Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Vicar's Daughter by E.H. Young

The Vicar's Daughter is an Edwardian (or possibly late Victorian) family drama set in the small community of a fishing village, Old Framling,  lately annexed by New Framling, a modern seaside resort.   Edward Stack is the vicar of the title, but his wife Margaret, a loving, energetic and manipulative woman, is the protagonist.  At the start of the novel they are away on holiday with their daughter Hilary, and Edward's cousin Maurice Roper is acting as a substitute vicar. While the family are away, he has done a little meddling of his own.  Caroline, a young woman from their childhood home. has come to see Edward; Maurice puts two and two together and decides she must be Edward's daughter from an earlier relationship.  Opposite the Stacks live John and James Blunt, local businessmen, and their housekeeper is ill; what could be more convenient than for Caroline to take over?  When the family return, Maurice lets slip to Margaret, whom he once loved, his suppositions about Caroline's origins.  The novel revolves around Margaret's efforts to manage this complicated situation and resolve it without damaging her much-loved daughter.

Margaret is, in many ways, rather like Young's Miss Mole, particularly in the clever way she works other people to her own ends; like Miss Mole, she can be secretive and devious, but also like Miss Mole, she is an attractive character, saved from outright cynicism by her love for others.  We see Edward mainly through Margaret and Maurice's eyes, and he remained a little two-dimensional to me.  Maurice is that difficult thing, a really well-achieved unsympathetic character, with depth and breadth.    Young makes interesting use of the topography of the town and the Vicarage, placing and moving her characters carefully through spaces to achieve intimacy or the reverse of it.  However, for me this lacked the punch of Miss Mole; as in William, the narrative pace is slow, and the drama protracted.

Even so, there is quite a lot of interest here.  I've been reading a lot of interwar novels about mothers and daughters lately for study purposes, and the genuinely warm and loving relationship between Margaret and Hilary is highly unusual in this context.  Margaret herself is a fascinating portrayal of a woman of immense capability who had no option in life other than marriage, but has devoted her energies to making that option a success: "Marriage and motherhood were the only arts she had been able to practise, and what creative impulse she possessed she had spent on Hilary and Edward".  Margaret embraces this position, but the narrative makes clear how much it costs her to do so. The contrast between authentic old fishing village and its brash new tourist resort neighbour is such a staple of middlebrow fiction that surely somebody is writing a book about it, but its effect is subtle in this text.

Like Young's other novels, this one is out of print, but secondhand copies of the Virago edition are cheap and abundant. 


  1. This is one of the few EHY novels I haven't managed to read yet. I love her, and you've made me want to get hold of it soon! Many thanks.

  2. I'll be interested to know what you make of it - it was your post on The Misses Mallett that started me off on E.H. Young, by the way.