Richmal Crompton is best known for her Just William stories for children, but she has also written a large number of books for adults. I read one of them – Family Roundabout – last year and enjoyed it, so I was pleased to see that Bello have been republishing several more of her adult novels, including this one, The Old Man’s Birthday.
Matthew Royston, the old man of the title, is preparing to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday with a family party to which he has invited all of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Nobody has been left out – not even Matthew’s grandson, Stephen, who has become estranged from the rest of the family because he is living with a woman who is not his wife. Not a problem in modern society, of course, but scandalous in the 1930s! Matthew is determined that Stephen’s partner, Beatrice, will be made to feel welcome, so in the hours leading up to the party he takes her from house to house to introduce her to the Roystons.
The whole novel takes place over the course of that one day, beginning with Matthew waking up on the morning he turns ninety-five and finishing with his birthday meal. In between, we meet each member of the Royston family – and as Matthew has five children and some of those have children and grandchildren of their own, there are a lot of characters to get to know! My advice to anyone planning to read this book is to draw a family tree as each person is introduced; it didn’t occur to me to do that until I was halfway through the novel, but it definitely would have made things much easier.
This is not a book with a lot of plot, but I hadn’t expected that it would be. The strength of the novel is in the characterisation; Crompton gives so much depth to every family member that on reaching the end of the book I was disappointed that I had to leave them all behind. I would like to tell you about all of them, but as I don’t want to spoil too much of the story for future readers I’ll just highlight two or three that I found particularly memorable. First there’s Enid, Matthew’s unmarried granddaughter, who runs the village hockey team. She’s probably not a person I would like in real life (despite the hero worship she inspires among the younger women at the hockey club) but she’s one of the strongest characters in the novel and I eventually found that behind her loud, overbearing exterior lies a shy and insecure woman whom she doesn’t want anyone to see.
Secondly, there’s Matthew’s son Richard, an elderly bachelor who has spent years running away from responsibilities and burying himself in his books. An unexpected friendship formed with one of his nieces on the day of the old man’s party could change Richard’s life for the better. And finally, there’s Pippa, one of Matthew’s great-granddaughters. Sixteen-year-old Pippa has always felt like a poor relation compared to her cousins, Pen and Daphne, so when she is given the opportunity to fulfil an ambition she’s determined to make the family proud of her. These three characters – and all of the others – are well-drawn and convincing, and considering that the novel only covers one day in their lives, we also see a surprising amount of character development.
I loved The Old Man’s Birthday, if I haven’t already made that clear! One slight criticism would be that I found the ending very easy to predict – but having said that, it was the perfect way to end the story, so I didn’t mind the predictability too much. I enjoyed celebrating Matthew’s special day with the Royston family and now I’m looking forward to reading more of Richmal Crompton’s books.
I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.