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Family Roundabout

by Richmal Crompton
Persephone book no:

23 24 25

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155134

Richmal Crompton is famous for being the author of the William books, which sold over 8 million copies in her lifetime, but she also wrote forty novels for adults, the best of which is, in our view, Family Roundabout, a 1948 book about the life of two families during the inter-war years.

Family Roundabout centres on two matriarchs, around whom their two families spin. One is dreamy, laissez-faire, kindly and bookish; the other is controlling, managerial, efficient and energetic. 'Mrs Fowler's hands-off approach is on the face of it more appealing that Mrs Willoughby's repressive autocracy,' writes Juliet Aykroyd in her Preface, 'but in the end we are left pondering, What is a successful mother, or, come to think of it, a successful child?'

The two women try hard, but inevitably the family roundabout goes round and round, the riders go up and down, and both must accept their children as they really are, rather than as they would like them to be; for all their efforts, whether misplaced or well-meaning, as it used to say above nursery doors - 'tout laisse, tout casse, tout passe'. This is quite a sardonic book, certainly it is not anodyne, and the reader is led to conclude that neither Mrs Fowler nor Mrs Willoughby have spun the roundabout quite as they should. 


An example of 1940s 'peasant-art' style, the fabric shows prancing roundabout horses on a striped background; the faded pink is typical of the period (Mrs Fowler, one of the matriarchs, is especially fond of her 'faded cretonnes').

Picture Caption

Detail from a 1928 Southern Electric Railway poster 'Kentish Hills & Surrey Dales' by Ethelbert White

Read What Readers Say

Kathleen Jowitt

‘Family Roundabout’ is a gently-paced novel following two families headed by two very different matriarchs through the years before the Second World War. Mrs Fowler is a hands-off kind of a parent; Mrs Willoughby is quite the opposite. The plot follows their children, who are all grown up or almost grown up at the beginning of the book, through more or less ill-advised marriages, love affairs, careers, and attempts to leave the home town. Crompton is very good on the nuances of family dynamics, on the equally strong desire to escape and to be supported, of small feelings that become big problems. And the sense of comic timing that makes the William books hilarious serves her well here, although of course it’s more subtle, somehow meshing wonderfully well with the wistfully optimistic tone. The characters are neither too bad nor too good; one rather wishes that some of them would get their respective acts together, but sympathises with them nevertheless and understands why they just can’t.


‘Family Roundabout' is a well-written, critical observation of domestic drama and complex familial relationships. Mrs Fowler silently witnesses the trial and tribulations of her family. Mrs Willoughby rules hers with an iron hand. At the end of the story they have a remarkable conversation about family troubles recurring at cyclical intervals, almost like a constantly moving roundabout. Each of the characters and their relationships are described with remarkable clarity. Foibles in human character are acutely observed. None of the characters are perfect. They are all remarkably human and awaken the sympathy of the reader.

Categories: Childhood Family Mothers Widows

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