Sunday, 4 September 2011

William by E.H. Young

This 1925 novel deals, leisurely, with the effects of a family crisis.  The Nesbitts are a prosperous Bristol family (Bristol is called Radstowe in the novel) whose wealth is due to William Nesbitt's successful career as a ship-owner.  William has built up his business from nothing, having started life as a sailor, and he and his wife Kate live in a gracious white house that he determined to buy in the early days of their marriage.  Their youngest child Janet, the only one of five not yet married, lives with them, and three of her siblings live nearby.  Only the dramatic and wayward Lydia has left to live in a damp house in London with her husband Oliver, where she entertains artists, writers and musicians.  Lydia will precipitate the drama of the novel when she leaves Oliver to live in another damp house in Somerset with the writer Henry Wyatt.  The varied reactions of her friends and siblings, the family tensions arising from these reactions, and the resolution of these tensions are the matter of the narrative.

William Nesbitt is the protagonist, and much of the action of the novel is seen through his eyes; he is a fond and affectionate father, strongly interested in his children's lives, but also benefits from the slight detachment afforded by his professional life at the office and his status in the town, which is built on commercial rather than moral foundations.  No such luxury is available to Kate, and her response to Lydia's defection is what we would currently call judgemental; she rejects her.  William has much more sympathy with Lydia, and this difference opens up a rift between them.  Two of their other daughters - pampered Dora and martyred Mabel - take similarly opposing views.  Janet, whose feelings for her sister are complex and somewhat obscure, remains enigmatic.  The narrative is not a straightforward account of a family at war, however; the Nesbitts' mutual love underpins all their disagreements, and Young quietly shows how they work their way through this crisis.

There is a lot of texture in Young's prose. Light is particularly important: the light sparkling from the river when the family takes the maiden voyage in a new steamer, the darkness of Lydia's adulterous Somerset home, the pure, clear light that floods the Nesbitts' white house.  Colour, too, is significant. William ascribes colours to his children (Lydia is scarlet and purple, unsurprisingly) and the narrative is punctuated by little points of colour: William's buttonhole, flowers in vases, greengrocers' shops, the hills behind the town.  The narrative is paced like William's daily walk to and from his office, comfortably slowly, stopping regularly to examine something more closely, to look back at the view behind.  Sometimes this pace drags a little, and there were points where my fingers itched for a blue pencil.  At its best, however, it allows the family drama to unfold naturally, without haste or contrivance.

John Bayley's introduction to the Virago edition uses the word "subtlety" about this book, and it seems to be to be a just one.  The characterisation is subtle (with the possible exception of Mabel, whose function seems to be mainly comic); motivations are complex and not straightforward; relationships are built and maintained with negotiation and compromise.  What is not said remains as important as what is said. 

Unfortunately all the Virago editions of E H Young's novels seem to be out of print, although Amazon has plenty of secondhand copies for a penny. 


  1. Great review, Tanya - I especially love 'leisurely' in your first line - such a good way to describe Young's writing, which is entirely absent of sensation. I thought William (the novel) was wonderful, although lost my patience with William (the character).

  2. Tanya, EH Young is one of my favorite novelists of all time and this is one of my favorite of her many wonderful novels. I strongly urge you to get hold of some of those out of print Viragos -- Miss Mole is said to be her masterpiece but all are great. I've just finished The Misses Mallett and will be reviewing it soon. So happy that you loved this!

  3. Thanks Harriet. I have The Vicar's Daughter on my desk, but am strongly tempted by Miss Mole. It might be a nice reward if I ever finish the current bit of work-in-progress!