Book Review by George S: I’ve always thought of Richmal Crompton as the quintessential Home Counties writer. The smugness of that area has never been beter caught than in Crompton’s depiction of the commuter-belt village that so restricts the free spirit of William. But in fact, she was born and brought up in Bury, and Millicent Dorrington (1927) is set in and around a northern mill town.
Millicent is one of the eight children of a prosperous mill-owner. The book begins in the 1890s, when the family is moving away from an old house near the mill, in dark and smoky Belton, among the ‘shawled and clogged’ mill-workers, to the prosperous and ‘select’ suburb of Uplands. The father has built the White House, a building that will be as much of a character in the novel as any of the human ones. Millicent looks at it critically:
It looked a nice house—a nice, kind, young, welcoming house, not old and bored and tired like the one next the mill. Then her eyes wandered to the garden and the gate and the high surrounding wall. “I don’t like the wall,” she said.”
The novel will be about her attempts to leave the constrictions of that wall. She is a young woman with ambition and a musical talent, and opportunities will come for her to express herself in a wider sphere, but obligations to her family always get in the way.
This is a novel on a theme very popular in the twenties – how can a good person get by in a world of pushiness and selfishness? Time and again, Millicent is thwarted by people who lack her essential niceness and kindness. One reason why the William books are essential reading for children is that they make it wonderfully clear that adults can be selfish, self-centred, self-important and ridiculous. Crompton’s adult novels are even more clear-sighted about human nature and human hypocrisies.
This book is long (475 pages) and has a large cast of characters, whom she manages in the Dickensian way, by giving each one strong memorable characteristics that differentiate them from the rest. Yet for the most part they do not become caricatures – even the ones who behave monstrously.
The most monstrous of the characters are female. Millicent’s elder sister Janet is the opposite of Millicent; she knows what she wants, and will do anything to get it, even if this means scuppering her sister’s wedding plans. Janet forms an alliance with their father’s sister, Aunt , who has a similar lack of principles, and an even more blatant disregard for other people’s needs and feelings. Both of these have a talent for the catty remark that makes others feel small. Like many of the best novelists, from Jane Austen onwards, Crompton was clearly a connoisseur of cattiness.
Cattiest of all, and the most foormidable of the female monsters, is Amy, the wife of Millicent’s brother Gordon. Crompton obviously takes great delight in showing how she manipulates her husband through sweet-talking, bullying and, if necessary, hysterics. In one of the book’s climaxes, she is trying to get control of the White House away from Millicent; when she is thwarted, she goes into a frenzy of weeping, hysterical laughter and refusal to eat. Her feeble husband (men don’t come out of this novel very well) is terrified that she will have a complete nervous breakdown, and pleads that Millicent should give in to her.
She had at her command all the resources of an unscrupulous and vindictive nature. She’d sacrifice everything—even her own health—to gratify her whim . . .
One can’t help but be reminded of Crompton’s most wonderful creation, Violet Elizabeth Bott, with her terrifying threat: ‘I’ll thcweam and thqueam and squeam until I’m thick. I can you know.’
One of my favourites among the characters is Millicent’s sister, Doris, who goes from one intense enthusiam to the next. Religion is the first:
It was towards the end of the holidays that Doris developed religious mania. Millicent first realized its existence from a badly burnt finger which Doris refused to explain. When pressed she told Millicent that she had held it in the candle in penance for her sins. She began continually to deprive herself of pleasures and inflict punishments upon herself, which she endured with stoical courage. She deliberately trod upon a drawing-pin with her bare foot to punish herself for losing her temper. She ran a needle into her finger to punish herself for lying too long in bed in the morning. She made a deep cut in her arm with a penknife to punish herself for being jealous of Lorna . . . She went about for a whole day with peas in her shoe, she burnt her favourite story book, she almost starved herself. She read the Bible for an hour every day, she knelt in prayer for lengthy periods in her bedroom in the middle of the day, even while an embarrassed housemaid “did” her room. She confessed the slightest peccadillo with a passionate abandonment of penitence. She began to torture herself with visions of Hell . . .
From religion she turns suddenly to atheism, then to social work. She becomes a militant suffragette who disturbs her respectable relatives by spending time in prison, and finishes up as a Communist M.P. (who reminds me rather of Ellen Wilkinson). Crompton always shows some amused sympathy for these causes, and wants us, I think, partly to admire Doris, even while realising that her obsessions are the result of an intense self-absorption.
The book takes us from the 1890s to the 1930s, with the social history lightly sketched in. One character gets indignant about the Boer War, Doris becomes a suffragette, industrial troubles of various kinds affect the fortunes of the War. Only the Great War passes by almost unnoticed as the narrative skips a decade or so. Perhaps this omission is because Crompton in this book is interested in the continuities of British life, and with slow changes, rather than with dramatic disruptions.
This book can be read as the story of a life unlived. After Millicent’s death, horrible Amy certainly sees it this way:
“I don’t mean just because she’s dead,” said Amy, “but because she had such a—” she paused as if seeking for a word, “such a—thwarted life.” They seemed all to wait breathlessly for Denis’s reply. “People with what you call thwarted lives,” he said, “often get something that other people don’t. We set out determined to get something and somehow we don’t get it, and they stay behind and they get something we miss. I don’t know what it is quite, but—they get something.”
Is Denis’s reply a comment on Crompton’s own life? Born in Bury, she had studied Classics at Royal Holloway College and become a Classics teacher, but in 1923, at the age of thirty-three, contracted poliomyelitis, and was left without the use of her right leg, confined to a wheelchair. She lived with her mother, and never married. In this novel, published four years after the illness, one character loses her leg in an accident; in the fiction, though, after the initial despair, Crompton allows her a satisfying life and a happy marriage.
Richmal Crompton’s rate of literary production was remarkable, in a career of nearly fifty years, with forty-one William books, and forty-eight books for adult readers (Though this is not altogether a clear distinction, as the earliest William stories were in publications for adults. Even in the fifities I remember new William stories appearing in Woman’s own, before they were published in books aimed at the juvenile market.) It’s said that she came to resent the fact that her other work was overshadowed by William, but the two strands in her writing are closely linked. There is the same realistic view of her fellow-humans, and the same satire at the expense of pomposity.
In both kinds of book, there is also the same enjoyment of children and their ways, and the same sympathy with the child’s point of view. In Crompton’s novels, you can always judge characters by how they behave to children. In this book, we become especially alert to how they treat Bunny, a child who is ‘different’, with a learning disability. The nasty ones want her sent off to an institution , whereas Millicent makes very real sacrifices for her.
As you can probably tell from this review, Crompton is one of the mid-century novelists I most admire and enjoy. This book is one of the half-dozen or so reprinted by Bello, a branch of Pan-Macmillan.
Maybe we can persuade them to reissue more?