Millicent Dorrington, by Richmal Crompton

Another of her "grown up" novels. This tells the life of Millicent Dorrington, from her youth in the 1890s(?) to her death in the 1920s (the book is dated 1927).

This was a lot longer (maybe twice as long) as the other RC books I've read lately. But because it was a kindle book, I didn't really appreciate that when I started it. I think if I'd been reading a physical book, I'd have been better prepared but the "per cent progress" indicator is a bit more abstract than the weight of a paperback, so I think I assumed it was taking a long time to get through it because I wasn't reading very quickly.

And (I assume because of this) it did feel a bit of a slog at times, because the way the story and characters developed was a bit slow. At the beginning, I wasn't sure who I was supposed to be concentrating on: there are a lot of characters, and MD isn't always the focal point. At about 30% through, I noted "I can't really work out what this book is about - perhaps I'm making a mistake in thinking that it's a simple narrative about Millicent and should instead think in terms of a wider scene novel like Middlemarch"

The story reminded me of a couple of other books: to start with, Millicent's family owns a mill, but live in the "better" part of town:

..the custom had changed long ago and Father was the last of the big millowners to stay down in Belton. The others had all built fashionable new houses on the high suburb called Uplands, just outside the town, and they went down to Belton every morning in smart carriages...they had all agreed that Belton had become impossible. The smoke from the crowded mill chimneys made housekeeping, as Mrs. Merton, who was cultured, put it, a "Sisyphean labour."

This reminded me of Room at the Top.

And it wasn't just the way that the novel described the social scene which reminded me of Middlemarch. Millicent has a definite Dorothea quality, not least in her devotion to helping her father:

She worked for him in the mornings, reading at his direction, and in the evening he went over what she had done, or they sat in silence reading.
and
The talk then soared above Denis's head. He saw that Millicent's judgments and opinions were received with respect. She talked extraordinarily well and seemed to have an amazing fund of general culture. Denis, watching her fair face alive with intelligence and keenness, felt a thrill of pride. Yesterday's "frump" had vanished...

There's also a section which reminded me of the Chick and the Hairy Guy: Ronnie and Lorna go for a bicycle ride, and they both know that Ronnie is about to propose, and that Lorna is going to say yes:

"Not now, Ronnie ... Ask me at the bottom of the hill. I’ll tell you at the bottom of the hill."

And in spite of her childish whim to keep him a few minutes in suspense, he read his answer in her eyes and his heart lightened.

"Come along," she sang, mounting her bicycle with the ease and swiftness she seemed to bring to her least action, and already disappearing at full speed down the steep hill.

As I was reading that, I thought "oh no..." and felt a similar sense of anguish because I knew things were not going to turn out well.

I liked this, thought it was perceptive:

Amy, who had hoped to find Gordon at home, was disappointed and sulky. She disliked the Blake girls, and was disgusted with Janet for encouraging them. She looked upon Millicent as a school-girl, was slightly jealous of her looks, resented her appearance in the grown-up world of Uplands and felt no inclination to put her at her ease. She was cold and patronizing. She deliberately encouraged long silences in order the more effectually to look bored.

and

"Dudley, we neither of us know what we feel. Our relationship since I met you again has been an artificial one. We’ve met as hostess and guest on our more or less best behaviour. The I you see now wouldn’t be the I you’d see if I were your wife, and the same with you. You’ve been doing all you could to please me. I like you —but I don’t know that I’d like you as a husband."

and

"It's no sort of life for a woman like you. You ought to be looked after. You don't look well, anyway. You're far too thin."

"Of course if that's all there is to it I dare say I could fatten myself without having recourse to marriage."

I guess whe the book was written, it was still normal to have servants. It still feels odd though when they simply don't consider managing without them.

One of the men in the book is a churchman, and goes out with (courts? not sure what the right expression would be) a young woman who is passionate about social issues.

"This is what I wanted to read to you," said Doris, opening a book and turning over the pages with her white rather plump fingers (Doris's inclination to stoutness was still a very real trouble to her). She began to read in her beautiful sensous voice.

He listened without interest. He'd always taken for granted that the beggar's arguments were convincing, of course, only they didn't convince him, because his Christianity was something quite apart from his mind. It was part of his training and his code and his soul. He'd not been convinced of Christianity by appeals to his reasoning power, and therefore no appeals to his reasoning power could unconvince him.

One of the more unpleasant characters is Amy, married to a long-suffering husband who points out that the shortcomings of one of Amy's favoured cousins

"Remember," said Gordon mildly, "that she went without paying a single tradesman's bill, though she'd drawn two months' housekeeping allowance."

Amy didn't want to remember this, so she didn't.

On one level, it seems that Millicent lives an unsuccessful life: she nearly marries a couple of times, nearly embarks on adventures, but in the end remains in the house she grew up in. At the end of the book, Amy (the not very nice one) says, "Poor Millicent...she had 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 get something we miss. I don't know what it is quite, but - they get something."

I wondered how much the book was autobiographical: so far as I know RC didn't marry but perhaps she too had had opportunities that were "thwarted".

So, there were good bits but I don't think I'd recommend as the first of these novels to read. I may read it again: perhaps knowing that it's a bit epic before I start would help me approach it in the right frame of mind.

Completed : 12-Mar-2019

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