Laycock of Lonedale by Willie Riley (1924)

Our last Riley, I think. Lots of clear themes emerging as our reviewer, Sue, notes: money can’t buy happiness, right prevailing over might, trust in the Lord, for he shall provide…

Review by Sue R:

Sam Laycock made his fortune through hard work, promotion and a second marriage to the mill owner’s daughter. His will left the family firm and fortune to his children from his 2nd marriage; he left only £5000 to his eldest son Roger from his 1st marriage. The younger brothers James and George, like their father, saw Roger as a waster and idler.

Determined to prove his father and brothers wrong, Roger invests his money in a variety of enterprises: car manufacture, butterscotch making, a wool factory. All flourish and make money. Roger is able to marry his long-term sweet- heart, Mary Standfast. They have no children but love their niece, Nell, the daughter of George and his wife, Rosie, who was happy to leave her child behind when the couple went to America. George spent all his money and was rescued by Roger while his own brother, James, refused him aid.  James was jealous of Roger: he came to realise that although he was richer, he was not happy. He had spent his whole life in pursuit of money whereas Roger, who had made a sport of money-making, saw it only as a means to an end. He and Mary were sustained by their faith.

I enjoyed this book although it was not without flaws. The religious dimension was, for me,  rather heavily played: Roger’s wife, with a name like Mary Standfast, was always going to be faithful and a moral compass. Similarly, it came as no surprise when her servant Mercy Mee quoted the Bible at length. Good clearly was going to triumph over evil, or if not evil, over selfishness. Roger’s unerring capacity for making money was perhaps unrealistic, bearing in mind the economic situation in the early 1920s: it suggested the Calvinist idea of success in business reflecting God’s chosen.

However I found the story quite gripping despite anticipating the denouement. The depiction of the more unsympathetic characters such as Sam Laycock, Roger’s father, and James, Roger’s half brother, is convincing.  Sam Laycock, the father of all three brothers, marries unwisely the first time but makes sure he doesn’t make that mistake again. He is ambitious but his first wife, Martha, Roger’s mother “is unable to climb the ladder in her husband’s wake” (p.14). He secures his future by passing off  millowner  Ralph Wainwright’s illegitimate child as his own despite the pain and humiliation this causes his first wife. When she dies young, he is able to marry Wainwright’s daughter; Riley even hints at blackmail! He is a cold calculating man: he was “ respected by his employees … who would have forgiven him his exaltation if he had not exalted himself” (p.16). He virtually ignores his son Roger and treats him as a fool and a wastrel, something not lost on his two other sons who treat Roger in the same way. He even leaves Roger two  paintings in his will: “Industry and Idleness”.

James, Roger’s half brother, is smug and self righteous: he pulls up his brother George for swearing (p.67) who responds, not without humour, by comparing him to Dickens’ Pecksniff. He  will not honour his father’s promised bequest to the Baptist Church as there is no written proof (p.71) despite it being reported in the paper at the time. When George loses all his money through marrying a dancing girl (Rosie), he refuses to help; George has to turn to Roger, of course.

He comes to believe in his own rightness: “James had practised the art of self deception so long… that no modern Pharisee could have taught him anything” (p.85). His gradual realisation of the vacuum in his life which money cannot fill is carefully plotted. He comes to envy Roger not just for his success in making money but also in inspiring love and friendship. He is called the “tin god” (p.102) by his hands whereas Roger’s workers call him by his first name (p.134).  At the same time he mocks Roger for living in a relatively modest home so unlike his own. He makes sure his home reflects his increasing wealth, investing in paintings etc.  though “he was not the least bit interested in art but greatly interested in himself” (p.65). Roger on the other hand does good by stealth, preferring to remain anonymous.

James becomes a baronet and a J.P. but seems to exemplify  what Matthew says: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” As  the book progresses  Edie, his wife, becomes  a little disillusioned with her husband: she can’t understand why  Roger was doing so well if he was a fool as his brothers called him! (p.134).

Riley does include some memorable phrases, examples of Yorkshire humour and plain speaking : “Clogs to clogs in three generations” (Mercy p.49). “If he was forced to marry [..to please his family] we should be overrun with spinsters more than we are with rabbits”. As James says of his brother Roger, “If it’s true that a man reaps what he sows, it’s also true that if a man won’t sow, he musn’t expect to reap” (p.26).

Class is  a significant  theme: Sam Laycock insists on the best for his two younger sons: “both boys went to Oxford, where the topstone was to be put on their education and their father’s vanity” (p.17). James’ wife, Edie, is shocked when she hears that Roger’s hands call him by his first name.

Betty Binns, the factory hand, is ruined by her employer, Wainwright, but, as she says much later in the book, “I paid with shame and I must go on paying…the man who did me wrong went respected to his grave, clearing his conscience with money he never missed” (p.39). She lives in a big house with her successful son but thinks wistfully of her little cottage, reflecting the general theme of the book that money doesn’t always buy happiness.

Perhaps the themes of the book are a bit too didactic and simplistic  i.e. money can’t buy happiness; right prevailing over might; trust in the Lord, for he shall provide. However at the time it was written (1924) it may be that people were looking for such messages. After the tragedy of World War I and the Depression of the early  1920s, many readers may have wanted to see good triumph, hard work rewarded, and the little people prosper. I’m not sure how the religious element of this book would have been received: it is true that the losses of the First World War did shatter the faith of some but may have renewed and strengthened that of others.

The ending is rather predictable: Nell marries her beau; George nearly dies but Rosie returns to him; all Roger’s ventures prosper. Roger and Mary grow old gracefully together, much loved by one and all; even though they are childless, they have one in Nell.

However, this did not spoil my enjoyment: I identified with the characters: the good and the not-so good. I would recommend it to others.

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One thought on “Laycock of Lonedale by Willie Riley (1924)

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. It is one of my favourites. You will have read in the author’s foreword what Riley had to say about the story itself.
    “Some who read will be frank unbelievers, especially in regard to Roger’s achievements, which they will consider phenomenal, not knowing how commonplace the phenominal is in the industrial north, where a genius for money-making is always turning ‘nobodies’ into ‘somebodies’ in the short time that it takes other men to lay the foundations of a business. many will question Roger’s philosophy of life, but there are rich men in Yorkshire and elsewhere whose lives exemplify it – men who are not slaves to their possessions. They are rare enough to be a peculiar people, I admit; but they have discovered the secret of contentment.” (page 7)
    Riley was an excellent observer of people and I am sure that the characters and circumstances in this book have their origins in real people and real events. That was the source of his writing, which is shown by the few noteboks that survive. He would weave a real event (maybe from a newspaper) into a story, for example; and people told him things that he wrote down for future use.
    Have you worked out where Lonedale is? It is Lothersdale, west of Skipton.
    By the way, I find the sums of money involved interesting. The estate was valued at £160,000. Today that would be worth over £6million using the retail prices index. Roger got £5,000; today that would be worth about £250,000.

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