I’ve always been a fan of Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ books for children. Liberally peppered with hilarious incidents and cringeworthy escapades, it is hard to think that Crompton could be capable of writing a sentence that was not funny. I was therefore, intrigued to discover Crompton was a prolific writer of adult, ‘serious’ novels. ‘Family Roundabout’ published by Persephone books, is my first experience with Crompton, writing a non-William book and I must say that I rather enjoyed this alternative voice of Crompton too!
Excerpt: This Persephone book looks at the complex relationship between two neighbouring families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys, whose outlooks on life, are on one hand in opposition to one another, but on the other hand, find their paths unavoidably intertwined. Both the matriarch’s of the families, keep a close eye on the fates of their beloved families, but employ different styles in guiding them. Mrs Willoughby, has control of the family fortune, and dictates the actions of her family members by way of controlling the money she endows them. Benevolent Mrs Fowler, watches silently, as her children fall in and out of their individual problems. Most of her children appeal for her help when they require it. But despite, however, much the mothers’ try to resolve their children’s problems, new troubles, recur in cyclical events, almost like a roundabout.
- Title: Family Roundabout
- Author: Richmal Crompton
- Published: 1948 by Hutchinson , later published by Persephone Books in 2001.
- Location of the story: rural England, in the years preceding World War II.
- Main Characters: the two families: the Fowlers and the Willoughbys.
Family Roundabout, essentially deals with the domestic events occurring in the neighbouring households of the Fowlers and the Willoughbys. At the start of the book, both the patriarchs of the families have died, leaving their wives at the helm of family affairs.
Mrs. Fowler or Millicent has for so many years moulded her personality to suit the requirements of her husband and family, she has forgotten that she has an individual voice of her own. Quite interestingly, in the first few pages of the book we are introduced to the concept of Millicent having a split personality of sorts- that of the muddle-headed, self-effacing, diminutive ‘Milly’ and also that of ‘Millicent’ – a more discerning, quick-witted, astute individual with a sharp intellect.
Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade
We see in the course of the novel, Mrs Fowler, taking judicious steps to guide the progress of her family but always hiding proof of any deliberate intentions under the ruse of the bemused ‘Millie’.
The Fowlers are a large family who live in Langley Place, a country house located in the small village of Hurstmede, three miles away from the country town of Bellington. When Henry Fowler dies, he leaves behind Millicent, and their five children: Matthew (28) (living abroad in Kenya), Peter an architect (26)(married to Belle), Anice (24), Helen (22) and the youngest Judy, a schoolgirl of 16.
Willoughby, the owner of a large paper-mill, leaves his money in its entirety to his wife, Mrs Willoughby who chooses to distribute this money to her children as she sees fit. As a result she has complete control over the movements of her children. Dasg and dash, wedded to dash and dash respectively, respond to Mrs illooghby’s beck and call much to the consternation of their husbands. But household expenses, clothes and school fees are paid for so there is little or no protest. Max, as the eldest son, takes over as the de facto head of the mills. The youngest son, Oliver, has literary aspirations to publish a novel but his ideas are met with strong disproval from his mother and he forced to at least appear to work in the family business.
While Henry Fowler and Willoughby were alive the two families paths seldom met. They were separated from one another by a vague idea of class difference and contempt for each other’s standing in society.
The Fowlers were of the county, while the Willoughbys were of the town.”
After the death of the two patriarchs Max and Helen decide to marry, thus unavoidably intertwining the paths of the two families. Cool and calculative Helen meets with her mother-in-laws approval and is usually consulted regarding all family affairs. The two youngest children of the respective families, Judy Fowler and Cynthia Willougby are close friends and go to school together. They share a shared juvenile obsession for a famous contemporary author.
Slowly, we are introduced into the individual lives of the Willoughbys and Fowlers. We learn that Peter Fowler has an unhappy home that he shares with his neurotic, manipulative wife Belle and their young daughter Gillian. Peter has a close bond with his brother Matthew, who lives in Kenya , but who frequently writes to their mother about his intentions of returning to his family home.
Anise, close in age to Helen, has grown up in her beautiful younger sisters shadow, marries a poor bookshop employee four of love and lives an unhappy life constantly trying to compete with her wealthy sister Helen. Judy, grows up to be a beautiful young woman, and she and Oliver , the youngest Willoughby fall in love with one another. Mrs Willoughby, disapproves of the alliance, and tries to discourage Oliver from marrying her. Judy, yearning for the city life, cajoles Oliver into forsaking his position in the family business and tries to convince him to live an independent life in the city as a writer, However, timid Oliver finds himself constantly mustering up the courage to make this tremendous leap into financial insecurity.
Mrs Fowler, silently witnesses the trial and tribulations of her family. She waits in the sidelines, anticipating each wrong turn that her children and grandchildren might make and silently tries to steer them in the right direction. She suffers silently and is often unable to make matters right.
Mrs Willoughby, on the other hand, rules her family with an iron hand. Though she is benevolent and kind to her extended family, several of them poor and aged, she is often dictatorial and uncompromising with her immediate family.
Both women have the well being of their families foremost in their minds, whatever, their methods of dealing with their family problems might be. At the end of the story the two women have a remarkable conversation about family troubles, recurring at cyclical intervals,almost like a constantly moving roundabout.
Family Roundabout by Crompton is a well written, critical observation of domestic drama and complex familial relationships. Crompton simultaneously relates the interplay of several plot threads. Each of the characters and their relationships are described with remarkable clarity. Foibles in human character are acutely observed. None of the characters are perfect. Each one of them has their own individual shortcomings and they are remarkably human. They are prone to make mistakes, and just as their mother’s rush to their sides to offer them assistance, so too do they awaken the sympathy of the reader.