This week I’ll be briefly visiting the beautiful city of Bristol for work, so in preparation I’ve read 2 books by EH Young, who fictionalised Bristol as Radstowe throughout her novels.
EH Young’s world is one of genteel middle-class, and at first I wasn’t sure The Misses Mallett (1922) was for me. The descriptions of the beauty of Radstowe were somewhat overblown, and I wondered if it was going to be clumsy Austen-lite. I’m pleased to say I was completely wrong. The Misses Mallet is acutely observed and Young’s characterisation is excellent. Those who people her world are complex, not always likable but always so believable.
Caroline and Sophia are elderly unmarried Mallet sisters who spend their days reliving past glories, which may not be exactly as Caroline remembers:
“ ‘And men like what they fear,’ Caroline added.
‘Yes dear,’ Sophia said, A natural flush appeared round the delicate dabs of rouge. She hoped she might be forgiven for her tender deceits. Those young men in white waistcoats had often laughed at Caroline rather than her wit; she was, as Sophia had shrinkingly divined, as often as not their butt, and dear Caroline had never known it; she must never know it, never know it.”
The elderly Miss Malletts are comically but fondly drawn, with their frills and lace, their make-up which doesn’t hide their age, Caroline’s mistaken belief that she is wordly, and their constant self-mythologising. Rose, their younger step-sister, is different:
“restraint and a love of danger lived together in her nature and these two qualities were fed by the position in which she found herself, nor would she have had the position changed. It supplied her with the emotion she had wanted. She had the privilege of feeling deeply and dangerously yet of preserving her pride.”
She is in love with Francis Sales, but realised it too late and he married another. As Young details above, this arrested love affair quite suits her. Sales’ wife is housebound in constant pain since a fall from a horse that she believes Rose engineered. They are locked in a co-dependent, vindictive relationship bound up in what has not been said, in blame and in guilt.
Yet overall the lives of the Misses Malletts are calm and routine.
“the Mallets did not criticise their actions or analyse their minds”
This all changes with the arrival of Henrietta, their young orphaned niece.
“the Mallets don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’re terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she isn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”
But Henrietta may not be quite so ready to adopt the Miss Mallett way of life. She also falls for Francis Sales, whilst being courted by the socially awkward Charles Batty:
“He was plain; he was getting bald; his trousers bagged; his socks wrinkled like concertinas; his comparative self-assurance was quite unjustified.”
What follows is a novel written with great lightness of touch, but it is the excellent characterisation that stops it being cosy or sentimental. It is a world that has passed, but it is a world that is fully realised and Young shows that it, and the people in it, can still be recognised and understood. The Misses Mallett, and those who surround them, will stay with me a long time.
Secondly, William which came 3 years after The Misses Mallett. I found the descriptive writing in this a lot more restrained and so I wonder if either 3 years saw the maturing of EH Young’s writing style, or if she was actually having a sly dig at purple prose romances in The Misses Mallett and I missed the pastiche. Either way, William is brilliantly written and was her most successful novel. It is primarily a character study of the titular man, a self-made shipping magnate.
“William Nesbitt had no yearnings for the sea: he had had enough of it in his youth, but the thought of it was always with him and would have been with him even if his business had not compelled him to constant communication with it; and the fact that it lay down there beyond the river and out of sight, was like the presence of a woman, still beautiful, whom he loved no longer with desire, but with knowledge, understanding and satisfaction.”
William is someone who life has treated well, and he has an affection for it:
“Life was interesting, a great adventure, enlivened by countless minor episodes. It was difficult to believe anybody could find it dull. Every personality was more or less of an excitement to him – Kate, Janet, Lydia, the captains of his ships, the clerks in his office, the ships themselves, the very gulls swooping for garbage in the river, cutting the air with wings like swords.”
However, although he has worked hard and continues to do so, he has never really been tested. This is about to change. One of his five children, his daughter Lydia, leaves her husband to live with her lover. The post-war times are a-changing, and William finds himself in opposition to his wife as they cope with the fallout. William finds he is able to love his children unconditionally. His affection for life is undiminished and expanded.
“ ‘I’ve told you Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.’”
His wife on the other hand, is outraged at Lydia’s unconventional choice and becomes embittered as she realises she holds absolutely no power to change the situation.
“He had lived with her for nearly forty years, not deceiving himself into the belief of perfect union, but in accord, with humour, with much happiness, and now, in the face of first trouble, he had lost touch with her, as though his consort were only for smooth waters.”
William is a rich novel despite not being overly long (a good thing to my way of thinking). Once again, EH Young displays excellent characterisation and psychological insight, not only towards her main protagonist but also the characters of his wife and their children. There is sadness in the novel, with Kate’s moral rigidity causing her deep pain and William’s realisation that although his marriage is basically happy “He had missed ecstasy”. However, it is not a sad novel. Rather it captures the human impact of societal change and it does so without preaching, showing how both human beings and love endure. EH Young challenges the institution of marriage (she lived in a ménage a trois for many years) whilst also showing its advantages:
“‘There’s a great deal of humbug about marriage… and a forced loyalty is the devil. And if Oliver couldn’t hold Lydia by love, why should he hold her by law?’”
It is a testament to EH Young’s writing that while society has moved on to an extent that the central dilemma no longer exists, William remains a deeply moving and compelling novel.
These were my first two novels by EH Young and I’m already a huge fan. In this year of my book buying ban, I’m pleased to find I have 4 more of her novels in the TBR mountain (it’s this kind of excess which has led to the aforementioned ban); I’ll definitely be reading them soon.
To end, a band that named themselves after their home town near Bristol: