Funny how Caroline’s eyes betrayed her exasperation rather than her voice or manner. They were almost grey when she was pleased, but they turned a clear cold blue when she was annoyed or irritated. (ch 2)
In Caroline and other novels, like Narcissa (1941), Richmal Crompton explores appalling, outrageous, even monstrous behaviour masquerading as normal; its roots; and the damage it can cause. (You might argue that she does something similar with William Brown, her most famous character, whose behaviour often qualifies, but in William there is the saving grace of humour, and he is just a child.)
After the deaths of her father and stepmother, 18 year-old Caroline becomes responsible for her sister, Marcia, her half-brother, Robert, and half-sisters, Susan and baby Fay. Although an academic girl, she gives up her university place and teaches in a local school. She manages the precarious family finances to her brother’s and sisters’ benefit, often denying herself in the process. As the novel starts, Marcia, Robert and Susan have all married and left home, leaving Fay, now 18, who is studying hard for a scholarship.
Caroline is much admired by her friends and neighbours, and much loved by her family. She has willingly sacrificed her own life for others, and has never shown any doubt or resentment. For her, duty is all. This was the lesson impressed on the ‘naturally serious and docile’ girl by her father, Gordon (ch 7).
He was not unkind, but he repressed them [Caroline and Marcia] continually, checking their childish exuberance, trying to instil into them almost from babyhood his own exaggerated sense of duty and responsibility. (ch 7)
What no-one acknowledges is that Caroline exacts a terrible price for her dedication. Her brother and sisters must accept her guidance without question. They must have no secrets from her. They must obey her and express their gratitude. Fay, the only one still at home and regarded by Caroline as her own child, is a born musician, but Caroline decrees that teaching is to be her future.
‘It was Fay’s own suggestion [to stop playing piano],’ she said. ‘She knows she can’t afford to fritter away her energies just now. It was her own idea, too, to give up her music lessons last year. She felt she hadn’t time for anything but her scholarship work, and, of course, while the piano was there it was a constant temptation.’ (ch 2)
Here is Fay’s recollection of the decision:
[Caroline] had talked to her so kindly and earnestly, showing her that those hours spent at the piano were a futile waste of time, that her love of music was a self-indulgence that must be conquered at all costs because it interfered with her real duty. In a state of emotional exaltation Fay had offered to give it up all together, and Caroline had kissed her solemnly and said, ‘Darling, you’ve made the right choice, as I knew you would. You’ll never regret it.’ (ch 3)
After years of practice, Caroline’s technique is polished. She doesn’t order or argue. Rather she suggests gently, always making it clear that she is acting only out of love, in her sister’s best interests. The pressure is so subtle and relentless that Fay is blind to it. Oh there may be a faint feeling of uneasiness and even fear, but Caroline loves her devotedly – why, she’s always telling her that – so how can anything be wrong?
Caroline wouldn’t be cross with her, but her eyes would go rather blue and it would all be spoilt. Caroline would think it cheap and silly (though she wouldn’t actually say so), and it would become cheap and silly as soon as she’d told Caroline… (ch 3)
Caroline chooses not to see the awful strain she imposes on Fay, who overworks and longs for her music.
She felt stupid and she kept forgetting things….of course, it would be better to die than to disappoint Caroline [by failing]. (ch 12)
When she does get a chance to play, away from Caroline for a day, she relaxes at once:
And as she played all the tenseness of her spirit had relaxed, and she had forgotten everything else in the world – even Caroline and the scholarship. (ch 12)
Susan and Robert, despite having their own homes, suffer similar interference. Caroline must come first, and a brother’s wife, a sister’s husband, comes a very poor second. Loyalty is everything, and even a passing interest in someone or something else is disloyalty. Only Marcia, older than the others and safely in London, has escaped. ‘I never got on with Caroline,’ she says. ‘Right down at the bottom, I’m frightened of her.’ (ch 14)
Caroline’s world is shaken when she invites her recently widowed mother, Philippa, to stay. Philippa has lived abroad for years, after leaving her husband for another man when Caroline and Marcia were very small. There was a divorce, and both Gordon and Philippa married again, only for Gordon and his second wife, Nina, to die, leaving Robert, Susan and Fay. Caroline imagines that Philippa, ‘a wretched, broken-down woman’, will become another follower, grateful for her daughter’s magnanimity and awed by her devotion.
‘Mother darling … don’t cry like that. … It’s all right. … You’ve come home. … I’ll look after you now … always.’ So real was the scene that she seemed actually to hear herself say the words, and as she did so the familiar glow of self-sacrifice pervaded her whole being. (ch 3)
Philippa, however, is not the penitent her daughter expects: sophisticated and cool, she does not seem to need, or want, forgiveness and is (it has to be said, implausibly) accepted into local society at once. Horrified, she observes Caroline’s authority and intensity; and so makes it visible to others. New to the situation and worldly, Philippa has the necessary perspective. She understands how Gordon’s sense of duty has taken root in, and twisted, the already strong-willed Caroline at a young age.
This house of Caroline’s was charged with electricity, and at any moment an explosion might occur. … At every turn [Fay’s individuality] was hampered and thwarted by the sultry unhealthy emotion that Caroline called her ‘love’. [ch 13]
Perceptive Marcia, drawn back into the family circle, agrees. Caroline’s ‘possessiveness is a sort of disease’ (ch14):
‘[Caroline] fought like a demon…to keep them as dependent on her as they’d been when they were babies. She never let them see what she was trying to do, of course – she’s too clever for that – and they adore her…If it weren’t so horrible, it would be funny.’ (ch 14)
If Richmal Crompton carefully describes Caroline’s methods and their results, she says little about why Caroline is as she is. Her childhood was unsettled, to say the least, as she lost three parents early and, inexperienced and not quite grown up, was left to do their job within the family, with little money and no support. Philippa, for all that she is so clear-headed, appears unwilling to accept any responsibility for the past. She tells Marcia that she never worried about leaving Caroline: ‘even at four Caroline was eminently capable of looking after herself…’ (ch 14). She seems to see the four year-old as already beyond help:
[Gordon] had already succeeded with Caroline. She was not a prig exactly – there was something too sweet and sound at the core of her for that – but she was earnest and conscientious, imbued with an anxious desire to do her duty and fulfil her responsibilities that was as ludicrous as it was pathetic in a child of four. Already she was looking at Philippa with disapproving eyes. (ch 7)
With this background and personality, it is unsurprising that Caroline grows up with a desire, a need, to control people and events, and to make a stable, safe environment. Is she aware of what she does and why? I don’t think so. She knows that she manages people, but it is in her mind all for their own good. When it comes to a crisis, she blames, not herself, but Philippa, the ‘devil’ who has ‘taken them all … one by one’ (ch 20) and so ruined her life. Philippa retorts that Caroline doesn’t love her family, but rather herself in them and her ‘power over them, their dependence’ (ch 20).
After the dreadful clash with Philippa, it is suggested that, with help, Caroline can, may, change. But, after thirty years of self-delusion, you have to ask yourself if this is possible.
Pe.haps that was the lesson she had to learn from life – the lesson of loneliness, the lesson of not lowering her high standards to conform with those of people around her. Alone upon the heights. … She saw herself, a pathetic figure, alone, always alone, struggling along unaided, staggering under the weight of her too great burdens, but never sinking under them. It was, in a way, a gratifying picture, and as she contemplated it, her serenity gradually returned. After all, whatever happened, she had one great comfort. She had done her duty. She had nothing, nothing whatever, to reproach herself with. (ch 11)
Richmal Crompton was not perhaps the most subtle of writers, but she could create the most compelling characters.