Having sent off all my Mary Hocking books to Bello books on loan – I was thrilled when they sent me three of their Richmal Crompton print on demand editions as a thank you. Such print covers they are a lovely addition to my bookshelves.
The Old Man’s Birthday first published in 1936 is set in familiar Crompton territory – a large family, an English village, secrets and scandals and the exploration of personality flaws. Unashamedly cosy reading it was perfect for the busy tiring time I have been having.
The entire story (apart from various flashbacks) takes place on one day. It is the day of old Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday. Matthew is quite definitely something of a lovable old rogue, although he can be a curmudgeonly old so and so. Having to pit his ageing wits against the ridiculously high moral standards of his eldest daughter – who upon her widowhood moved back in with him – he is aided in all things by his valet, Gaston (almost as old as his master). His eldest daughter Catherine is a tartar, his spinster daughter Charlotte also living in his house, a fluttering, endlessly sentimental woman, neither she nor her sister are allowed into their father’s room without invitation, and Gaston is their sworn enemy.
“He lived mostly in this room, seldom appearing in the elaborately furnished drawing-room downstairs, over which Catherine and Charlotte presided. Here he would read, dream, smoke or play backgammon or poker with Gaston.
This last shocked Catherine more than anything.
‘Father dear.’ She said reproachfully, ‘there’s no need for you to play games with a servant. If you’d like a game of cards any time, we can ask the Vicar in and have a nice quiet game of whist.’
Matthew Rowston having reached his advanced age has a simply enormous family – most of who live in the nearby village. With his children in their sixties, his grandchildren are in their forties; his great-grandchildren are in their late teens and will soon be leaving school.
Who is the son or daughter of whom does become a little confusing – but the reader is able to soon sort that out – as Richmal Crompton is so good at exploring character – each individual family is fleshed out beautifully. Gradually as the novel progresses we learn their stories, see their faults and learn their secrets. In this extended family of Matthew Royston’s there are a lot of wounds which require healing.
“Daphne would often think of the old days and compare them wistfully, perplexedly, with these, but she shrank from thinking of the day – early in the summer holidays – that divided them, like a black abyss dividing a warm sunny landscape from a stretch of bleak desert. Even now she wasn’t quite sure what had happened.”
There’s Harold and his second wife Helen, Helen is already irritated by Harold who isn’t very exciting, Helen knows that she married Harold on the rebound, but has found herself unexpectedly becoming extremely fond of her stepdaughter Pen. Receiving a visit from her former fiancée throws Helen into a spin. Granddaughter Enid, daughter of Margaret, in her early forties, the driving force behind the village hockey team, is considering having an affair, feeling she has rather missed out on romance. Grandson Paul the local doctor and his second wife Lillian are in the midst of a furious row after Paul receives a letter from his ex-wife. Matthew’s elderly bookish bachelor son, is stuck in a rut of his own creating, while Pippa one of Matthew’s great-granddaughters is desperately unhappy – clever and eager to learn, yet destined to work alongside her dull father Arnold in his dull office.
In honour of Matthew Royston’s birthday a big family dinner is being organised for that evening, naturally Catherine is attempting to keep a tight rein on proceedings. However despite Catherine’s horror Matthew has invited his grandson Stephen to the dinner. Stephen it seems is the only member of the family to not live in the village, he has been living away for a couple of years with a woman who is unable to divorce her violent husband now committed to a psychiatric hospital. None of that would cause anyone to raise an eyebrow now of course, but at this time, it is a mild scandal, the younger members of the family being far less shocked than Catherine and Charlotte who don’t think that Stephen and ‘that woman’ should be allowed to corrupt the younger members of the family.
“The old man was not watching Beatrice, but he was conscious in every nerve of the graceful motionless figure beside him. Serenity, that was it. It seemed to surround her like an atmosphere. She wasn’t the sort of woman to ask for pity or even sympathy, so probably only God and herself knew what she had gone through with the brute who was still officially her husband, and yet out of all the stress and turmoil of it she had brought this radiance of serenity, so that as she sat there, silent, remote, warmth and light seemed to steal from her over the old man’s soul. And that odd sweet excitement that he couldn’t understand still held him. His heart was beating unevenly. Beneath the horde of memories that jostled each other through his mind – innumerable adventures in love, war, business, politics – a more distant memory was stirring, a memory so elusive that, try as he might, he could not capture it.”
When Stephen and his partner Beatrice arrive, Matthew can’t help but be absolutely charmed by his new granddaughter-in-law – with her beautiful face, her strange pure white hair and her gentleness. She reminds him inexplicably (for they looked nothing like each other) of Hope, his first, great but brief lost love – and from time to time he starts to confuse them. To help break the ice, and to ensure there is no awkwardness at his dinner Matthew insists on taking Stephen and Beatrice around the village to introduce Beatrice to each member of the family. Catherine is outraged that her father should exert himself so recklessly, and it is easy to see where she gets her stubbornness as Matthew sets off shakily to intercept his grandson, Gaston following close behind.
Beatrice appears to lay a soothing balm over the wounds of the various members of this family. By the end of that day, lives have been changed, and hurts begun to heal.
This is an adorable, charming read, gently nostalgic and utterly compelling. I can’t wait to read the other two Richmal Crompton novels I have waiting. Thank you Bello for a delicious treat.