Caroline, and Narcissa by Richmal Crompton

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By Elaine Simpson-Long

As a long time fan of the adult novels of Richmal Crompton, I was delighted to hear that Bello, the digital print arm of Pan Macmillan, is reissuing some of these titles. I have about twenty of this author’s books on my shelf and they have been the result of internet searches, scrabbling around in second hand bookshops and hard bargaining when some of the titles have been too expensive.

I first came across Richmal’s adult novels when Persephone published Family Roundabout, the story of two families and their respective matriarchs and their relationships with their children.  It was an absorbing story, one to be read straight through and then, of course, I was off on a hunt for more Crompton adult novels.  They were all out of print and quite difficult to track down, so Bello is doing a great service with these reprints. Among the titles being reissued are Chedsy PlaceNarcissaMerlin BayCaroline, The Holiday, Steffan Green, Portrait of a Family, and Journeying Wave.

Richmal Crompton and Frances Hodgson Burnett would not seem to have a great deal in common, but one thing that they have both suffered from is being viewed only as authors of children’s books.  Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote over fifty books for adults but most modern readers think of her as the author of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy.  While FHB was very happy with the huge income generated by these books, she sometimes felt her other works were neglected.

Richmal Crompton suffered the same fate complaining that all her adult writing was forgotten and all people were interested in was William:

for many years I looked on William as ‘my character’. He was my puppet. I pulled the strings. But gradually the tables have been turned. I am his puppet.

She wrote the William series alongside her adult books and on checking her list of published works, I realised she seemed to churn them out at an amazing rate.  In 1927 alone she produced three William books, two full length adult novels and a collection of short stories, which is a huge output by any standards.

I had a glorious week when I did nothing but sit down and read all the Crompton titles which Bello kindly sent to me, and became totally immersed in them all, starting the next one as soon as I had finished the previous title. This is probably not the best way to read them but I am afraid I cannot ration myself when such goodies are to hand and I always indulge in binge reading.

Now, much though I adored all these books, and all the other titles I own by this author, they are variable in quality. This is inevitable when you are writing so many, especially considering the William books were also being produced alongside her adult stories, and I did sometimes feel that some of these were ‘pot boilers’ or written for a publisher deadline.  This did not make the books that I felt fell into this category any less enjoyable but it certainly threw into contrast those others which I felt were streets ahead of the standard issue.

The titles I feel are the best out of those currently republished are Caroline and Narcissa from 1936 and 1941 respectively. They both they centre closely on a character whose desperate desire for being the most important person in their own, and their family’s, life, leads to an overwhelming egotism and narcissism and a total lack of empathy or understanding of anything or anybody which does not fit into their particular view of themselves.   This character surfaces in various guises in most of Richmal Crompton’s books to a greater or a lesser degree: the wilful blindness to all outside feelings and the total and utter conviction that one is right.

Caroline gave up a university place and sacrificed her future to look after her brothers and sisters when her parents’ marriage broke up and her mother left the matrimonial home. She has done everything for them and has made them so in thrall to her that they are unable to organise their lives or to do anything without consulting her.  But with Fay, her younger sister, the bonds are beginning to break:

It wasn’t going to be easy. But why shouldn’t it be she asked herself impatiently. Why should she have this terrible feeling of guilt whenever she asked permission to go to tea with any of her school fellows?   She was crying because she was unhappy and tired because she loved Caroline so terribly and yet was so hatefully disloyal to her….

Caroline hears from her mother who is returning to the country after living many years abroad and, seeing the opportunity of practicing magnanimity and forgiveness, she welcomes her home. But her mother is not the remorseful, downtrodden figment of Caroline’s imagination and her arrival sets in motion a train of events which will eventually bring about the breaking of Caroline’s dominance.

Narcissa is really quite a frightening book as the heroine, Stella, is positively Hitchcockian in her behaviour. The portrait she has decided to present to the world is one of light, gaiety and charm coupled with a deprecating casual dismissal of her ‘nobility’ and goodness to her friends and family. She is Caroline, only darker and more dangerous.

We first meet her as a young child awaiting the arrival of her new governess Miss Fairway who, after suffering very tedious posts and dealing with badly behaved and difficult children, is delighted to have such a charming and loving child in her care.

I hope that I have not drawn the Picture of a Little Prig for the child is far from that. She is full of gaiety and good humour and can romp as whole heartedly as any child I have known….you will declare that the child has bewitched me and in a way this is true.

But it is not long before Miss Fairway falls foul of Stella or rather Stella’s image of herself:

It was the same blinding but strangely impersonal anger that had seized her when she heard Ivy call her a ‘sly little piece’. It was as though she had to stand by and watch something beautiful being despoiled.

Stella wastes no time in painting a false picture of Miss Fairway and her supposed cruelty and she is dismissed.

She thought of Stella, so sweet and docile and affectionate and suddenly she realised that though she had believed herself supremely happy in this house, there was nothing she so much wanted as to get away from it, nothing she so much longed for as a rough, noisy, naughty, normal child….”

In Narcissa Richmal Crompton has created a monster and I found it rather difficult reading as it is relentless. Nothing, no circumstances or events can shake Stella’s picture of herself. Each time this is shattered and she is forced to face reality she moves away from anybody who might see through her and creates another portrait, ruthlessly wiping out the past.

Out of all the Crompton books I have managed to read and acquire this is the most chilling, and I think her best. I would love to know if any of these egoists who so brilliantly people the pages of her titles are based on a person in Richmal’s life. I simply cannot imagine that this constant and, sometimes, bitter writing came from nowhere.

I remembered reading a biography of Richmal Crompton by Mary Cadogan some years ago and I shall have to re-read it as I seem to remember that the main thing that struck me on my first reading was what a quiet, slightly dull life she led. Okay, writing over sixty books is hardly uneventful by any standards, but apart from that she led a blameless existence.  One presumes that she lived through her characters and, like them, her facade concealed hidden depths. After reading and rediscovering these titles I am beginning to feel that she is not all she seems……….

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Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings

Read Five Fascinating Facts About… Richmal Crompton in our BookBuzz section here.

Richmal Crompton, Caroline (Bello: London, 2015). 978-1509810055, 240pp., paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s
Richmal Crompton, Narcissa (Bello: London, 2015). 978-1509810239, 240pp., paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s