Men of Mawm by Willie Riley (1921)

I spoke too soon! Here’s one more Riley review.

Review by Sylvia D:

Men of Mawm is an attractively produced book with line drawings inside the front and back covers and with eight black and white photographs which illustrate the rugged moorland landscapes, the village and the supposed homes of the two main village families in the story.

The novel opens with the arrival in the moorland village of Mawm (David Copeland told me it is actually Malham) of a stranger, James Inman, who had come from the village of Scaleber (Skipton).  He arrives just as Jagger Drake has been sacked from his post at the saw-mill run by Baldwin Briggs, a grasping, bad-tempered man whose motto is “All for mysen.”   Inman is taken on by Briggs whilst Jagger and his father, Maniwel, decide to set up their own timber business.  Inman who turns out to be a thoroughly ruthless character not only steals Jagger’s sweetheart, Nancy, for her money but sets out to undermine the Drakes’ business and to bankrupt Briggs so that he can take over the saw-mill himself.

I found the novel almost manichean in the way it contrasts the totally evil Inman with the almost too good to be true Maniwel Drake.  Inman seems to have not an ounce of goodness in him.  He is cold, calculating and double-dealing, cares nothing for his wife and completely ignores their baby son.  Maniwel, on the other hand, is deeply imbued with Christian values.  He accepts the loss of his right arm in the accident which prevented him from inheriting the sawmill run by Briggs without bitterness.  I feel he would have been very difficult to live with as he is forever telling his family to turn the other cheek, keep their tempers in check, be friends to their enemies:

‘For twenty years I’ve done my best to walk t’street called Straight, and I’ve got it rooted in my mind ‘at there’s no better road’ – (p 33).

When Inman is constantly causing problems for the Drakes’ business, Maniwel chides his son,

‘But when you’ve nailed your trouble up, lad, put it out o’sight, and don’t let its ghost walk about wi’ you.  There’s two ways of dealing wi’trouble – you can either lie down and let it crush t’ sperrit out of you, or you can climb on t’ top of it and get an uplift’ – (p 109).

The characterisation is quite strong, especially the two main women characters.  Jagger’s sister, Hannah Drake, is not only an excellent housekeeper but holds the family together and stamps her authority on the other members of the household as well as acting as a restraining influence on her hot-headed brother.  She remains loyal and steadfast throughout and reminded me of the Moors lady, Hannah Hauxwell.  Her friend, Nancy Clegg, the daughter of Tom Clegg, who left the saw-mill to Briggs, also has a strong personality:

‘Nancy Clegg was only in her twenty-third year, but she was a woman full grown and quite conscious of her developed powers.  There was an air of distinction about her that other young women lacked – ‘  (pp 42-43).

Needless to say the men fail to recognise the commonsense shown by these women.  Unlike everyone else, Nancy refuses to put her money with her banking uncle, John Clegg, which prompts Briggs to say:

‘Nancy doesn’t believe in having all her eggs in one basket, and them ‘at’s been laid since her father died she banks i’Keepton, where she just gets half t’ interest her uncle ‘ud pay her.  But women haven’t much business about ‘em and it’s her own look-out and not mine’ – (p 67).

When Clegg goes bankrupt, though, she is the only one not to lose her savings.

There is one big contradiction in Nancy’s character, however, and that is her decision, having had a row with Jagger whom she loves, to marry Inman instead.  The narrative does seem very contrived at this point.  She seems to recognise this herself when debating in her mind whom to marry:

‘Is it that after all, woman likes to be mastered, and is flattered by the attentions of a masterful man who promises her nothing but his name, and who, when he has fulfilled that promise will expect her to be content with such poor crumbs of attention as he can spare from his dogs?  Or is it that her almost unconquerable spirit matches itself against man’s obstinacy and believes it can make it yield?’ – (p 72).

Once Inman has married Nancy, he engineers the downfall of Briggs and throws him out of the house that goes with the saw-mill.  True to type, Maniwel takes Briggs in and finds work for him in the Drakes’ business.  Inman persuades Nancy to lend him her money, then fakes a robbery and hides the money on Gordale Scar.  It is at this point that his machinations begin to unravel as Nancy becomes suspicious and, despite Jagger’s concerns, tells the Drakes she is determined to keep a watch on Inman,

‘”I’d rather she’d kept out of it,” [Jagger] said, “but she’s bad to shift when she sets herself, same as most moor-folk; and she’s afraid o’naught.  However, she has her wits about her, and maybe she’ll pull it off”’ – (p 259).

Riley constantly flags up the sturdy, determined nature of those who live on the moors.  Moor-folk know their own minds; they are full of grit; they thrive on the wildness of nature.  Almost every chapter starts with a rather over-blown description of the countryside around Mawn or the weather and the passing of the seasons, so much so that it tends to disrupt the narrative and consequently becomes rather annoying.  The town, on the other hand, is to be avoided.   It is implied that on the moors everyone is equal but that the town is class-ridden: Nancy’s

‘Aunt and cousin were towns-women through and through, and the latter had certain superficialities of education, that Nancy lacked and despised; but though they had money “society” closed its doors to them, and their friends were all of the lower middle classes from which both parents had sprung and to which by every right save that of money they still belonged‘ – (p 70).

And It goes without saying that if anyone leaves the moors for the town they will come to no good.

In the end Inman gets his come-uppance but even when he is arrested, Maniwel insists on going bail for him;

‘He’ll ha’ lots o’ time for reckoning things up after a bit, and I could like him to think ‘at he’d a friend ‘at ‘ud give him a hand and help him to keep straight when he came out’ – (p 307).

Maniwel’s faith is misplaced.  Inman absconds and the family lose their remaining savings.   There’s an upbeat ending though.  Whilst making his escape Inman dies in a snowstorm, thus leaving Nancy free to marry Jagger.

Men of Mawm was an interesting read but I’m not sure I would want to attempt any other novels by Riley.

5 thoughts on “Men of Mawm by Willie Riley (1921)

    • Some would say they transcend – others not! But I’m very pleased we’ve been able to revisit this forgotten writer. David Copeland gave a interesting talk about Riley at the University last week and managed to sell 20 copies of Windyridge, so the number of readers is growing!

  1. First of all, I need to correct a mistake that I must have made when talking to Sylvia! Scaleber is SETTLE, not Skipton. Sorry to have misled you!
    Riley uses the story to illustrate one of the many teachings of Jesus, as expressed in Matthew 5:44 “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (King James Version.)
    This occurs towards the end of Matthew’s long account of the Sermon on the Mount. It has always been seen as a hard teaching to follow, and Riley builds a strong story on this concept, in my opinion.
    You refer to Riley’s depiction of moorland folk, rightly expressing his often-repeated regard for them. He spent a lot of his time among such folk and he wrote, and lectured, about them with much affection.
    His magnificent descriptions of the countryside always won him acclaim among the critics, even if they didn’t always like his plots! I would gently wish to disagree with your “overblown description” opinion! I find his descriptions of places very attractive, and would never wish to skip them. They are an essential part of every Riley novel.

    • Hi Andrew,
      That’s very good news. is a brilliant project. For those who don’t know it, volunteers proofread pages of newly digitised books. The text that is then put on Project Gutenberg should be free of those annoying mistakes which are inevitable if the text is just digitally scanned and not checked by a human.

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