Steffan Green was my first foray into Richmal Crompton’s fiction for adults, and what a wonderful read it was.
As the book opens, me meet Lettice Helston, a recently divorced thirty-eight-year-old woman—in fact, she has got the decree only the previous day. Lettice is driving down to the country, to her childhood friend Dorrie—but mostly, she is driving away from London, and away from the friends who have supported her but behind whose glances lies pity and gloating. Dorrie is a conventional woman and Lettice isn’t sure what to expect. But having driven down upset and without food, Lettice ends up taking a wrong turn and lands up in a small village just beyond a beautiful wood—Steffan Green. Here she finds herself in front of two cottages—the Pear Tree Cottages—one of which is to let. The occupant of the other, fashionable young mother, Lydia Morrice, acting almost as a realtor convinces Lettice to come down and live in Steffan Green for what would be a better answer to her situation—but also confesses that she would like Lettice rather than noisy neighbours for she has an infant in the house. And so it is that Lettice comes to live, rather reluctantly, in Steffan Green, slowly becoming absorbed in life there.
But Lettice is only our link and our introduction to Steffan Green, for our story is not of Lettice alone, but of many of Steffan Green’s inhabitants—a whole cast of characters in fact, each of whom we soon begin to follow. One might say, it is the story of Steffan Green itself, but with the exception of one village bazaar/sale of work, a christening, and Lettice being manipulated, albeit slowly, into taking over playing the church organ (only at matins), we see few community events—our focus is rather the people themselves.
One of the first people Lettice meets in Steffan Green other than Lydia and her husband Philip, is the rather likeable Mrs Fanshaw, the vicar’s wife. A former suffragette who has been to prison (going on a hunger strike and facing force feeding, something I was just reading about in Etta Lemon), Mrs Fanshaw has now settled into domestic life with a husband who loves and appreciates her, and a daughter Sylvia, who in one of life’s little jokes, prefers domestic life, something Mrs Fanshaw fought tooth and nail against. Always a little muddled in matters of housekeeping and her own dress (wearing mismatched gloves, for instance), it is Sylvia (in our story, she is away in Egypt) who keeps Mrs Fanshaw in check. [On an aside, Mr and Mrs Fanshaw, in one of their conversations discuss human beings destroying the earth, believing that we can’t harm the stars, but that the stars will have only shambles to look at in the future. Sadly, it seems, we are also blocking the stars’ view of the earth, and they may soon be able to ‘see’ nothing].
Mrs Fanshaw’s is perhaps the least troubled life in Steffan Green. We also have Mrs Webb, a woman with a malicious streak in her, who emotionally manipulates first her husband, and now her son, Colin into dancing attendance on her all the time (other than when Colin is at work), so much so that Colin can have no life of his own. Colin’s one attachment so far has broken off as a consequence of this. But to keep the peace, much of the time, he simply gives in.
Then we have Mrs Turnberry (towards whom some of Mrs Webb’s malice is directed) who is poorer than the Webbs. She prefers to live with her younger son Frank, who is given to taking money and things (because he can’t help it rather than with any ill intent) and unable to hold a job, which keeps her in a constant struggle. Much more so because her older son Clifford with a respectable position, and an attractive but snobbish wife (who looks down on Mrs Webb) wants her to leave Frank and come live with him. But it is Frank who needs her.
Up at the Castle, we have domineering, old Mrs Ferring who is bringing up her two granddaughters—eighteen-year-old Thea, and seventeen-year-old Lavinia (Lavvy) according to her own Victorian mores and ideas of upbringing. This combined with a lack of money means the girls are always deprived of food and warmth (low coal stocks), and are still in the ‘nursery’ which makes them understandably stifled, and wanting to escape. At the same time, they are also in awe of their grandmother. (The girls do find solace in their friendship with Lettice and Mrs Fanshaw.) To Mrs Webb’s chagrin, old Mrs Ferring chooses to show some attention to the poor, shabby Mrs Turnberry while Mrs Webb herself is unacknowledged.
The Morrices are young and happy, expecting their second child while pretending to not want even the first. Lydia might be the source of much of the humour in the plot, but her and Philip’s happiness is marred by the previous occupant of the cottage, Miss Pendleton. Slightly unhinged and constantly inebriated, Miss Pendleton lurks about outside the cottage muttering ominously and accuses poor Lydia of scandalous conduct. But Miss Pendleton too, has had troubles in the past.
We also have Mrs Skelton, singular in her dress, who does for Lettice when she comes to the village, a good worker and also cook, and also the bearer of much village gossip.
Also to the village comes Clare Lennare, an author (‘with a name like that, of course she had to write’) and former friend of Mrs Fanshaw, in search of an authentic setting and plot. She stirs up trouble by indulging the drunken Ms Pendleton, and brainwashing young Ivy Skelton (Mrs Skelton’s daughter) with grand ideas which won’t serve her well in the long run.
None of these characters are extraordinary, but as in ‘normal life’ each of their lives has problems—whether it is Lettice, still in love with a husband she should despise and unable to deal with the humiliation and heartbreak or the Morrices dealing with the malevolent Ms Pendleton always lurking outside their home, or young Colin Webb and the Ferring girls, slowly suffocating under the ‘love’ or ‘care’ of their respective parent/grandparent. At one point in the story, Mr Fanshaw, echoing Rousseau, says, ‘I suppose it’s one of the mistakes of youth to think that freedom exists…Actually there’s no such thing. I believe that the only really free man in the world is a lunatic.’ And so it is—while only Mrs Fanshaw ever thinks or speaks of freedom specifically, none of our characters in the story are free—whether by love or memory or a sense of duty, and whether they can help it or not, they are bound.
I really liked that Crompton portrays these characters so realistically—Lettice for instance does not magically take to Steffan Green, she is reluctant, resists, is even peevish and shuns company, but slowly Mrs Fanshaw’s friendly manipulation pulls her in. Lettice is also torn between love and hate for her (despicable) husband Harvey, speaks her mind when he turns up at her doorstep with an unimaginable request, yet, she gives in. As does Colin Webb who does rebel against his mother at a point or two (to the extent that she is left speechless, for he doesn’t notice any of her puffing up or tears), but soon he falls back into his habitual obedience. One may not always approve all their actions (in fact, in Lettice’s case, I found myself saying no and why, when she agrees to the smug Harvey’s request), yet, one can’t really dislike them for it, for they are just being people.
Happiness for our characters, or at least a chance of it, comes at times in forms they may not expect. Sometimes they need to be shaken into it (or shaken back), sometimes it worms its way in, at others, it feels like a chance lost which they must act to recover or at least try to do so—this is real life after all, not a case of ‘happily ever after’.
Ultimately, this book is really a portrait of ordinary life—with problems any one of us might face, with people, situations, emotions—love, hate (or a tussle between the two), manipulation, malice, heartbreak, loss, also the small pleasures that come from time to time, and even secrets and a bit of drama that life may throw at you (surprisingly the book, though published in 1940, doesn’t mention war or its shadows in any from, which left me wondering whether this was deliberate or perhaps, it had been written much earlier).
This was an engaging read which I thoroughly enjoyed and which left me wanting to pick up more of Crompton’s books soon!