“The proper study of mankind is man”

Richmal Crompton’s last novel, The Inheritor (1960) has a more serious tone than some of her novels and a clear moral purpose. In some cases her stories are interesting for the characters she creates and you become wrapped up in their lives. But it is worth starting each novel with an open mind, because in quite a number of cases she has a moral purpose. I would argue that some of her novels can be read as allegories in which the plot is carefully structured to lead us towards a less than dramatic, but no less important, ending.

Di is a prolific and very popular author. But, she struggles to find new plots and her publisher warns that her stories are becoming dated and the market for them is declining. She is in awe of her husband’s more literary and intellectual tomes and is conscious of his distain. She contemplates giving up:

“She did not herself quite understand the sense of release that had come to her when she decided to give up writing. Her whole life had been wrapped up in her books. Nothing held reality for her outside them.”

In Richmal Crompton’s novels writers are often observers and manipulators, using people as material for their work without understanding or caring about them. Leonard, Di’s husband, is a case in point. He fails to connect with his wife and children and has little interest in the life of the village all around him. These writers are able to create characters that their readers connect with and they have a huge influence on their lives and yet they are unable to create a genuine bond with anyone in their own lives.

Richmal Crompton's Library (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)
Richmal Crompton’s Library (University of Roehampton, Archives and Special Collections)

Nicholas on the other hand has had very little influence on anyone. He has no ambition and has drifted through life only caring about his childhood home and the memories of his happy family life as a child and young man. He returns to live in his old home in old age and, on the last page of the novel, relishes the fact that:

“He was back again where he started, he thought. In a sort of prison—a prison that he’d carried with him all his life and from which he never wanted to escape. But, after all, didn’t everyone carry their prison about them? You couldn’t escape from yourself…. Perhaps there was no such thing as freedom and, if there were, it would be unendurable.”

He is happy just being himself in the place where he has always felt at peace. There is a certain irony here in the image of a prison, both a place of punishment and one of isolation, from which there is no escape, and yet at the same time a place of sanctuary and safety. His sister and brother both escape in old age and leave their childhood home and the village where they grew up, but they too “had taken their prisons with them”. In the end, no matter how ambitious they are for success of whatever kind, the characters in this novel all carry their inheritance with them, rooted both in their childhood, although not necessarily tied to one place, and also something beyond themselves. Is Nicholas the inheritor in this novel and will he inherit the earth?

In the last chapter, two vicars discuss philosophy and agree that, “The proper study of mankind is man”, as Alexander Pope wrote in his poem, An Essay on Man (1734). A study that Richmal Crompton pursued all her writing life.


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