All words have a 'present' meaning, but some also have a background of history. For example, 'sarsonet' has a present meaning of a light material for linings, but the reader misses a lot if he reads this as 'Margery used a light material of this colour', The word sarsonet carries with it many connotations, many elements of historical awareness, of overtones of the far East, of trade through the muslim Saracens, through the great trade centre of Venice, and on to England as an exotic fine silk, a luxurious product, which enhances the quality of the wearer. This why sarsonet is a luxury.
Similarly the mention of the Ribble brings up memories of the Romans, the boundary of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, of Aethelstan's purchase of Amouinderness and his recording that he was 'bel-pere' to the family of the same name on the banks of the Ribble, and that this was the first time the whole of England, Scotland and Wales were unified under one king (834). After the Romans, there was the British-Saxon tension recorded in the (mythical?) battles of Arthur in the 400-500 region. Ribble also reminds the reader of the later battle of Preston which terminated the first civil war and eventually resulted in the execution of a king and the establishment of a Commonwealth. The word 'Ribble' has a vast aura of memories and meanings, and English people share this background with Neill. Do they really, or have we forgotten our history?
These apparently irrelevant memories and stories are the background against which the Neill's novels were written, clearly they were present in Neill's mind when he wrote, and equally they can enhance the experience of the reader. Neill isolates a brief segment of history and tells a tale, but that brief segment is immersed in a historical continuum of which the reader is aware. Provided of course that the reader is indeed historically conscious (and if he is not, why is he reading an historical novel?) I am amazed just how historically aware Neill was.
I suspect that one important reason why Neill is a nearly forgotten novelist is that his audience was quite simply not as historically aware as Neill, and Neill rather assumed they would pick up the background to his tales. Most of his readers didn't have enough historical background. However, I'm sure many did pick up a resonance of a district they knew. Neill ties history to a place - Eliot is very aware of this resonance: 'history is now and England', Little Gidding: 'a place where prayer has been valid'. (I quote from memory.)
Try and read Tolstoy without a knowledge of history.
At its best it is a resonance between the minds of the writer and the reader, a shared experience of the history of England; shared vague, dusty memories of which we are barely conscious.
Were most of his readers unaware of the historical context, or did they just enjoy a good story? Would they even be sufficiently interested to appreciate the background if it was made available? I suspect not.