Richmal Crompton was one of my great finds last year and Family Roundabout was one of my favorite reads of the entire year. Unfortunately the Persephone Books edition is the only title (I should say only adult title as I'm sure her Just William books are easy to come by even now) that's still in print. She actually wrote quite a few novels and short story collections, though I understand it was her Just William books that made her really successful (it seems I read somewhere that she considered William to be her her 'Frankenstein's monster'--a creation that took over her life). Although I do have one of the William novels on hand (and will get to it eventually), it's her adult fiction that I find so appealing and that she considered her serious work. She wrote about middle class family life with verve and sensitivity. I recently finished reading Frost at Morning and enjoyed it immensely. Her novels are lovely gentle sorts of reads, and I'm sorry they're so hard to come by.
After reading Family Roundabout I had to look for some of her other books. I managed to find one used from AbeBooks in the UK and another was kindly passed along to me by another reader, so I still have a copy of Linden Rise yet to read. Used copies of her novels seem to be difficult (and expensive) to find, but I am trying to locate a few more through my library's interlibrary loan service (if I can't own them, I can at least borrow and read them). As you might expect not many libraries in the US have her books on their shelves, but I might luck out and find a few. I've submitted requests for three titles, and either I'll get none or all three will come at once!
Frost at Morning was published in 1950, and my copy is a crusty old book with yellowing pages and a cover that's threatening to fall off (it's certainly seen better days), but I'm happy to have it. It was published by Hutchinson's Universal Book Club, which must have been the UK's version of our Book of the Month Club. It has a plain red cover and contains not a single descriptive word about the contents, so it was an adventure starting it. I had no idea what to expect, but I wasn't disappointed.
Richmal Crompton had a real talent for depicting children in fiction (perhaps why her William books sold so well?). They're the real stars of the story, at least they are in Frost at Morning. Philip, Geraldine and Monica join Angela in a small country Vicarage. The three children are meant to act as companions to Angela, the Vicar's daughter, while their parents are unable to care for them. Philip's father is off on his honeymoon following his second marriage, Geraldine's mother is having a baby (Geraldine is adopted), and Monica's mother is getting a divorce. Each situation is unique and each child has a distinct voice, and it's through their eyes you see the failings of the adults in their lives. The novel follows them as they grow up and cross paths again and again. It's an entertaining read and I found myself getting involved in each family situation in turn. The stories are all intermingled and tied together nicely.
I would love to share one passage with you, but it's a bit long, so I'll describe it instead. The vicar's wife is an author, who's a wonderful scatterbrained character. She always in the middle of writing several novels at once, potboilers really, with titles like Tangled Webs and Stony Paths, and Fallen Sheaves. It's only with the help of her secretary (who also doubles as a governess) that she can even keep the characters and plots straight. Crompton does a marvellous job of poking gentle fun at her, this 'Bohemian' woman. Anyway, on impulse she buys this embroidered Chinese shawl that she spots in a shop window that she thinks will "give her poise and serenity", but the fringe is constantly catching on anything and everything and she has to stop to disentangle it. In the end she grabs a pair of scissors and cuts off the fringe. Okay, so when I tell it it doesn't sound at all funny, but trust me, there are parts of the book that are very amusing. Crompton turns a wry eye on the faults and foibles of her characters.
I wonder how much Richmal modelled any of the characters on herself (I hear authors turn up often in her books). There is a biography of Richmal available that I'm contemplating ordering (though it is out of print and not very cheap for a used paperback). I'm curious to read more about her, but it's advertised as a biography of the 'author of the Just William' books. I'd like to know more about her and less about William, but that might just be a selling point. Has anyone read it and can recommend it? Although I'm still fairly new to Richmal Crompton's work, you can check out Simon's post on Richmal, who's also a fan (and notice the nice pile of books by her he owns!), and also Elaine's post, in case you needed any more urging to pick up one of Richmal's books! And hopefully you'll be hearing more about her from me, too, if I can get my hands on more of her work.