It is nice to have someone in my book group who has very similar reading tastes to me. It means I needn’t harp on about my choices all the time, I can sit back and let Miss Mole (1930) by EH Young be selected, without even having to suggest it myself. Thanks Ruth! This was my first EH Young (of the three or four which have found their way to my bookshelves) but it definitely won’t be my last. AND Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Award, which is generally a better guide for good books than any of the other major book awards.
Miss Mole is a fairly mischievous forty-something who seeks work as a housekeeper. She embarrasses her cousin Lilla, who is from the ‘better’ side of the family, into finding her a position with a nonconformist minister Robert Corder, his daughters Ethel and Ruth, and their cousin Wilfred. Miss Mole’s defence against the potential boredom of her life is concealing her lively and humorous character behind a facade of the dutiful, unintelligent housekeeper which is expected of her.
She could see herself clearly enough with other people’s eyes: she was drab, she was nearing, if she had not reached, middle-age, she bore the stamp of a woman who had always worked against the grain[…] Who would suspect her of a sense of fun and irony, of a passionate love for beauty and the power to drag it from its hidden places?
This is the sort of family-orientated novel which Richmal Crompton sometimes does better, and sometimes rather worse. Young never falls into the pitfalls to which Crompton is occasionally prone – preciousness or being ever so slightly saccharine. Miss Mole is a fairy-tale, but without sentimentality. That is not to say the novel is remotely cynical or disillusioned – but rather that there is nothing which would be more appropriate in a book called Tales For Disconcerted Infants. But it is definitely in the fairy-tale mold – Miss Mole deals with the various dilemmas and quandaries facing the members of the Corder family, who all grow to depend upon her. And she has a few problems of her own, which are gradually revealed, though the family around her remains oblivious.
They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die.
But it is as impossible to pity her as it is to envy her position, because she is so irrepressible. Though she teases everyone, especially her cousin Lilla (and all while pretending to be respectful, and subtle enough to evade retaliation) there is no malice in Miss Mole. There were a few bits which made me laugh out loud, and plenty which made me smile:
“This is a fine old city, Miss Mole,” he said, “full of historic associations, and we have one of the finest parish churches in the country – if you are interested in architecture,” he added, with a subtle suggestion that this was not likely.
Hannah longed to ask what effect her indifference would have on the building, but Mr. Corder did not wait for reassurance about its safety.
EH Young’s strength is in dialogue – when Miss Mole is wittily dissecting other people’s words, but in the guise of guileless innocence, Young crafts the exchanges so finely. The prose narrative is good, but sometimes drags a bit, and doesn’t have the liveliness which Miss Mole injects into the dialogue. Perhaps this is why EH Young is a very good, but not a great, novelist – however, when it comes to drawing characters, she is really rather brilliant. Miss Mole is a creation of whom Jane Austen would be proud, and I think I’ll remember her for some time.
As I said – my first EH Young, but not my last. Thank you, books, for being sturdy enough to last 80 years and allow me the enjoyment of all the wonderful novelists who are neglected by most of the publishing world today! EH Young is surely due a reprint from someone…