Tea or Books? #40: how do we arrange our bookshelves, and two E.H. Young novels

Alphabetical or thematic shelving? Miss Mole vs Chatterton Square? Episode 40 of ‘Tea or Books?’ continues answering the important questions that others don’t dare to.


 

Tea or Books logoIn the first half of this episode, Rachel and I address the pressing issue of how books are ordered on our shelves – alphabetical order, arranged thematically, or something else completely? We have fun with this one (thanks for the suggestion, Imogen!) and would love to know what any of you do with your shelves.

In the second half, we turn to the novelist E.H. Young and pit Miss Mole (1930) against Chatterton Square (1947), and I use the word ‘obfuscatory’. Buckle in. And suggestions for other Young novels to try would be very welcome!

Visit our iTunes page, leave us a review through iTunes if you’d like, and below are the books and authors we discussed in the episode. Fewer than usual!

Letters to Max Beerbohm and a few replies by Siegfried Sasson
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon
A Curious Friendship by Anna Thomasson
M.J. Farrell
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet
A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
A.A. Milne
Elizabeth von Arnim
Miss Mole by E.H. Young
Chatterton Square by E.H. Young
Ivy Compton-Burnett
E.M. Delafield
Matty and the Dearingroydes
by Richmal Crompton
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson
William by E.H. Young
The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A Man of Property by John Galsworthy

Chatterton Square by E.H. Young #1947Club

chatterton-squareI 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 MoleWilliam, 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?

Early Young

One of the best books I’ve read this year was William by E.H. Young – a few of us did a joint read back in February, and I became a confirmed fan of Emily Hilda’s, after having previously enjoyed Miss Mole. In a manner not unknown to me, I had stockpiled EHY novels long before I knew whether or not I would like her, and so when I saw that someone at the conference I’m attending this week would be discussing The Misses Mallett (1922), I was able to prepare.

My received understanding about EH Young, from various reviews and from Virago’s judicious selection of novels to reprint in the 1980s and 1990s, was that her first three novels were rather mediocre and that The Misses Mallett (also published as The Bridge Dividing) was something of a momentous turning point. After that (so I understood) she wrote nothing but gems. After all, nothing separates those early rural novels from the sophistication of William except one novel: yes, The Misses Mallett.

I had great expectations. And, I’m sorry to say, they rather faltered. The topic showed such promise, especially given my predisposition towards spinster novels of the 1920s. And there are plenty of spinsters around – let me hand you over to my favourite one, Caroline:
“The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”Caroline, Sophia, and Rose are sisters, Rose being rather younger than the first two – who are drawn rather two-dimensionally, if amusingly. Caroline is fairly feisty, and spends her autumnal years reliving imagined conquests of her youth, and alluding to improprieties which she, in fact, has never had the opportunity to commit. Sophia is mousy and quiet and traipses after Caroline, excusing, correcting, and loving her. They have their own touching dynamic, even if their characters aren’t hugely evolved. It is with Rose, and later their feckless brother’s daughter Henrietta, that the reader is supposed to sympathise. They are from the same mould – affected intensely by their emotions, but compelled by society to quash their wilder affections, etc. etc. And they’re both tangled up with love for the (to my mind) wholly unattractive Francis Sales. He’s off the market anyway, married to an invalid wife of the variety who alternates catty remarks with lunges after her smelling salts.

To be honest, much of this plot reminded me of the most unlikely excesses of Thomas Hardy. People fall in love from distances of a hundred metres, flash their eyes all over the place, and emote wildly through woodland and over moors. Here’s an excerpt:
She did not love him – how could she? – but he belonged to her; and now, if this piece of gossip turned out to be true, she must share him with another. Jealousy, in its usual sense, she had none as yet, but she forged a chain she was to find herself unable to break. It was her pride to consider herself a hard young person, without spirituality, without sentiment, yet all her personal relationships were to be of the fantastic kind she now experienced, all her obligations such as others would have ignored.I haven’t read anything by Mary Webb et al, but this has to be the sort of thing Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm, no? (Which reminds me – review of Stella Gibbons’ Westwood coming soon, promise.) I’m being a little cruel to EHY here, perhaps, but only because her later novels are so brilliant. It’s somewhat reassuring that she wasn’t born with inherent subtlety and style.

I’m skimming over the plot rather, because it’s a bit predictable. I’ve watched enough corny films to know that the Rugged Hero will eventually be passed over for the Male Best Friend. In Henrietta’s case, the latter appears in the wonderful character of Charles. He is like a lump of real gold amidst fool’s gold – when EH Young went on to write better, much better, novels, she need not have been ashamed of creating Charles. He is a wonderful mixture of the aesthetic and inept. He lives for beauty in music, much in the way that characters in EM Forster might, but he also lacks confidence and is unnervingly self-aware.
Charles blinked, his sign of agitation, but Henrietta did not see. “He’s good to look at,” Charles muttered. “He knows how to wear his clothes.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Charles heaved a sigh. “One never knows what matters.”As a hero he defies cliche, and thus is a nod towards the sort of complex characters which Young would later form. It’s just a shame that the Misses Mallett themselves, inoffensive though they might be, never really reveal any inspiration on Young’s part. A novel about 1920s spinster sisters living together could have been deliciously fun or painfully poignant, or even both, but there are only brief moments when The Misses Mallett could be said to be either. A serviceable novel, certainly, and good enough to pass the time – but unworthy of the pen which would later create William and Miss Mole, and goodness knows whatever other sparkling or clever works.

I’m very glad that this wasn’t my first encounter with EH Young, as it might well have also been my last. Instead, I shall chalk this up to experience – and go foraging for one of her later novels next time. Can anybody at all step forward to defend Young and, equally importantly, those Misses Mallett?

William

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34. William – E.H. Young

I hope some of you have been able to get hold of William (1925) by E.H. Young (sorry for doing readalongs of out-of-print books… there is one coming up for an in-print book, which will be revealed soon!) – today I’m posting my review, and tomorrow you can – nay, must! – head over to Darlene’s blog for a discussion of William. I’m not great at understanding time differences etc., so I’m not sure when people will be awake or asleep across the globe, but pop in when you can – it will be a rolling discussion, as it were. For my part, I’ll be collecting links to reviews underneath this review – there are some already there, from past blog reviews, and I’m delighted to add Karyn’s as the first for this readalong. Pop back here tomorrow for your chance to win a copy.


I’ve got to start by saying that William is an exceptionally good, rich novel. You’ll see that it’s entered my 50 Books You Must Read list. I’d enjoyed Miss Mole a lot, but that was mostly for the exuberant and delightful central character. In William Young has exchanged a blazing light for a gentler, more even flame (albeit that William came first). Her cast of characters in William’s family are drawn beautifully and fully: William is the ex-sailor patriarch of a large family of children and grandchildren, and happy, loyal husband to Kate. Despite being a sensible business, he often speaks fancifully and at tangents, with a ‘trick of saying disturbing things in a cheerful manner’, to which Kate responds with good-natured logic. They’re a lovely married couple (although my opinions of William as a character – which differ from a few I’ve seen posted on blogs – will be explored below.)
“You never know. Things pop up unexpectedly. Life’s a long road. It looks safe enough: you jog along, with nice trim hedges at each side and fields all buttercups and daisies, and suddenly you come to a dark place where there’s a man with a gun.” “You talk a great deal of nonsense, William.”
In Kate and William, Young has created a realistically happy couple who are still interesting to the reader, because they are not wholly of one accord, and do not completely understand one another.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“I was thinking how pretty you are. None of the girls can hold a candle to you.”

“Oh, William, absurd,” she said, pleased but restive under his puzzling regard.
‘The girls’ are the majority of their offspring. There is reliable Dora, whose life may not be as picture-perfect as her mother believes; grumbling Mabel who is forever making unnecessary savings and complaining about her illusory poverty; Lydia who is married to a man who cannot hold her attentions, and quiet, contemplative Janet, still living at home. Besides these is a solitary brother – Walter – heir to William’s business.

I’m quoting a lot from this novel, but it’s worth seeing what William thinks of his children.
He saw their children and their children’s children as so many by-roads on their own highway of life and from all those roads there lurked the possibility of assault. He saw Mabel as a dusty path, Walter as a plain country road with neat, low hedges and fields beyond, Dora as a lane rich with flowers on the banks and overshadowed by splendid trees, and Lydia came to him like a winding footway across a stormy moor, Janet like a stiled path across a meadow, and all those roads were capable of producing tramps, highwaymen, snakes and pitfalls. He shook his head in dismay. “One’s own fault for having children,” he said.It is impossible to tidy up William’s family with these brief character sketches, for they are far more fully realised than that. Harriet, in her review (link at the bottom) mentions that William could be compared to Pride and Prejudice, and I definitely agree. These are two authors par excellence when it comes to observing family dynamics, and the myriad relations between parents and children in a large family.

You are led into believing that Young has simply written an observant, often funny, always intriguing, family drama. And then, about ninety pages in…
This was at the end of June and it was in September that Mrs. Nesbitt learnt to look back at her past happiness and see that it had been almost perfect. The little frets and worries which had oppressed her had been no more than summer waves, breaking with hardly a sound on a sandy shore; and suddenly a storm had risen, not with splendour, not with a call to fight the elements and emerge gloriously victorious, salt on the face and mighty wind in the soul, but one that rose with a dull, threatening rumble and a lowering of clouds which hung and would not break. They hung, ponderous, black, immovable, edge with angry colours, and the world was darkened.Isn’t that simply beautiful writing? This is the sort of prose which fills every page of Young’s novel, and makes it so rewarding to read slowly and carefully. The passages I’ve picked are probably more imagery-based than the majority of the novel, but at all times Young’s choice of words is obviously pain-staking.

But I shan’t leave you wondering what the twist is (unless you don’t want to know – in which case, stop reading now!) Most of the reviews I’ll link to mention it, and it would be difficult to write properly about William without doing so. After all, the event is not as important as the ways in which people react. Ok, I’ll stop teasing – it is no coincidence that Lydia shares a name with one particular Bennett sister, as like Lizzie’s troublesome younger sister, Lydia Nesbitt runs off with another man. The difference being she has no intention of getting divorced; she is committing adultery.

As with all the greatest novels, what happens is less significant than the way in which it happens, and the way in which it is described. Young is primarily concerned with the fall-out of Lydia’s actions, as they ripple through the family and in-laws. The responses are all very nuanced, and make for some wonderful dialogue. In fact, the dialogue throughout William reminded me of the wonderful Ivy Compton-Burnett. ICB has few admirers throughout the blogosphere, it must be said, and William is rather more likely to find favour – but in Young’s precise and patterned use of dialogue, I couldn’t avoid thinking of ICB’s brilliant novels (which are almost entirely dialogue.) Both authors use conversations to reveal huge amounts about the characters, in what is said and unsaid, and make for captivating reading.

Back to William. William himself is sympathetic with Lydia, and refuses to hear a bad word against her. Kate is aghast. Each character responds differently… but… I couldn’t work out quite what was ringing untrue, for a while, and then I realised it. Despite appearing to offer a spectrum of opinion in a sensitive manner, Young actually paints all those who think Lydia’s adultery wrong as near-hysterical and unsympathetic. Even wise Kate is shown to be the victim of societal pressures rather than her own moral conclusions – and her upset at her daughter’s actions is evinced through wild absenteeing and impassioned statements. How much richer this rich novel could have been if there had been at least one character who could see sympathetically, and yet conclude that Lydia’s actions were wrong. I don’t mind a novel being didactic, but it rankles a bit when one is didactic under the guise of open-mindedness.

And so we come to William himself. Many reviews I’ve read see him as a wonderful character and inspiring father. I’m afraid I disagreed. He is a spectacular character, and further evidence that Young can create strikingly original people – but I do not see him as unflawed at all. William considers himself so wise and so subtle in his responses to events – but he is as guilty as any of considering his subjective views to be objectively the only reasonable ones. He is also incredibly manipulative of his children, always seeming (to me) far more concerned with being able to second-guess their thoughts than with their happiness. Kate is spot on in analysing her husband here: “Yes, you are very sympathetic,” she said slowly, “when I do as you please.”

But – the mark of a great novel is that the characters are this complex and this open to debate. And that is the conclusion I hope is obvious throughout this winding review: William is a great novel. It is subtle, human, beautifully and intelligently written, and compelling. If, like William himself, it is not without its flaws, that is a small quibble in the face of its many qualities. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single reader, in possession of a good taste, must be in want of a book.

I hope you can join in this readalong – let me know if you’ve reviewed it, and I’ll add your link to this list. And do remember to join in the discussion over at Darlene’s!

Other (great!) reviews:

Roses Over A Cottage Door (Darlene) – also discussion in the comments

Harriet Devine’s Blog
I Prefer Reading (Lyn)
A Penguin A Week (Karyn)
Life Must Be Filled Up
Verity’s Virago Venture

Miss Mole

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…