The Old Man’s Birthday & Caroline – Richmal Crompton

Yes, Richmal Crompton. That Richmal Crompton. The one who wrote all those Just William stories. She also wrote novels for adults (in fact more adult novels than Just William books if we’re counting…) and two of them are being reissued by Pan Macmillan (as e-books and print on demand). I have to admit I’ve never been a huge William fan – when I was the right age to read them I was distracted by stories about ponies, gypsies and boarding schools – so I wasn’t sure what to expect from these books.

5 61Q3HHR31HL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I shouldn’t have worried – Miss Crompton really seemed to know what she was doing when she wrote about families. And the stories are surprisingly modern – in The Old Man’s Birthday a 95-year-old man spends his birthday getting one over on his family who think he should be far more biddable (and act as they feel a respectable old man should) and the title character of Caroline is a rather controlling woman who has raised her young siblings and half-siblings, giving up her own youth and career plans on the way. I could see these characters – and their supporting casts – in contemporary novels about family life.

The tone of Caroline, in particular, is rather brittle, in a very 1930s kind of way. The Old Man’s Birthday is more of a romp, although there are still a lot of rather troubled characters in it, and I think I was impressed with the fact that Crompton could write in both styles. The plots have similarities – both involve the kind of convoluted family problems which can seem insoluble until just the right character turns up to show the family how they can solve them. I particularly liked the fact that in The Old Man’s Birthday all the ‘regular’ relationships – father/child, brother/sister, husband/wife – seem to be unhappy and it is those that have the less acceptable aspect – a couple living ‘in sin’, a step-mother – which show the way to happiness.

I looked up Richmal Crompton after reading these two novels. As an author she seems to understand all kinds of human relationships – familial, romantic, sexual – and has a particular sympathy for the young. Her background seems sometimes to help – she trained as a teacher and taught until she lost the use of a leg due to polio – but at other times you have to be impressed at the breadth of experience she wrote about considering she never married or had children. I think I would have liked her very much indeed – her courage in the face of illness and her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage movement just add an extra dimension to her writing.

Jane

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