This month we read adult novels by authors better known as writers for children.
In Greek myth, Narcissus was a beautiful but excessively proud youth. He was so enraptured by his reflection in water that he stared at it until he died and was transformed by the gods into the flower which bears his name. Narcissi are often found on river banks, bending over the water and seeming to stare at themselves. If we know the story, we are at once on our guard with Richmal Crompton’s study of a narcissist called Stella.
As the novel opens, Stella is a child in an upper middle-class home, an orphan cared for by her devoted Aunt Fanny. Fanny was overlooked as a child, and is determined that pretty, charming and loving Stella will never face this. Loving? Well, no. Or at least loving no-one but herself. Richmal Crompton takes us through Stella’s life, from childhood to late middle age. We see Stella: being educated at home; enjoying parties with other young people; nursing her aunt; getting engaged and married; having children; and growing older. Much to the bewilderment of her uncritical, lifelong friend Biddy, people are often unfair to Stella or take advantage of her. She has just happily settled down somewhere at last, when someone takes against her for no reason, so she simply has to move on. Even her own family, for whom she willingly sacrifices herself, lets her down. Saint-like, she never complains, although occasionally she speaks a little indiscreetly, as here at a tea-party with her husband, their children and family friends:
“Well, it’s a good thing that someone in the family’s going to make a little money, because”—she threw the familiar affectionate smile … across the table—“I don’t think that Daddy ever will.”
Stella’s impact on the people around her is horrific. Some are suspicious from the start and avoid her if they can; others are fortunate to escape lasting damage; and a few have their lives destroyed. This is in part through the cumulative effect of years spent near her, in part through some very dark deeds.
In truth, the plot is thin. The novel unfolds through a series of episodes. But the tension builds, holding us, and we are appalled each time Stella strikes. So how does Richmal Crompton do it? The answer is through a brilliant depiction of character. We are fascinated, not least by the suggestion that there are two Stellas: the controlling narcissist who acts to protect her illusion of herself; and the deluded illusion.
Stella’s mind went back to Ivy’s [a maid] dismissal, went further back to that sudden anger that had seized her when she overheard Ivy refer to her as a “sly little piece.” There had been no pique or personal resentment in her anger. She felt as if Ivy had slandered—not herself but someone to whom she, Stella, owed devotion and loyalty. “Sly” . . . when everyone knew that she was straightforward, when Aunt Fanny told everyone everywhere that she was truthfulness itself. (“I’ve never known her tell a lie in her life,” Aunt Fanny would say proudly.)
Like her family, we feel the repeated impact of her actions. We sympathise with Stella’s victims, who are in the main as skilfully drawn as their tormentor: her aunt who feels a mix of dread and guilt when Stella selflessly nurses her; her husband who is tired to death of her; and her children whom she divides to conquer. Here she is, speaking of one son to the other:
“We must always do everything we can to help poor old Nollo along, Charles, but we mustn’t expect too much of him and we must try not to rely on him. I’m afraid that if we did, without meaning to, he’d let us down and——.”
In the end, we are thankful that we are at a safe distance. We sympathise with the character who, as the book closes, goes to visit Stella, out of kindness, but cannot go through with it, deciding that the damage will be too great.
Stella might be seen as a grown-up Violet Elizabeth Bott, the spoiled, small girl from Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, who says ‘I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick’ when William refuses to let her join his gang. But Narcissa is a grown-up novel and there is no laughter here. Narcissism is defined as:
a disorder where a person has an unusual preoccupation with themselves. This includes how they look, their self-worth, the power that they have, and the people who they know. … This is also a disorder that is linked to bullying. A narcissist is always right. What they say is of great importance. When they feel, they are not being listened to or that their advice is not being followed the often lash out verbally and sometimes physically. They are masters of manipulation, and they use guilt or threats to get what they want.
Yes, that’s Stella, and this is a horror story.
Richmal Crompton was a prolific novelist, and is still best known for her children’s novels, especially the Just William series. Here too it is her skill with character which shines. William’s comfortable, between-the-wars world may have vanished, but he remains a rebellious, adventurous and well-meaning child, unable to comprehend the adults around him. He is not very subtly drawn; nor, you might say, is Stella. But they both live.