something to avert her daughter’s disastrous marriage plans. He does quite the opposite and offers her fiancé a job. Doreen is aghast at this and the criticism she receives about her treatment of one of her servants. She snaps that, “Kindness was always misunderstood and misrepresented”. This seems to me to lie at the heart of the novel’s moral purpose.

Bridget and Hilary are examples of two young people who grow up during the course of the novel and come to realise how much Humphrey has meant to them and the extent to which he has helped them in all sorts of ways, without making a song and dance about it. Snobbery and dated social conventions about marriage and class are subtly challenged in this novel. The lives of those who look down on people with working class backgrounds are studied and found wanting. Young people, like Bridget and Hilary, seem to hold the future in their hands as older generations, like Hester, remain stuck in the past. Viola, in middle age, is in danger of losing sight of how much Humphrey means to her. Will she see the light? As ever, Richmal Crompton’s novel offers food for thought. She is not stuck in the past, although she realises that many people of her generation – she was in her late forties when the novel was published – might be.


Fans of the Archive

I would like to invite you into Richmal Crompton’s archive to hear the voices of her fans.

I have made a seven minute film about her fans, past and present. It is based in her archive at the University of Roehampton and was made in partnership with members of the Just William Society and Richmal Crompton’s family.

To see the film please click: https://vimeo.com/153080878

The archive includes fan letters from across the world, as well as other letters, manuscripts and documents that were part of both her personal life as a daughter, sister, aunt and friend, and her professional life as a writer. One can also visit her library taken from her last home by her family, which stands alongside her desk, chair and typewriter, as well as photographs and other mementos.

This film aims to bring the archive to life. In the film the ‘Just William’ stories written by Richmal Crompton, displayed on the archive’s shelves and shown in this film, original letters by her fans who wrote to her during her lifetime, and the views of her contemporary fans and family discussed in this film, come together to achieve a connection between the past and the present. It offers a chance to think about memories of childhood and the extent to which the childhood reading of her fans has gone on to influence their adult lives. But, part of Richmal Crompton’s conversation with her fans is missing in this film. We cannot, sadly, hear a reading of what she said to them.

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.