Merlin Bay (1930) by Richmal Crompton
Book review by Frances S: I first came upon William Brown in a 1950s edition of William Carries On from the family bookcase and subsequently enjoyed various television adaptations and the Martin Jarvis Radio 4 readings. I knew very little about Richmal Crompton herself until Reading 1900-1950 invited us to try one of her other novels, but I immediately warmed to the woman revealed in her online biographies. From the novels readily available by mail order, I chose a 2015 reprint of Merlin Bay.
“The Cornish Riviera Express hurtled noisily through the slumbering peace of the mid-summer afternoon.” The opening line of Merlin Bay offers an enticing glimpse of drama ahead. As the train rushes towards Exeter, we see the changing landscape through the astute eyes of Mrs Paget, a passenger in first class, on her way to spend a month with her extended family in Cornwall.
The train journey will sweep Mrs Paget into a summer of large and small disappointments and discoveries, where the past must be confronted, a family mystery solved and decisions made about the future.
‘It was the small, the inconsiderable – above all, the human – that caught and held her attention.’ This description of Mrs Paget might also apply to Crompton, who avoids sentimentality whilst introducing a cast of people the reader can instantly care about. Eye for detail is also evident in Crompton’s closely observed and loving descriptions of the Cornish coast and countryside.
‘Old Mrs Paget’, a widow of 73, is travelling with her unmarried daughter, Florence, 49, who sees herself as her mother’s self-sacrificing carer. Mrs Paget, who is not especially old, frail or helpless, puts up with this nonsense to avoid hurting her daughter’s feelings. She has two other children: lonely bachelor Martin, 46, joining them on a rare visit from his job on a rubber plantation in Malaya, and Penelope (‘Pen’), who revels in her role as mother of six, dominating her family at their home in Cornwall ‘with an air of conscious virtue’ whilst her husband, Charles, the breadwinner, lives alone in London, working as a traveller for a firm of biscuit manufacturers. Pen does not encourage Charles to visit the family and is unenthusiastic about his imminent arrival.
Joining the group is Violet Coniston, a 46-year-old single schoolmistress who is determined that Martin will propose marriage to her. She is selfish, pretentious, insecure and desperate. Violet and Florence have been friends since their schooldays, Violet being determinedly good looking and charming and Florence her devoted slave. A further visitor is Miss Hinkley, 80, a distant and impoverished cousin of Charles, invited every year at his expense.
Mrs Paget and her beloved late husband, Michael, chose Merlin Bay for their honeymoon and this will be her first return visit. A blissful honeymoon had crashed to a halt when Michael very suddenly insisted on their leaving. She forbade him to tell her what had happened to distress him, fearing herself unequal to sharing his burden. On his deathbed, Michael had whispered Merlin Bay, and it was this, rather than the opportunity to see her family, that had drawn her back to Cornwall on what would have been their Golden Wedding Anniversary.
The children are Stella, about to celebrate her 18th birthday, Gordon, 14, Susan, 12, Rosemary, 9, whose ‘delicate’ health was Pen’s excuse for moving to Cornwall, Roger, 7, and Valerie, 5. The household also includes a characterful Dandy Dinmont terrier. Gordon and Susan are home from boarding schools for half term. The children, each with their own preoccupations and fears, are vividly portrayed and Crompton is especially good at helping us see events through their eyes.
Stella has just left school, and has shocked her mother by saying that she wants to be trained for a ‘proper job’ rather than stay at home to help in the home. Her mother has flatly refused to consider this. Stella is friendly with neighbour, Tim, 19, a student accountant. Tim’s sister, Agnes, 18, has a severe learning disability and Crompton is unsparing in describing the challenges this creates for her devoted mother and troubled older brother. Crompton’s honesty here might be uncomfortable reading for a modern reader.
Others who play significant parts in the story include Jessica Heath, wife of a likeable former Headmaster who lost his job due to alcoholism, and Arnold Kensing, a novelist and artist who has taken a cottage for the summer. Mr Kensing specialises in romantic fiction. Stella, a keen reader of his novels, sees him as the epitome of the dashing hero and is ready to fall in love with him, despite the substantial difference in their ages and the inconvenient fact that he is already married.
And so the scene is set. Blue skies, sun, sea, love and desire in the air and a group of characters thrown together in a close community. The novel could become a romance, a mystery, a middle-class family idyll, or a dark tragedy. Rather cleverly, Crompton weaves a bit of everything into a readable and swiftly moving story. Mrs Paget embraces the truth she was afraid to seek as a newly-wed. Martin discovers true love and loyalty. Stella learns the hard way the difference between a teenage crush and real friendship. Chances of happiness are destroyed through malice and jealousy. Someone even dies in tragic circumstances which the reader (but, incredibly, none of the characters) can see coming a mile off. Charles, finally, asserts himself. I was sorry when the story ended.
The book cover blurb promises a ‘charming’ and ‘nostalgic treat’. Merlin Bay is more substantial than this suggests, although the central family – middle class with lively children of various ages, father side-lined, a ‘poor relation’ and appealing little dog – could have stepped straight out of a William story. There is even a spoilt little girl with ‘fat sleek ringlets’ and a ‘fat sleek voice [though no lisp] that matched the ringlets so perfectly’.
But there is real heartbreak in Merlin Bay. Most of the husbands (or potential husbands) are absent, weak, feckless or all three, and the women cope by taking control, not always to their credit, often assisted by household staff who, as so often in novels of this period, remain firmly, and largely anonymously, in the background. As one might expect from the creator of William Brown, the story is told with wry humour and carefully chosen literary references. Crompton’s family were surely delighted to read that Gordon and Susan are fans of The Kingdom that Was and its sequel The Snow Leopard, novels whose author [thanks, Google!] just happens to be John Crompton Lamburn, Richmal Crompton’s younger brother.