I finished Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton at the beginning of February, and I am excited to participate in the weekend by posting this review today. It’s a great novel, and I highly recommend it.
Family Roundabout is the story of two families, intertwined by a marriage, a friendship, and a relationship. The Fowlers are county gentry, while the Willoughbys are the prosperous middle-class owners of the local mill; until their children come in contact with one another, the two families have little to do with each other because of the class divide. The patriarchs of both died before the novel begins, and the matriarchs are the focus of the novel. Mrs. Fowler is a gentle, unassuming mother, never telling her adult children and teenage daughter what to do but always there for them when they make mistakes. Mrs. Willoughby, on the other hand, is controlling, always there to tell each of her children, their spouses, and her grandchildren exactly how to live their lives. Mrs. Willoughby often resents Mrs. Fowler because she somehow is able to influence situations without lifting a finger, just by being herself, while Mrs. Willoughby has to be on hand constantly to guide every situation. Mrs. Fowler, though, while feeling a bit disdainful of Mrs. Willoughby, envies her ability to make quick decisions and wonders whether it would not have been better to give her children a little bit more advice. When her husband courted her, she suppressed her personality to become the unassertive woman he wanted, and she now fluctuates between saying sarcastic things to herself about her children and going with the flow.
I found myself feeling much more inclined towards Mrs. Fowler. I thought her gentle care for her children and her willingness to let them make their own choices even if she feared they’d make mistakes was probably the better tact to take as a parent. At the same time, I found myself saying to her, “Just tell your daughter not to marry that man!,” or, “Tell that one to get over her jealousy.” Though there were times when she did bring out her opinion in extreme situations, I began to feel that her children would have been far happier if they’d been given a bit more guidance instead of always the gentle, comforting bosom on which to cry. And as Juliet Aykroyd states in her “Preface” to the book in the 2001 Persephone edition, “Mrs. Willoughby also shifts in our estimation. Her nurturing is to say the least unimaginative, but ‘tempered by genuine kindness.’ She is formidable but never malicious” (ix-x). Mrs. Willoughby may bully her children, but she does mean well. Her mode of parenting isn’t the best, but neither is Mrs. Fowler’s.
The two matriarchs are not the only subjects of this book. Family Roundabout follows the course of the two families from 1920 to the eve of the outbreak of World War II. Through a third person narrator, we hear from each of the children, sometimes their spouses, and the grandchildren. Crompton describes a situation or a character well, using very few words so that we know immediately who he/she is or what is going on.
The parenting of Mrs. Fowler’s and Mrs. Willoughby’s children is often explored. To put forward just two examples, one mother is controlling like Mrs. Willoughby, and a wife nags her husband, affecting their children. In these situations and others, the author shows the complexity of family relationships well. Crompton is adept at portraying grown children who were once raised in two very different manners who run into problems later in life, showing that all of them are liable to make mistakes.
All the adults have issues stemming from their childhoods, affecting their parenting, and it made me wonder if adding a couple who had sufficiently dealt with their issues and who were, on the whole, good parents though not infallible would have made a difference to the novel. On second thought, though, I don’t think it would because even children raised in good homes make poor choices later in life. After all, it’s part of being human to fail sometimes. Furthermore, probably nobody sufficiently deals with their issues enough so that they don’t affect any children they may have.
Overall, I really enjoyed Family Roundabout, and I highly recommend it.
Crompton, Richmal. Family Roundabout. London: Persephone Books Ltd, 2001. Print.
Aykroyd, Juliet. Preface. Family Roundabout. By Richmal Crompton. 1948. London: Persephone Books Ltd, 2001. v-xviii. Print.