Family Roundabout (1948) by Richmal Crompton

Book Review by Kathryn R: This novel was written by the author of the ‘Just William’ stories. It appears that Crompton was the author of around 40 novels for adults.

It is set in the interwar years and is the story of two families, both headed by a widow. The Willoughbys are ‘new money’, the late Mr Willoughby having owned the town’s paper mill. Mr Willoughby has left all his money to his wife, who ensures that everyone behaves as she wants.

The other family, the Fowlers are ‘of the country’.

Mrs Willoughby pays for school fees so she inspects the children’s school reports and buys their clothes, so she has them made. She launders her vicar son-in-law’s surplices as the laundry won’t do a good job.

‘She ruled her grandchildren as autocratically as she ruled her children.’

She also supports ‘the poor relations’,

‘odds and ends of family, shabby old ladies who were great aunts or second cousins once removed, (who) drifted into the drawing room with a mixture of timidity and pride’.

‘Mrs Willoughby tackled the problems of the poor relations in the same practical spirit in which she tackled all her problems. Those who were not too proud to accept money were given money openly or in payment for some (not too strenuous) service.’

Mrs Fowler is a much more easy-going character, her Sunday tea-parties ‘informal and elastic affairs’.

The book opens with a description of Mrs Fowler as a young woman.

‘He (Henry) had been ten years her senior, and she had fallen in love with him at their first meeting, realising, even then how unlike she was to the wife he wanted. He wanted, she knew a ‘’little woman’’, clinging, adoring self-effacing ready to accept and defer to his judgement – a replica, in short of his mother. And deliberately, determinedly, she had set to work to make herself that woman, becoming, for him, stupid and docile, hiding her intelligence as though it were some secret vice. Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade and she had startled and hurt him by which he called her ‘’oddness’’, but on the whole she had been happy. She had known the price she must pay for his love and she had been willing to pay it.

Her name was Millicent but Henry ()had called her Milly. She always thought of the quick-witted quick-tempered girl inside her as Millicent.’

While her husband dies she maintains the personality she has had all her married life.

This honesty is a surprise to a 21st Century reader. I think a modern writer might observe such behaviour in another woman but would not be so accepting of it in herself.

The book describes how the two families are linked. While the men are alive there is little interaction between the families: Mr Fowler had thought the paper mill ‘an affront’.

The Willoughbys, Mrs Fowler thinks, that they felt the same contempt for Henry (Fowler), as Henry, half consciously felt for them. Henry was, in their eyes a useless member of the community’.

After the deaths of both men the families come closer together. Helen Fowler marries Max Willoughby, the eldest son and manager of the mill. The teenaged daughters from each family are best friends. The book describes the links between the families as well as the separate lives of the family members. The changing links between the families are reflected in the title. People get on and off the family roundabout sometimes by leaving and returning or just by leaving.

The story is told though the various children and grandchildren of the two families, just two of whom I will mention.

There is Helen Willoughby (nee Fowler) who is starting to behave more and more like her mother-in-law.

‘It was she who made the decisions, organsised the household and brought up the children. Max’s function was merely to earn the money necessary for these things. The children were like a miniature regiment, living their lives to an undeviating routine and obeying the word of command.’

Peter Fowler who is married to Belle, a very beautiful woman who Peter does not love. The reader is not expected to like her either. She is a very unsympathetic character, prone to mood swings and very unhappy. They have a nanny for their daughter Gillian. The nanny is a lady. The relationship between the three adults leads to sadness.

One reviewer I read found the stories dull and wanted a bit more of ‘Just William’ humour in the novel, but I liked the stories of the different family members, their relationships with each other and with the other family. There are odd moments of wry humour when Mrs Willoughby’s sons-in-law talk about her. I found the contrasting personalities of the two matriarchs interesting. I also liked reading about the power of money and the position of the middle classes and in particular the role of women between the wars.

It is also worth noting that Lythway Press thought it worth republishing in 1972 with a very ‘70s’ cover and that Sheffield City Libraries though it worth paying £1.50 for it.

I will read more of Crompton’s adult fiction.

Another review of the book can be found here.

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