This is one of those most fascinating of novels written during the Second World War, when nothing was settled and the defeat of Britain and her allies was still a possibility. Richmal Crompton’s 1942 novel has been reprinted by Greyladies, and it provides a wonderful range of characters whose fears, problems and lifestyle is affected in many ways, but not always by war. There is betrayal, death and some loss, but also there are characters who find a new hope, a new purpose, and perhaps the ending they need in this unusual novel. Written with control of many characters, situations and possibilities, this is a novel of wartime but not really about the war, more about the real people in all their imperfections and challenges.
Mrs Frensham is a woman whose husband, Philip, has become terrified of life. At first this novel seems to be a tale of rural experience, a village gradually introduced to the reader through various residents. There is the young vicar, keenly welcoming evacuees to his home as representatives of his beloved East End community. His sister believes she runs the house, while really muddled by arcane Biblical knowledge. A single lady keeps her late father’s cactus alive, while thinking of new ways of helping the war effort. Events intervene and Mrs Frensham finds herself in a new community. Determined mothers, disappointed fathers and muddled children mean that many problems emerge. Each individual has their own story, perhaps grief, perhaps hope, perhaps saving up the offences of others. Possibly there will be heroism or possibly just a breakaway from what is expected. This is a story of real experience, annoying people, frustrated people, dissatisfied people. One family, neighbours of one of the main groups, are exiled as a result of war, extravagant, melodramatic and totally over the top. Crompton never allows anyone to go completely out of control, even if they are grieving for a love affair that has ended. Mrs Frensham is a quietly powerful character, involving herself in the lives of others. She recognises that sometimes fate needs a little help for the best results. The reader is never allowed to forget that there is a war on, but it is controlled. My favourite characters for their small but perfectly formed cameo are Colonel and Mrs Peterson, famed for their private but generous jokes, complete in their happiness in each other.
This is a well written novel, full of memorable characters and largely satisfying outcomes. There is romance of all kinds, but also realism in the ways that families work, with jealous siblings and some controlling parents. The characters do travel and change during the novel, but the plot is not the most central. They are groups of people happy and sad in each other, all dealing with difficult challenges, gently influenced by the actions of Mrs Frensham. Crompton shows her undoubted skill in swiftly creating a world which is less than perfect, indeed under threat, but changed by the slight and barely perceptible actions of Mrs Frensham. It is a real treat of a book, written in an uncertain time, but beautifully controlled and fascinating.
Our latest adventure was to visit Newstead Abbey on Saturday. No bookshop this time, but lovely gardens and very friendly volunteer guides. I could not actually get round the house (no lift), but the new gallery and Byron room are definitely worth a visit. There are also some well produced short films about some of the people who have owned the house and “Blood Sugar” made by a local group which draws attention to the ownership of slaves which financed some of the house renovations. Given the lovely dry weather, the park and gardens were being enjoyed by many family groups. I had taken my own books to read….