Leadon Hill re-issued by Greyladies books turned out to be something of a surprise for me really. To be frank I had put off reading it for ages, after being told it was very light. I expected something like Angela Thirkell with added fluff but without her occasional sharpness. (I find I can only read Angela Thirkell if I ‘m in the right mood). What I found however – was a domestic novel that was certainly written with a lightness of touch – but is deeply engaging with fantastic characterisation. Crompton faithfully recreates the atmosphere of a small English village; Leadon Hill, a place which runs on gossip and spite, and the different factions which trade in it.
“Most of the better houses in Leadon Hill were known by the name of some tree that grew (or failed to grow) in their gardens. Of course there was a higher scale of names. Towers and Granges and Manors and Halls. The inhabitants of Acacia Road did not aspire to those. They knew their place. They were The Laurels and Laburnums and Elms and Limes. But they weren’t numbers. That was the class next below them – houses joined together without any gardens to speak of.”
Miss Mitcham, small and elderly is the power which must be feared in Leadon Hill, she and her band of vicious acolytes decide who is acceptable and who isn’t. She lives on a street which comes to an unexpected dead end, and watches from her window, with some satisfaction, the motorists who turn up the road in error only to re-appear in great confusion. Miss Mitcham employs a maid, aka The Treasure, who listens at keyholes, and reports back anything and everything she hears while out and about the village. Leadon Hill, or certain sections of it, looks always to Miss Mitcham to tell them what they think.
“He looked down in the direction of the village. ‘It’s a beautiful little place, isn’t it? And in the heart of it sits Miss Mitcham like a maggot in an apple, poisoning it. I think that woman will be rather surprised when she finds out, as please God she will one day, how wicked she is. She’s one of the wickedest women in the world.”
Marcia Faversham and her family are not Leadon Hill born and bred; they have lived in the village for about a year. They live on Acacia Avenue, in The Hawthorns, next door is The Chestnuts, a house also owned by the Favershams and in need of a tenant. Marcia has despatched her husband on a long talked about fishing trip with some old friends, and secretly looks forward to the peace she will enjoy while he is away. John is a man of rather particular, fussy traditions – and little imagination, he revels in his garden and is incapable of picking up on the undercurrents of snobbery and spite that run through the village, he takes everyone at face value. Marcia meanwhile is well aware that she is often the subject of village gossip and disapproval – but she doesn’t let it bother her too much. She has her three children, her golden son Hugo, over confident and sporty, gentle Moyna and little Tim who recovering from Polio struggles to keep up with his boisterous siblings. Marcia also has her allies The Elliotts – a writer and his wife – who also find themselves on the outside of the village cliques. John Faversham’s departure leaves Marcia to attend to the business of finding a tenant for The Chestnuts.
With news soon sweeping the village that The Chestnuts is let at last, speculation about the identity of the new tenant is rife. Miss West is duly installed, a wealthy young woman, who will live alone at The Chestnuts, she has lived her whole life in Italy as part of a bohemian artistic community. Helen West, strangely beautiful with extraordinary poise, makes a great friend of Marcia and young Tim, but with her unconventional upbringing, dark eyes, high cheek bones, not to mention nude figurine in her drawing room, she quickly becomes Miss Mitcham’s next victim. Miss West of course is good, very good, she is everything the horrid folk of the village are incapable of being.
In Leadon Hill Richman Crompton concerned herself in particular with the various lives of the villagers; a large cast of characters most of them deeply unpleasant. It’s difficult to find a redeeming quality among them; superficial Mrs Croombs and her silly equally superficial daughter Freda, who has set her cap at Sir Geoffrey the local gentry’s dissolute son, Miss Martyn stern and unsmiling, her younger ‘simple’ sister, Miss Dulcie who is quick to tears and confusion, knits misshapen garments for charity – that her sister then unravels on the quiet, poor Miss Dulcie is made happy by the thought of those garments..
“which she called ‘vests,’ and imagined as clothing a large class of unfortunates known vaguely and generally as ‘the poor.’ She felt a thrill of joy on a cold morning when she thought of the ‘poor’ warmly clothed in her ‘vests.”
The Miss Martyns’ niece, the sly and self-righteous Olive, has recently come to live with them, and quietly bullies poor Miss Dulcie. The idle vicar, who thinks rather too much of his ‘thrilling’ voice reads detective novels instead of writing sermons, and his wife who used to be a housemaid is desperate that no one should know of her past. Then there is Lady Dewhurst (Sir Geoffrey’s mother) who is content to let her tenants live in squalor, while the Painton sisters who live in such poverty they are slowly starving, are striving hard to hide their ‘shame.’ Gerald Croombs despising his mother, sister and almost everyone else in Leadon Hill allies himself with Olive in joint superiority over the villagers, that is until Helen West appears.
I think I probably enjoyed this novel so much because I wasn’t expecting that much from it – and chose to read it because I am in need of easy type reads at the moment (which it still is). The atmosphere that Richmal Crompton has created in the village of Leadon Hill is horribly oppressive, but makes for utterly compelling reading, I could hardly put the book down. There is more I would like to say about the brilliantly subtle way Richmal Crompton chose to end the novel (which I personally liked but suspect not everyone will), but really don’t want to spoil it for future readers, so I will just shut up.
So yes Leadon Hill is a light read in some ways, unashamedly middlebrow, with domestic village setting, but Richmal Crompton paints her village and its inhabitants very cleverly, she understands her characters and their motivations well, be warned though, future readers, you will want to throttle most of the characters.