Book Review by Mary P: This adult novel from an author now best known for her Just William children’s books was published in 1950. Children are the main concern of the story, which unfolds over a period of 23 years. The novel centres around an unnamed village, in what I imagine to be the Home Counties, and the vicarage which becomes home to various children whose parents send them there to be cared for.
The vicar is neglectful of his own daughter Angela, concentrating on his clerical duties, and rationing the time he spends on anything to do with house and family. His wife is an equally neglectful parent. Mrs Sanders is a successful writer of romantic novels, and poems. She is bohemian, vague, extravagant and completely absorbed in the world of her own fiction, using the people she meets and the situations she comes across for her characters and plots. It is her idea to hire a governess, and to have paying boarders to keep her daughter company. The governess Miss Rossitor runs the household, and acts as a secretary and researcher for Mrs Sanders.
The novel is structured to begin at the vicarage in 1922, and to introduce the main protagonists. It then opens out after the children leave to return to their families. Each chapter concentrates on a different family, and we learn how life proceeds for the children, until they are once more united at the vicarage in 1945.
The novel centres on three children. Monica’s parents are in the process of divorcing. She is painfully shy, and desperate for a conventional happy home. She tries to make friends with village children to experience normal family life, but adults see her as knowing more than she should because of her parents divorce, and excuses are made to prevent her from visiting their homes and bringing what they see as contagion to their children. She returns to live with her mother to learn that her father has died. She realises that she must be indispensable to her mother to avoid being sent away. She is tireless in her attempts to fit in and to cover for her wayward mother, who descends from a glamorous and popular party goer to a washed out alcoholic.
Philip’s mother has died, and his father sends him to the vicarage whilst he goes abroad. When Philip returns home he finds that his father has remarried and he has a step brother with all the attributes that his father admires in a son, and which he himself lacks. Feeling excluded, he chooses to cut himself off from his family, and resist the well meaning kindly overtures of his step mother. He frequently turns to Gerry, the third child who boarded at the vicarage. He is attracted to the fact that she shows an interest in him, but is at the same time repelled by her neediness, and wish to control.
Gerry is adopted and she goes to the vicarage when her parents have a second child. She fears that she will be sent away, and like Monica tries to make herself indispensable to her parents. She is possessive, and controlling and this behaviour escalates as her family fail to challenge her. After her father dies, her mother and sister gradually distance themselves from her, and one day she returns home to a letter to say that they have moved elsewhere and that she is not welcome to join them.
In the last chapters the threads are woven together very swiftly. Monica’s mother dies and she is finally free to marry Stephen, Philip’s stepbrother. Gerry realises that her possessive behaviour pushes people away, and she and Philip marry. Angela having strung along several young men, realises she is turning into her mother and marries a local boy, and finds her fulfilment in marriage and family. They all meet up in 1945 at the vicarage, when they discuss how they were brought together by not being wanted in their own homes, and how this has affected how they have lived their lives.
Richmal Crompton’s themes in this novel are parenthood, and children. Compared to our contemporary child centred world, the world she describes is one of neglectful and indifferent parenting. I wonder whether the affect of WWI on the adults involved was a factor in their repeated failure to express emotions, although this is not mentioned. Parents repeatedly fail to tell their children vital information, and are blind to how they will feel as a result of changes in their family lives such as the arrival of a baby, or remarriage.
The core of the novel looks at how children navigate emotional neglect, and how this determines their thinking, feelings and behaviour usually in a negative and destructive way. The author is particularly good at expressing the pain that children feel as a result of the failure of parents to provide a consistent warm and loving environment for their children to grow up in. At times her descriptions of the cruelty of their behaviour is indeed shocking.
If I imply that this is a grim read, it is far from it. The author is often laughing at her characters particularly Angela and her novelist mother whose character is beautifully described, including her eccentric way of dressing, so we are able to see exactly what she looks like and to feel the embarrassment of her daughter. Is she based on an author that Crompton’s readers would have known, and so would they have been in on the joke?
The ending is for my taste too swift, and unconvincing. The threads should not have been tied up so conveniently, particularly Gerry’s sudden self knowledge making Philip able to marry her. The simplistic ending betrays the far more subtle content of the rest of the book.
Until recently, Richmal Crompton’s novels for adults were out of print, apart from Persephone Press publishing Family Roundabout, but recently Bello have republished several, in paperback and on KIndle. I think she deserves to be remembered for more than her Just William books, which some of us may have rediscovered through Martin Jarvis’ championing of them through audio books and on the radio.