Families are strange animals. Bound together (typically) by blood and background, members often find taste and temperament driving them apart. Richmal Crompton’s 1948 novel, Family Roundabout, explores this push and pull of family ties as experienced by the two most prominent families in a small English town. Each family is headed by a widowed matriarch who sets the tone for all family gatherings, but these matriarchs are as different as they could be. Kind-hearted, but sometimes vague Mrs. Fowler lets her children choose their own course and rarely interferes, even when she sees them going off the rails. Mrs. Willoughby, on the other hand, is something of a Tiger Mother, quick to take things in hand if any child, no matter how old, steps out of line.
So who is the successful mother? Which children are happiest and most successful? As the grown children marry—or not—and move away—or not, it becomes all to clear that the answer is neither, and both. Families are strange animals, and there’s no formula for getting it right.
Teresa: This is, I think, the fifth Persephone book that I’ve read, and every time I pick one up, I expect I’m going to get a nice light domestic novel, something of a comfort read. I really ought to get over that expectation because many of these books are quite dark. This one definitely was. It was an easy, quick read, but the story itself offered more darkness than light. Crompton picks at many of the nasty undercurrents of family life. There’s the deep-seated jealousy of quiet, plain (but pretty) Anice for the self-assured and elegant Helen. There’s Oliver’s feeling of smug intellectual superiority over his noveau riche manufacturing family. And of course, there’s the narcissistic and manipulative Belle who treats every word and gesture as a personal slight. As marriage brings more people into the mix, these conflicts spread and show signs of infecting the next generation. Not a comforting picture at all.
Jenny: You said that exactly right. I, too, was expecting something lighter (I think the title contributed to that feeling), and about three-quarters of the way through the book, I thought, “What more can Crompton devise to make her characters unhappy?” There is a lot of loneliness and bitterness here, and not much recourse for it.
I really liked the writing in this book. The characters were subtle and shaded, and I felt as if Crompton didn’t do much judging, even about her nastiest characters. Belle, for instance, is one of the vilest women I’ve read about since Undine Spragg, and yet you sense that there is a deep-seated and desperate insecurity underneath her machinations. I couldn’t condone her behavior, but I could just about feel sorry for her.
Teresa: Yes, as vile as Belle is, there are hints that there’s insecurity underneath all that, and it makes her feel real. I also thought Crompton did a nice job showing how the two matriarchs were both flawed and not. Sometimes I thought the balance tipped too much in favor of Mrs. Fowler, but there were moments like the one when Mrs. Fowler channels Mrs. Willoughby to get her granddaughter to a birthday party. Her usual vague agreeableness would have been all wrong.
I wonder about the view of marriage presented in the novel. Right from the start, it seemed like Crompton was showing how much women must give up in marriage. Mrs. Fowler talks about silencing the acerbic, intelligent “Millicent” within and becoming obliging “Millie” for the benefit of her husband. Alarm bells went off in my head! But it’s not like she’s unhappy as Millie, nor is Millicent completely gone. Maybe, too, some qualities are better off shed, like Anice’s jealousy and Helen’s independence. Belle’s unwillingness to give up the spotlight is a destructive force. Perhaps the question to ask is which sacrifices are worth making.
Jenny: You’re asking a complex question there, because it’s not as if Anice does shed her jealousy when she gets married. At first it looks as if her love for Martin may overcome her besetting vice, but ingrained habits prove too much for her. It’s the same with Helen, who settles in with the Willoughbys to become more Helen-ish than ever. But not being married doesn’t help, either. Oliver leads a fussy, smug, isolated existence in London: to some degree, he’s escaped from under his mother’s direct supervision, but he hasn’t found true happiness. Certain aspects of his personality have become exaggerated, and others have faded away.
Your idea about sacrifice is an interesting one, because something that virtually never gets mentioned in this book that begins in 1920 is the Great War. The boys particularly should have served, and Anice and Helen and the Willoughby girls should have been nurses or Land Girls or something. Why don’t we see more than a tiny glimpse of this larger sacrifice? Are these people unable to shed personal vice because they are exhausted?
Teresa: That’s a good question that hadn’t occurred to me, but of course these families would have to have been touched by the war. The omission is even more puzzling when you look at the mentions of the growing threat in Germany toward the end of the book. Everyone seems to dismiss it as nothing until the final chapters. They’re all caught up in their particular worlds with their own particular vices and obsessions. Maybe once the Great War was over, they just didn’t give it a thought, just as they only consider the incipient war when their own loved ones are in danger. That seems pretty honest to me—and true to the natures of these characters.
Jenny: That’s even more interesting given that the book was published in 1948, after everyone knew what the threat really meant to Britain and her small towns full of Willoughbys and Fowlers, people everyone knew. I agree that this story felt very isolated in some ways, but I return to what Carol Shields said about Jane Austen’s work in the biography I just read, about the “glance.” I felt as though Crompton was glancing at social class, at marriage and independence, at what it means to be happy, at gender roles and generational roles. She wasn’t tender with her characters (or her readers!), but her sidelong looks told a great deal of truth about social realities in a few words, and her portraits of people were acute, sketched with a lot of dry humor. I’m glad we finally read this book (my first Persephone!) I look forward to more.