I was really pleased when I heard that Chatterton Square by E.H. Young was a 1947 novel, as I’ve had it on my shelves to read since 2007. Since 21st December 2007, to be precise, which makes it a couple of months after I read Tara’s review of it at Books and Cooks. Tara sadly left the blogosphere many years ago, but this book and she have always been associated in my mind – and it is only now, looking back at her review, that I discover that she wasn’t quite as enamoured with Chatterton Square as my memory had suggested…
This was the first E.H. Young novel I bought, but it’s now actually the fourth one that I’ve read – Miss Mole, William, and The Misses Mallett being on my have-now-read list, with William finding its way to the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About list. How does Chatterton Square fare on my list?
It was E.H. Young’s final novel, and there is a great deal of maturity here. I would never have mistaken it for a young writer’s first effort – because the characters and their experiences are described so subtly, so gradually and with such sophistication. As usual, I am getting ahead of myself. Who are these characters?
The novel concerns two families living next to each other on Chatterton Square in Upper Radstowe – Young’s fictionalised version of Clifton in Bristol. The families are the Blacketts and the Frasers, and the time is shortly before the Second World War – though obviously the characters cannot know that it is coming. They cannot know, but some are pretty sure – and some are adamant that it will not; I think this sort of dramatic irony might be something we see a lot of in the 1947 Club.
Mr and Mrs Blackett have an unhappy marriage, but only Mrs Blackett knows it. Mr Blackett is an astonishingly real creation: a monster who is never openly cruel or even vindictive. He domineers and ruins the lives of those in his family simply by expecting his needs to be more important than theirs, and respectability to be more important than freedom. He rules with a rod of iron – but one which manifests itself in hurt disbelief if anybody should ever disobey him, and genuine wonderment that anybody could wish to. Their three daughters – Flora, Rhoda, and Mary – deal with this in different ways. Flora is a copy of her father, though has grown increasingly sick of him; Rhoda is a copy of her mother (as they begin to realise as the novel progresses), and Mary – well, she’s not really anything, and could probably have been left out altogether.
Mrs Blackett has tolerated her misery by pretending to be happy, and mocking her husband to herself. This charade is what keeps her sane, and also what brings her amusement. If there is cruelty in her methods, it is because it is a question of survival. The way Young draws this marriage is truly astonishing – in the minutely observed ways each behaves, and the vividly real dynamic that emerges. It seeps into the reader’s mind and won’t go away.
She is also unafraid to show parents who don’t idolise their children. Mr Blackett is frustrated and confused by Rhoda, but Bertha Blackett actively dislikes her daughter Flora – while still loving her. But it is touching to see Rhode and Bertha come together as Chatterton Square progresses (and it begins when Rhoda sees her mother give her father a look which contained ‘a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too’.)
This family transfixed me, and is the triumph of the novel in my opinion, but we should turn our attention to the other family. Rosamund Fraser heads up the family of five children – her husband is believed by some to be dead, but actually she is separated from him. The family is happier, freer spirits, gravely looked down on by Mr Blackett – but appealing to almost all the other Blacketts (sometimes specifically – Flora fancies herself in love with one of the sons – but more as a unit to be envied.)
Living with them is Miss Spanner – a spinster and friend of Rosamund, who suffers still from the memories and affects of an unhappy childhood. She and Rosamund have a close friendship that yet retains many barriers – not least a one-way emotional dependence. Miss Spanner, in turn, starts to become friendly with Rhoda, who sneaks over illicitly to borrow books.
Young has created such a complex and believable web of relationships between these two houses, and it is an engrossing novel. There is less levity than some of her others (no character leaps off the page like the lovable Miss Mole), and it perhaps requires more commitment from a reader than some. It is not one for speed-reading – but there is an awful lot to appreciate, and slow, attentive reading is rewarded.
And as I said, the threat of war looms. Mr Blackett is sure that it won’t happen, and considers predictions of war to be irresponsible and unpatriotic; Rosamund and Miss Spanner are sure it is around the corner. Miss Spanner has this wonderful moment of musing how war could be:
War was horrible, but there were worse things. Indeed, in conditions of her own choosing, Miss Spanner would not have shrunk from it. The age for combatants, if she had the making of the conventions of war, would start at about forty-five and there would be no limit at the other end. All but the halt and the blind would be in it and she saw this army of her creation, with grey hairs and wrinkles under the helmets, floundering through the mud, swimming rivers, trying to run, gasping for breath, falling out exhausted or deciding it was time for a truce and a nice cup of tea.
In our previous chosen year, war was around the corner but could only be guessed at. Some of the books we read paid no attention to the looming at all; some of the authors probably agreed with Mr Blackett that it would never happen. What I’m intrigued to discover this time around (and this is partly why 1947 was chosen) is – will any of the books ignore the war? Could they? And how differently will they all write about?