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Posts Tagged ‘Richmal Crompton’

chedsyplace

This was my final read of 2017, I never can manage to tidy things up satisfactorily. Chedsy Place was a marvellously compelling little read, unfortunately the last of the Richmal Crompton novels I had tbr, and I mustn’t buy more just at the moment (I am making an effort to manage my book buying, and so I’m attempting to not buy during January – I am waiting on a couple I ordered at the end of December, and one I have had on pre-order for months).

Richmal Crompton of course famous for her Just William stories for children, wrote quite a number of novels for adults and this is the fifth of them that I have read.

What I am finding with Richmal Crompton, who I am finding I very much enjoy – is that, beneath a veneer of cosy, middlebrow domesticity there lurks something rather less comfortable. In her novels The Old Man’s Birthday and Narcissa – particularly the latter – there are some wonderfully monstrous characters, complex relationships and family discord existing within a well ordered, conventional world. Chedsy Place has elements of both of those novels, as we find ourselves in the company of some rather unpleasant people – as well as those who are lovely. Characters imprisoned in their own lives by the tyranny of those around them or the quirks in their own personality. Some of these people may be about to break free, others will not, destined to remain in the state in which we first find them.

When Robert Beaton unexpectedly inherits Chedsy Place, he feels deeply nostalgic for the world of his childhood. Now happily married to Celia, Robert had shrugged off his painful longing for the place he had been so happy growing up. Instead, he has found a peace and contentment running a farm and making a reasonable living. Robert is a realist, he knows only too well that running a large country house like Chedsy Place is prohibitively expensive – and that the only thing he can do is to arrange for the place to be sold as quickly as possible. Every day the house is in their possession, it is costing them money. The only servant from the old days left in the house is Mrs Hubbard who shares Robert’s bittersweet nostalgia for former times.

“Mrs Hubbard stood watching them till they had disappeared round the house, then she went slowly back to the hall, through a green baize door, down a flight of stairs to the kitchen regions. The housekeeper’s room was the largest room in the basement except for the kitchen itself. In it was a square table covered with a red serge cloth, a comfortable basket chair, and a big old-fashioned fireplace. An enormous dresser took up one side of the room, and there was a sink, with taps and drying board, beneath the window. On the window-sill, catching what light there was, stood several bowls of lilies of the valley just coming into flower. Except near the window the room was so dark that, it had to be lighted artificially all day, but there was about it, when lighted, a cheerful cosy air. It had been Mrs Hubbard’s home for fifty years.”

Sad that her husband must sell a house so dear to him Celia comes up with what she considers a brilliant solution. Celia, bright, optimistic and forward looking is a marvel at organising and managing things – her help in running the farm has been invaluable. Now, Celia hits upon the idea of opening Chedsy Place up again – just as it would have been in former days, fill it with staff, a butler, footmen and maids and open it up to paying guests for Christmas. Her idea to produce something between a country house and an hotel, to advertise for quality people who will enjoy a traditional country house Christmas. Such is her enthusiasm, and her powers of persuasion, that she has no idea how abhorrent an idea all this is to Robert. To see his beloved family home turned into a glorified hotel full of strangers makes him shudder.

“He felt oddly ill at ease with Celia. He didn’t know what to say to her. He avoided being left alone with her. On the rare occasions when they were alone together, she would praise the house to him, remembering how in the old days he had loved to talk about it, not realising that to him Chedsy Place didn’t exist any longer.”

Celia, not one to shy away from hard work sets herself to her task, while Robert goes back to his farm, she works day and night with Mrs Hubbard’s help to get the place ready. A few days before Christmas she is ready to welcome a house full of guests, and Robert is also due to arrive and see for himself the extraordinary transformation.

Soon the house is filled with a mix of characters, not all of whom Celia is immediately taken with. A bitter young woman led into ‘bad ways’ by arrogant, selfish men. A middle aged academic stuck in a rut, trying before it is too late to socialise with new people. A cold, vicious beauty and her horribly bullied companion/secretary, who arrive driven by a handsome young chauffeur. A former soldier, blinded in the war and the wife he relies upon but regrets marrying. A devoted couple, with three of their four children who know their parents would rather be with their baby sister – the surprise child of their middle age – left at home with the nanny. A repressed and miserable young man bound for the church and his horribly eccentric aunt, who has been the bane and embarrassment of his life for years. A vicar recuperating from an illness and his garrulous wife. A selfish, cynical man, his sister and his wife; once a society beauty, now disfigured following an accident – he thinks he knows how to get what he wants from women, and has no respect for his poor wife.

While Celia runs around trying to keep everyone happy and ensuring everything runs to plan, Robert has to grit his teeth, as he finds himself treated like a member of staff by the guests paying to stay in his house.

Richmal Crompton manages to squeeze a lot of individual stories into this fairly short novel (my Bello edition is 220 pages) some stories take more prominence, but characters are well drawn and deftly explored, and all this makes for a book fairly hard to put down. I certainly enjoyed this novel, though it would be fair to say it is my least favourite of the five Crompton novels I have read.

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Every now and then I read a review of a novel – where the reader admits to not having liked the book because they didn’t like the character(s). While I understand that readers need to be able to engage with characters on some level, I never feel I have to actually like them – I often find unlikeable characters fascinating. Nevertheless, I feel I should issue you with a warning – if you don’t engage with unlikeable characters – steer well clear of Narcissa.

In Stella Markham, Richmal Crompton has created a monstrous narcissist, hiding behind a constantly evolving role that she has perfected. There is a lot that is unsettling about this novel, Richmal Crompton has created a character who – though perhaps not very subtly drawn – is horrifying and just real enough to haunt the reader after the book is closed. I admit I could barely put it down.

We first meet Stella in 1887, when she is just a little girl. Seemingly, a perfect Victorian child, Stella was orphaned when she was quite tiny, and lives with her Aunt Fanny. Fanny adores Stella, is inordinately proud of her – desperate to save her from the desolate kind of childhood she herself endured. Most of Stella’s days, are spent alone with Fanny in her large, gracious home in Runeham, where Fanny strives to teach Stella herself. There comes a point when Fanny decides, somewhat reluctantly that Stella needs a governess, Fanny has been finding it harder to teach her – and so it is with some nervousness that she engages Miss Fairway. Miss Fairway is a sensible, experienced middle-aged woman, weary from a succession of dull posts, she is soon under the spell of this loveliest of children too. For a time, the household is perfectly happy, Miss Fairway is blissfully happy in her new post, dimly aware that little Stella is very good at diverting her governess away from the things she doesn’t enjoy learning – like division and historical dates. The summer slips along perfectly pleasantly– until, that is, things don’t go Stella’s way. There comes a day when suddenly, Miss Fairway finds her view of Stella utterly changed.

“She thought of Stella, so sweet and docile and affectionate and suddenly she realised that though she had believed herself supremely happy in this house, there was nothing she so much wanted as to get away from it, nothing she so much longed for as a rough, noisy, naughty, normal child….”

The few playmates who are occasionally invited worship Stella too. There is Hugh Carlswell – the son of Sir Miles and Lady Carlswell – already a young squire in the making, though one with the beginnings of a social conscience – he wants to do things differently from his father. Biddy is the vicar’s daughter, endlessly untidy, badly dressed and with a mop of red hair – Biddy is slavishly devoted to her beautiful little friend. Paul Sanders is the son of a school master – though his mother (seen by ‘society’ as impossible) means Fanny doesn’t really consider him a suitable friend – though she acknowledges he is a perfectly nice, well-spoken child. Paul adores Stella too, to him she is nothing short of perfection and Stella is kind to him accepting of his society. When Biddy’s cousin Doreen comes to stay, Biddy can’t wait to introduce her to Stella. But, Doreen isn’t so easily beguiled by Stella – and sees something in her that the others can’t.

“‘Isn’t she sweet?’ said Biddy enthusiastically as the two little girls walked back to the Vicarage. ‘Isn’t she just as sweet as I told you she was?
‘She’s terribly pretty’ said Doreen slowly.
‘I don’t mean only that.’ Said Biddy, ‘she’s so kind…wasn’t she lovely to Paul Sanders, just because he’s well – he’s quite a common boy and hadn’t been asked there?’
‘Y-yes,’ agreed Doreen judicially, ‘but she was – being her person.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘I’m not quite sure, but she’s got a person – a lot of people have you know – and she – well, she does her person.’
‘Do you mean that you think she’s really different from what she seems?’ asked Biddy. Her small round face was pink with indignation at the idea.
Doreen was silent again. She considered the question thoughtfully, impersonally.
‘No… I daresay she’s the same as her person quite often, but she likes watching herself being it.’”

We follow Stella as she grows up into a beautiful young woman, caring for her ailing aunt – young men vying for her attentions. She marries, has two children, her life taking her away from Runeham. As the years pass, poor, gullible Biddy is astounded by the number of people who seem to be unkind to Stella, who don’t seem to appreciate her goodness, the sacrifices she has made for her family. Stella is obliged to move her family around from place to place – each move seems to make the family poorer – and in every place, there is someone who Stella doesn’t like. Everywhere, Stella plays her part, whatever role she has assigned herself she plays it to the full, sacrificing everyone she loves to her own vanity.

“I don’t think that people are people to her any longer. They’re just mirrors. If she can see the right picture of herself in them, she likes them. If she can’t, she dislikes them.”

Stella is a remarkable creation – and Crompton’s storytelling here is hugely compelling. Certainly, this novel is not as nostalgically cosy as Leadon Hill or The Old Man’s Birthday – which I read a couple of years ago – or as perfect as A Family Roundabout. Narcissa is altogether more unsettling, a page turner – where the reader has little hope of a happy ending.

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old mans birthday

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.

birthday cakeIn 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.

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leadon hill

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.”

village scene2Marcia 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.

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The anticipation of opening a new Persephone is always a big part of the pleasure of reading one of these beautiful books. Luckily though I can generally be very confident of loving what is inside too, and certainly within a few sentences of starting this book I knew I loved it.

The Sunday afternoon in the July of 1920 Mrs. Fowler was sitting in her wicker chair under the lime tree at the end of the terrace.

The story centres on the fortunes of two families in the years between WW1 and WW2 – the Fowler and the Willoughby families are the two principle families in Bellington. The Fowlers are an old genteel family, while the Willoughby’s owners of a local paper mill are the considerably wealthy new money. Both Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby are widows, the parents of now adult children, they are rather different women. As the story starts the two families become united by the marriage of Helen Fowler and Max Willoughby. Mrs Willoughby is a deeply controlling woman, she holds sway over everything, from the mill itself to her grandchildren’s schooling. Her new daughter-in-law fits right in immediately proving to be very like Mrs Willoughby. Helen’s sister Anice marries a bookshop owner – a not very successful one at that – and as the years pass is driven to bitter envies of Helen, which affect her marriage and the relationships between her husband and their children. Peter Fowler is married to the spiteful vengeful Belle, beautiful and downright nasty – Peter is soon looking elsewhere. When the eldest Fowler Matthew returns from abroad he too falls under the spell of Belle. Oliver Willoughby has fallen for the youngest Fowler – Judy, while Cynthia Willoughby, Judy’s close friend since childhood has begun to write letters to an author she admires from afar.

(the beautiful re-production endpaper for this edition)

The years pass and these relationships change and develop, children are born and grow up and Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby too begin to age. Yet they are the witnesses to the continuing roundabout of family life, the same problems and mistakes being visited upon each generation. The characters are beautifully drawn and their relationships often painful.

I do love books like this that examine family members in detail, recreating the domestic situations and concerns of people from the inter war years. Persephone publishes a lot of novels like this – and that is why I love Persephone books. Yet when it comes to describing the book to someone else I find it is very difficult to do it justice. Richmal Crompton has created a world that is still very recognisable, the women are very strong and not always likeable, and the men are much weaker. The world is changing and as the young want to move with the times, or even move away from the suffocating little world of Bellington, the older generation like Mrs Willoughby are more resistant. There is a lovely timelessness to this novel – and it is surprising perhaps that it is such a page turner.

 

 

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