Like many people, I read some of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books as a child but have never investigated any of her adult fiction. I don’t think I was even aware that she had written books for adults until just a few years ago when I discovered Persephone Books. This is the first Persephone I’ve read for a while and it has reminded me of all the reasons why I love reading the books they publish.
Family Roundabout is set in a small town in England in the 1920s and 30s and tells the story of two families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys, each consisting of a widowed mother with five adult children. The families are initially drawn together when Helen Fowler marries Max Willoughby, and as the years go by their lives become more and more entwined as various other family members form friendships, fall in love or become rivals. Some of these family members include Anice Fowler, quieter and less confident than Helen, whose envy of her sister could destroy her chance of happiness; Oliver Willoughby, reluctant to go into the family business but lacking the courage and the spirit to do something different; Cynthia Willoughby and Judy Fowler, whose friendship becomes strained after they have the opportunity to meet their favourite author, Arnold Palmer; and Peter Fowler, unhappily married to the spiteful, manipulative Belle.
Each of these characters has his or her own storyline and there are other Fowler and Willoughby children too – and later, grandchildren – so as you can imagine, there’s a lot happening in this novel. At the centre of the story, though, are the two people around whom all the others revolve: Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby.
Mrs Fowler was once Millicent, a strong, independent person with opinions of her own, but after her marriage she became Milly, obliging, submissive and gentle. Millicent hasn’t disappeared entirely, but Milly is now the dominant side of her personality. She is always there for her children when they need her, but takes quite a passive approach to parenting, rarely interfering and allowing them to choose their own path in life. Mrs Willoughby, on the other hand, is practical, efficient and likes to control every aspect of her childrens’ lives. Even after they marry and leave home, she continues to make decisions for them and tell them what to do. The author never judges these two different styles of mothering and it is left to the reader to decide which, if either, is the most successful parent.
Family Roundabout is a very character-driven novel and fortunately almost every character in the story is well drawn and interesting. There were some that I didn’t like (Belle has to be one of the most horrible, vile people I’ve come across in fiction for quite a long time) but I enjoyed following all of their stories through to the end of the book. I loved the portrayal of the self-absorbed author, Arnold Palmer, and I thought the child characters were very well written too, which is maybe not surprising from a writer who wrote so many successful children’s books!
There’s a lot of unhappiness in this novel, a lot of bitterness and jealousy, but there are also some funny scenes and some amusing bits of dialogue, which means it doesn’t become too dark. I’m not sure I would rank this among my very favourite Persephones but I did really like it. It’s a shame more of Richmal Crompton’s adult novels aren’t still in print, as I would definitely be interested in reading them having enjoyed this one so much.