I’m not entirely sure what I expected when I picked up Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton but it certainly wasn’t what I got. I have this idea of Greyladies books as cosy and entertaining, an entirely rational conclusion based on my very enjoyable experiences with their books by O. Douglas, Susan Scarlett, and especially Susan Pleydell. Well, Leadon Hill is entertaining but in a most unsettling way.
Published in 1927, Leadon Hill is a small English village where Marcia Faversham has recently moved with her husband and three children. As the novel begins, John Faversham sets off (with his wife’s blessing) on a four-month fishing holiday with his friends. If Marcia were left truly alone it might not be so bad – she is an intelligent enough woman to be able to amuse herself – but she is left at the mercy of her inquisitive neighbours who illustrate the more poisonous aspects of village life. And yet Marcia gets off relatively easily (with the gossip only that her husband is leading a double life with a woman or family hidden somewhere else) compared to Miss West, who becomes Marcia’s neighbour when she rents the house next door.
Born and raised in Italy by her English father, Helen West grew up hearing about the beauty of the English countryside. And, now living in it, she does find it beautiful. What she was not prepared for was the stifling small-mindedness of the village gossips, who are never happier than when spreading vile rumours about one another and gasping whenever someone does anything outside their narrow view of what is proper. As an artist and as a beautiful young woman living alone, Helen is a target for gossip immediately. But it is her open-mindedness and thoughtfulness towards others that truly challenges the village’s most firmly-held prejudices.
It is a rather horrific but all too realistic portrait of what it is like to live in a small community. There are those who are intelligent and broadminded – Marcia, for one, and a lovely couple called Elliott – but they are outnumbered by neighbours who are confident in their view of the world and unforgiving of any transgressions. The worst of these neighbours is Miss Mitcham, a woman whose capacity for cruelty is thinly veiled by the seemingly innocuous way in which she delivers her devastating character assassinations:
‘It’s a beautiful little place, isn’t it? And in the heart of it sits Miss Mitcham like a maggot at the heart of an apple, poisoning it. I think that woman will be rather surprised when she finds out, as please God she will one day, how wicked she is. She’s one of the wickedest women in the world. …There’s more humanity, less meanness in any drab woman of the streets than in that woman.’
Helen’s gentle philanthropy is twisted until it appears as an insult to those who received it whereas the outright cruelty of the local landowner is cheerfully overlooked when he marries the girl whom he bullied and impregnated. Used to an environment where curiosity is encouraged and kindness taken for granted, Helen wilts in her new surroundings until a visit from an old friend helps her find her way again – and provokes a new round of devastating rumours.
It is a chilling little book and a very well done one. It has reminded me of how much I appreciate the anonymity that comes with living in a major city and the freedom of choosing who knows the details of my life.