Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in Oxford’s academic community. The plot is straightforward and in some ways predictable, but it’s simply the backdrop for some memorable characters and situations that are laugh-out-loud funny.
The elderly spinster Miss Doggett and her paid companion, Miss Morrow, serve to connect all the characters. Miss Doggett’s nephew, Francis Cleveland, is an Oxford don infatuated with Barbara, one of his students. As their relationship evolves, they are increasingly observed by others (except, of course, Francis’ wife Margaret), and become the subject of village gossip. Miss Doggett wants so badly to be in control, both of the relationship and the way it is revealed to Margaret, and her controlling nature is very funny, indeed. As Miss Doggett meddles in everyone’s affairs, Miss Morrow quietly and patiently observes, sharing her innermost thoughts only with the reader.
Meanwhile Miss Morrow has ideas of her own, as she unleashes her wiles on a new curate, Mr. Latimer. Miss Doggett does not approve:
They were still laughing when Miss Doggett came in. The sound of their laughter was the first thing that she heard before the shameful sight met her eyes: the sight of Miss Morrow — painted like a harlot — sitting laughing on the bed with a handsome clergyman whom she had just met for the first time, the new curate whose welcome Miss Doggett had planned so carefully. It was too bad. Miss Doggett cast about in her mind for words strong enough to describe Miss Morrow’s perfidy and deceit, but could find none. (p. 24)
To fully appreciate this quote one has to conjure up an image of the biggest busybody you’ve ever seen, decked out in a ridiculous hat, bursting in on the mousey Miss Morrow and the unsuspecting curate. Crampton Hodnet is full such little moments, where words and imagination come together to marvelous effect. Like when the persnickety, effeminate Edward Killigrew reflects on living with his mother:
‘Oh, Mother is very well, thank you,’ said Edward. ‘Full of beans, as usual,’ he added, his tone losing a little of its joviality. He knew that it was wicked and unfilial of him, but he sometimes wished that Mother was not quite so full of beans. (p. 74)
Or this, as Latimer prepares to go on holiday with another clergyman:
His friend, the Reverend Theodore James, was rather too serious a companion for a holiday. He couldn’t think now why he had suggested that he should join him. It wasn’t as if they had ever liked each other. Still, it was too late to do anything about it now, and at least they would be able to have a good talk about old times, rejoicing over those of their contemporaries who had not fulfilled their early promise and belittling those who had. (p. 158)
My only complaint about this book is that I would have liked for Margaret to show a bit more emotion — anger, even — at Francis’ indiscretions. But Pym wasn’t trying to make a statement; his infidelity was simply a mechanism to unleash a variety of characters and put them in awkward or humorous situations for the reader’s enjoyment. And enjoy it, I did!