On my shelves I have quite a few “William” books. They have been there for some time and I can’t bring myself to part with them. In fact, over the last ten years Richmal Crompton has been my most read female author and yet, I have never read any of her adult books. When I heard that Bello, an imprint of Pan Macmillan dedicated to reviving forgotten classics was publishing a selection of Crompton’s adult books I was delighted. She was certainly a prolific writer. There are thirty-eight in her justly famous William series together with a number of other children’s books – I have a few from her “Jimmy” series (although I haven’t read these), but probably lesser known are her forty-one adult novels and nine short story collections. I was excited to see how her strong characterisation, charm and cheekiness which make her children’s books such a delight would influence her adult writing. Would I find, as I did when I first read Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle” that this writer I had always cherished as a child had superb adult books up her sleeve that I did not know about?
Well, the answer is, not quite, but that doesn’t stop this being a very readable and enjoyable novel. Matthew Royston wakes up on the morning of his 95th birthday, in sound health but with a blurred view of present and past. His intention is to unite his extensive family of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren before his celebration party. He aims to bring back into the family fold his grandson, Stephen, who has been side-lined because he has set up home with an already-married woman, Beatrice. Matthew had, like most of the family, never met Beatrice but when he does his distinction between now and his youth becomes further confused.
There are a lot of characters in this novel. I don’t think nowadays we are used to such extensive cast lists with characters that have only a minor part to play and Crompton is keen to see things from a lot of viewpoints, which can be confusing sorting out who is who between the generations, but there are certain characters who are able to make their presence felt. Matthew is central and his forthcoming party spurs other characters into action or into abandoning action which will change their lives. Some of the family members seen more rounded than others and for me, the book really comes alive at an afternoon tennis party where the youngsters dominate. There’s the fantasist Cressida, who could give William Brown a run for this money with her fanciful notions, there’s a love triangle brewing between two cousins and the Rector’s son, watched on by a number of lively supporting characters. Elsewhere in the novel it can all feel a little too retrospective for our modern tastes. It is well written (and Crompton must have been churning them out). All in all, a very pleasing discovery rather than a hidden classic.
The Old Man’s Birthday is published in August 2015 by PanMacmillan/ Bello . It is one of 11 of Richmal Crompton’s adult novels being republished.