A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘Hell’s Edge’

Hell’s Edge, John Rowe Townsend’s second novel, published in 1962, is a complete contrast to the later The Intruder. Though it is a realistic novel, set in a small, smoky, West Riding town among working class folk with their feet on the ground, it has the form of the traditional children’s adventure, with a ‘treasure’ to be found. More importantly though, for all the book is set in Those Satanic Mills, there is a sunniness and an optimism all the way through it that makes it joyful reading.
The book’s twin leads are Ril Terry (short for the exotic Amaryllis) and Norman Clough. They are chalk and cheese and meant to be and part of the fun in the book is of their accommodation to each other, fuelled by the flexibility of youth and, in Norman’s case, an increasing interest in his very distant cousin.
Hell’s Edge is the nickname throughout Yorkshire of the town of Hallersage, tucked into and across the mouth of a valley leading up to the moors. It’s an old town, a Yorkshire town with all that implies (especially to prejudiced Lancastrians!), full of dialect speaking Yorkshire folk, speaking their minds and dropping their aitches at every turn.
Norman, the only son of Fred and the voluble Florrie, is nearly sixteen. He’s brighter than he first looks and very much more than he lets himself be. The lad’s both a Yorkshire chauvinist and a reverse-snob, resentful and dismissive on principle of anyone even so slightly out of his class, there being an unbreakable barrier around his working class that no-one can pass in either direction. Enter Ril.
I’ve got to be honest, the Amaryllis bit has not worn at all well. The full name is unrepresentative, a touch of artificiality that’s out of place in the story, and the everyday Ril is an out-of-place name in a world where the most exotic name on offer is Celia.
Ril is, like Norman, fifteen. She comes from down south, from Belhampton, a smallish coastal resort under the shadow of the Downs. Her mother has passed away ten years previously and she’s been brought up by her father Robert, a gentle but relatively ineffectual man. She’s been educated at a Progressive School, namely one without rules where the students only study what interests them in a manner that suits them. Despite all that, Ril is turning out an intelligent girl.
Ril loves her life in Belhampton, her school, her friends, the town, the country around it. But her father, who is a Clough by distant cousinship, has taken a job as a Lecturer in Hallersage and he and Ril are moving there. Florrie is determined to welcome them as family, because family sticks together. Norman is determined not to like Ril in advance, having decided for her what she is and how little she has to do with him.
That’s alright, Ril has decided in advance, though not quite so dogmatically, that she doesn’t like Hallersage and Yorkshiremen.
The first part of the book is Ril and Norman breaking down the barriers between them, though Ril finds it a lot easier to adjust her responses, encouraged by the whole-heartedness with which everyone else welcomes her, and accepts her into Hallersage. It doesn’t hurt that there is a treasure to be found, and that Ril is determined to pursue this and Norman slowly comes round to supporting her whole-heartedly.
The thing about Hell’s Edge is that it’s cramped for space, public space. The Grammar School that both children attend has no playing fields either in its own grounds or within easy reach, requiring a long journey by tram (loved by Ril the romantic, regarded as outmoded by Norman the practical) across town. But there is a remedy, and that is connected to the History that Ril loves and Norman sees as useless. This is the Withens Estate.
The Withens are the local land-owning family, the Lords of the Manor, so to speak, landowners to about half of Hallersage, the half that’s not owned by Alderman Sam Thwaite, a great, bursting, buoyant, massive man who drops his aitches further than anyone else, but who’s the mainspring for anything that happens in the town. Long ago, in the era of Enclosures, the then Withens seized the common land used by the town and incorporated it into the estate. Protests arose, resulting in the Transporting of the ringleaders to Australia. One of these was Caradoc Clough. The Withens Estate is enclosed by a very firm wall.
The Estate chokes Hallersage. And the Withens, whose Latin motto is translated several different ways in the book, all of which come out as ‘This is mine, keep your hands off it’, won’t give anything up, won’t sell anything. But there’s a rumour, an old family story among the Cloughs, that not long before he died, Sir George Withens came to Caradoc Clough, regretful of his action in seizing the town’s land, and intent on doing something, albeit not by his Will, that would have been too simple, to redress the situation. What that is is anybody’s guess. But it’s Ril’s obsession. Old Great-Aunt Martha, granddaughter to Caradoc, a 98 year old living link to him and then, who sees in Ril her young sister returned, gives her the clue – ‘Not behind the Night Thoughts’. Ril is determined to find out the truth.
Seemingly, she has an advantage. The latest Withens, the last Withens, is a Governor of the Grammar School, as is Sam Thwaite. Her name is Celia and she’s a beautiful young blonde, under thirty. She’s also a bored young woman, constantly zipping off to the South of France, dissatisfied with life and, rather more sympathetically, a woman who has learned not to trust friends, because invariably they turn out to be friends because she’s rich, because they want something off her.
Discovering Ril and Norman sneaking into the Estate to swim, Celia’s interested enough to invite them to tea. Norman, the reverse snob, refuses, with typically Yorkshire speak-my-mind bluntness. i.e., he’s bloody rude about it. But his sometime boss, the shyster car dealer and repairer Roy Wentworth worms his way in by giving Ril a lift and being invited to stay for tea.
Ril likes Celia, who is simultaneously sophisticated and awkward, confessing her loneliness and her mistrust of those who seem to be friends. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Ril is after. After getting the clue, which will mean examining the Withens Library, she writes to Celia, asking to visit it and is naive enough not to work out why neither that letter not her two follow-ups get answers. Celia Withens has to spell it out to her.
This is where Norman comes into his own. He’s fully on his cousin’s side by now and he leads her to Withens in dark of night so that the two of them can break into the House and access the Library. In short, our two heroes turn burglar. But it’s all in a good cause.
The burglary is both a success, in that Ril retrieves a hidden envelope expressing Sir George’s wish for the enclosed land to be returned to the Town, and a complete shambles, with the burglars finding themselves being chased from pillar to post by Celia and her escort, the slimy hopeful Roy, and nearly causing massive disaster and death by bringing down the bell from the Bell Tower. Both do get away, but it’s all for nothing: the letter has no legal weight whatsoever.
Yet. Bring it to Sam Thwaite. Celia’s already keeping the exact events of the night and the Bell Tower’s collapse to herself, and the confident Sam’s confident that, with its contents to hand, and with the Estate’s solicitor, Thomas Cassell, understanding the implications, terms can be negotiated for the sale of the land to the Council, for a proper and fair price, no-one robbed on either side. The ending’s going to be happy. Until the exact moment Celia rebels.
Perhaps Roy is to blame, for having simultaneously offered his hand in marriage and, as a second option, inviting Celia to invest in his business. Celia’s had enough. No, she’s not going to give up the land, she’s leaving Hallersage for good, she won’t listen to reason because reason has been swamped by her feelings of betrayal by everyone around her. She drives off westwards in her sports car, heading for Northern Airport (Ringway). Sam’s party follows in his Rolls, and a good job too, because Celia goes off the road: it is Ril who finds her unconscious body on the hillside.
So Celia goes to hospital where wiser counsels prevail upon her. Hallersage will get its land, and will also get an ambitious scheme to bring its Town Centre into the Twentieth Century whilst retaining the best of the old. It’s all been a success.
But at the height of this, the peak of Ril and Norman’s joint success, there comes a worm in the apple. Ril receives an invitation, to stay a week with one of her old friends in Belhampton, to return to the place that she still, inside, thinks is home. Her instant joy, her impolitic celebration of it and Belhampton, is thoughtless to say the least, and disrespectful of everyone, and especially her cousin, who has made a place for her in Hell’s Edge.
The outcome is, of course, predictable. Ril has changed. Her friends have moved on without her. Belhampton isn’t quite what she used to see it as being. The gentle, almost feminine Downs are suddenly lesser in her sight than the Yorkshire Moors. Ril has become a Yorkshirewoman (poor girl) without her knowing. She returns after the weekend.
Norman’s glad to see her. He’s changed too. The boy who couldn’t wait to leave school and get a job as a motor mechanic, doing practical things, is staying on through the Sixth Year, looking to study Engineering. He’d like to start seeing Ril as a girlfriend instead of a cousin, but she’s not ready for that yet. Norman doesn’t quite come over as disappointed as I would have in the same circumstances, but Perhaps I’m expecting the wrong reactions, more of a Malcom Saville instant spark. Anyway, Townsend wrote a sequel two years later, I’m sure we’ll find out more in that.


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