Showing posts with label E.H. Young. Show all posts
Showing posts with label E.H. Young. Show all posts

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. 

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.

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.