Saturday, 17 December 2011

Miss Mole by E.H.Young

Miss Mole was a kind present from Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book, who discovered I'd never read it, happened upon a secondhand copy straight away, and sent it to me.  He thought I would enjoy it, and he was entirely right.

Hannah Mole is a forty-year-old spinster, the daughter of a Somerset farmer who has earned her living by working in that ambiguous, intermediate form of service that comprises governesses and companions to fretful old ladies.  At the start of the book she is about to lose her position, having told a small fib to her current old lady to gain some much valued free time; but that scrounged free time leads her to commit a brave and impulsive act, an act that will change her circumstances entirely.  Her cousin Lilla, who has married well, finds Hannah a job as housekeeper to the widowed minister of the local Baptist chapel, Reverend Corder.  Caring for him also involves caring for his daughters: scruffy, fearful Ruth, and Ethel, a fretful young woman trying to find her place in life.  Their household includes Wilfred, a cousin studying to be a doctor, and Howard, Reverend Corder's son who is intended for the ministry himself.  Hannah - unmarried, thin and dowdy with a markedly long nose - should be an invisible woman, working away in the background, making little mark on the world.  But Hannah has remarkable powers of imagination and hope; confronted with obstacles, she makes lateral moves that confound her opponents and advance her plans; and she is able to extract the maximum amount of joy from the most unpropitious circumstances.   However, she is also a Woman with a Past, and the tension of the novel is created by the possibility that, despite her natural optimism, her Past will rise up and vanquish her.

The novel stands or falls on the characterisation of its protagonist, and for me Hannah Mole succeeds brilliantly.  E.H. Young can be oblique; we do not always know all that Hannah knows, and narratives are revealed to us in layers, whenever Hannah feels like peeling another one off.  This keeps the text taut and the reader intrigued.  Miss Mole - liberated by her social position from the class constraints that beset cousin Lilla - can be unexpected in both thought and deed.  As much as she can find beauty in any townscape or landscape, she can find interest in any people, including (and perhaps especially) the socially undesirable.  For Hannah, human relationships can be an amusing game in which she can gamble as much of her reputation as she likes:

"This was better sport, and the rules of the game demanded that she should take risks, but save her life.  She had an exquisite enjoyment in watching for the feints of her adversary, and into her mind, stored with detached, incomplete pieces of information, there darted all the fencing terms she had ever heard, those bright, gleaming words with the ring of steel and the quick stamping of feet in them.  She had the advantage of him.  She knew what she was going to do, and she felt that she had him on her point, but, behind the temporary excitement, there was waiting for her the moment when she would have to tell herself that, for all its outward gallantry, this was a sorry, sordid business."

Hannah is no middle-aged Flora Poste, always serenely confident that she is right; her negotiations with life have a cost, and E.H. Young makes sure we know this.  This serious undercurrent enriches the novel and gives it substance, while the wit of the dialogue and especially Miss Mole's ironic reflections - some of which are only audible to the reader - give it sharpness and bite. 

Other enjoyable aspects are some very thoughtful passages about the nature of work and service; the lyrical portrayal of Bristol, here called Radstowe, which Miss Mole prizes extravagantly; and the representation of the gradations of middle-class social life in a provincial city.  The narrative, like the characterisation, is not always straightforward; we may know something has happened, but it will be a few chapters later before we find out exactly what it is.  I also liked the way the characters were balanced. The text seems to ascribe to almost all the characters, including some that we never see, a fair measure of gravity, of mass; individual characters do not dominate more than the action requires.  As in William, the pace here is fairly slow, but since Miss Mole's mind moves so quickly, I noticed it less.  I really need to read this book again to get the measure of it and it is definitely a book that will bear re-reading, a book that can be lived in. 

Here is Simon's own review of this novel and another one from Harriet Devine.  Sadly, this book appears to be out of print at the moment, although there are secondhand copies around. It's worth seeking out.

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