I recently discussed Richmal Crompton’s Leadon Hill (1927) here, and although I was a bit lukewarm on it, there were plenty of examples of good writing and genuinely interesting themes to make it clear I had to read this one—the only other of Crompton’s novels that seems to be fairly readily available in the U.S. Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes are the two Crompton books that have been reprinted by Greyladies. But I happened to look on Amazon and found a really lovely little hardcover edition with an intact dustcover for a reasonable price. I had to grab it up—sorry, Greyladies, I promise to order something else soon, and if you reprint more Cromptons, I’m guaranteed to order those too, since all her other titles are at least $100 in the U.S.!
At first, I thought I might have the same problem with Matty that I had with Leadon Hill. Crompton seems to like plots about more or less bohemian characters loosening up strait-laced folks, or at least mocking and condemning their hypocrisies. Always a popular plotline, and that's fine with me (it works well in reverse too, as Miss Pettigrew has shown). But in Leadon Hill, I felt Crompton was a bit heavy-handed about it, with a full cast of truly loathsome characters observed by a rather annoyingly self-righteous main character (but I still liked it, even if it doesn’t sound like I did!).
In Matty and the Dearingroydes, however, written nearly three decades after Leadon Hill (and about a decade after Family Roundabout, an excellent Crompton novel reprinted by Persephone), it’s clear that a more subtle and thoughtful writer is at work.
The story begins with Matty Dearingroyde, the sixty-ish owner of a shop dedicated to used clothing, books, and other odds and ends, approaching a chi-chi suburban
house in search of used clothing to buy. In a nutshell, the house turns out to belong to the rather loathsome Matthew & Marion Dearingroyde, who discover that Matty is actually their cousin—daughter of Matthew’s disowned artist/bohemian/ne’er-do-well brother. No doubt they would quickly forget this fact if it weren't that Matthew is planning to run for Parliament and doesn’t want it known that he has an eccentric poor relation running a seedy little shop. So he suggests that she give up the shop and become properly one of the family, spending a month each in his home and the homes of two of his other siblings. London
That pretty much sets the stage for a "Boudu Saved from Drowning" type plot that rollicks along in a compulsively readable way. I stayed up way too late two nights in a row because I couldn't break away.
Obviously, the compulsiveness of the novel is not due to its startling originality of plot. Rather, it's in strong, clever writing. Although plotwise it would be hard not to know what's coming, you never know how cleverly Crompton is going to present it, and in some ways that's almost better, to me, than a surprising or original plot.
There are plenty of humorous passages. For example, when Matty is first considering Matthew's offer to come and live with them, she finds herself talking it over with the dresses in her shop, including the “crushed-looking garment, resigned and innocent, that did not, Matty felt, know much about life” and the one with “an air of worldly wisdom” that “had seen things, been places, known people, wasn’t to be bamboozled.”
And later, when Matty spends her month with Matthew's sister Flora, who runs a (wannabe) high-class boarding house, we meet the two "lady" tenants who are Flora's pride and joy (as well as her albatross). When the two women—Lady Purlock and Mrs. Borrowdale—return from a society wedding, we see them in their full pretentious glory:
For a few days they were inclined to be more critical than usual of the domestic arrangements of Shottery Place and blossomed out into more elaborate evening toilettes—Lady Purlock even appearing one evening with an ornament in her hair that closely resembled a tiara—then gradually they resigned themselves once more to an atmosphere that Lady Purlock described in her more gloomy moments as “incurably middle class.”
This reminded me a great deal of the Painton sisters in Leadon Hill, who hilariously "never could quite conquer the idea that there was something vulgar about deck chairs."
The other boarding-house guests are also funny and worth getting to know—Miss Hastings, a busybody involved with every local organization; Miss Winterton, a gruff, manly dominator who can't get enough of hiking all over England (and whom possibly we are to see as lesbian) and Miss Tenby, her passive but increasing bored and exhausted companion; the Redbrooks, whose young daughter died five years ago and who are still engaged in full-time mourning more out of habit than real sentiment; Mr. Appleby, an attorney who spends his time obsessively researching a book he will likely never write; and Colonel & Mrs. Knighton, whose hobby is shopping for houses they have no intention of buying.
Unsurprisingly, Matty is able to help many of them with her no-nonsense, no-pretense, tell-it-as-it-is approach. But meanwhile Matty herself is interestingly conflicted. She is trying to be a lady, because her mother wanted her to be, but she has always been "bilingual":
And Matty, who had inherited Jasper’s buoyancy and lightness of heart, adapted herself easily to the situation. Within doors, under her mother’s anxious eye, she played her part as Matilda Dearingroyde of gentle speech and irreproachable manners. Out of doors, with the children who went to school with her and used the street as their playground, she was wild and reckless as the best of them, with a shrill cockney voice and the manners of her comrades. She assimilated both parts with a sort of monkey-like quickness and with no conscious deception. She was bilingual and came to have a sort of dual personality, accommodating herself to her company automatically and instinctively.
And now that she's trying to acknowledge only the Matilda side of her personality, she keeps having little "break-outs":
Matty was demure and precise-looking in her plain black dress, her hair brushed straight back from her forehead, her feet encased in neat, low-heeled shoes. She had had a slight “break-out” yesterday and had bought a vulgar scarf depicting the efforts of a fat man to swat a bluebottle, but her courage had failed her at the last minute and she had not put it on.
Sometimes, the return of the repressed Matty is fairly subdued, as when she befriends Matthew & Marion's poor victimized daughter by commenting on the strict running of the Dearingroyde home:
“It’s been running itself on the same lines for so long. It does rather make one want to clean the brass on Wednesday instead of Tuesday just to give it a shock.”
And sometimes, as it emerges later, the break-outs can be a bit more extreme (but I'll leave that for the reader to discover)…
The final month of Matty's family tour is spent with the truly loathsome Olivia, her doormat of a son, and her daughter-in-law. Olivia is a prime example of the maleficent malingerer I've started really noticing in a lot of the novels I read. I think it was a character type I just took for granted for a long time, but it seems to have been a real theme for a lot of writers, and one that they felt strongly about and were eager to explore.
In this case, as with some of the other characters I've commented on, the maleficent Olivia is not actually ill in any apparent way, but merely uses threats of heart attack or total despair to manipulate her son.
After one of Olivia's melodramatic scenes, Matty observes her closely:
Matty’s eyes followed her as she bustled about the room, getting out the cards and card table. The scene had left no traces. Her face was not ravaged by her tears. There was, on the other hand, a sort of bloom and sleekness about her, as if she had derived some sensual satisfaction from it.
Although Olivia is the kind of completely unsympathetic character whose prevalence in Leadon Hill grated on me, in this novel Matty's response is more practical and less about feeling superior than Marcia's in the earlier novel, which makes the scenes more entertaining. That approach, too, along with the presence of a fair number of likeable characters (and a few realistically believable annoying ones), meant that, for me, the seriousness of the Olivia scenes actually added to the depth of the novel.
The final outcome of the novel, to the extent that it's not fairly obvious from the beginning, I'll leave to you to enjoy for yourself!
Having read two of Crompton's novels in the past couple of weeks, I might not add her to the top tier of my very favorite writers. But I do have to say that I always seem to find interesting and sometimes surprising depth in her work. For example, midway through the book Matthew and Marion throw a party, supposedly for their daughter Christine (whom they use as a pawn in their ongoing power struggle), but really to promote Matthew's run for Parliament. Matty observes Christine actually enjoying herself, forgetting about her parents manipulations of her. Matty comments:
“Forgetting only puts off remembering, but it gives one a sort of respite. And it’s all so new to her. It helps her to grow up. Unhappy children take a long time to grow up because they build an imaginary world for themselves that’s more real to them than the real world and they can’t find their way out.”
I thought a lot about this quote, and I think it's a strikingly perceptive observation. I've certainly known people to whom it would seem to apply.
So if Crompton is not always the most polished of writers, or her characters are not always perfectly rounded or believable, I find myself forgiving those faults, because her sense of humor, her originality in rounding out her plots (if not the plots themselves are not so original), and her sharp understanding of human nature help—for me—to sand off her rough edges.