“I think Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be a good chap to have supper with. Anyone who builds a railway and then builds a steamship when he gets to Bristol and can’t go any further must be a good chap.” (Fergus Henderson)

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.

 

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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:

“Green was the silence, wet was the light,/the month of June trembled like a butterfly.” (Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets)

We’re having a mini-heatwave in Britain at the moment. Yes, the annual 3 days of summer have finally arrived, hooray! Compared to Spain which is currently experiencing temperatures in the mid-40s we’re positively Artic, but it still counts. I’m taking the lead from my cats, who wait til I appear in order to throw themselves on the floor like Norma Desmond fainting on a chaise longue, to convey to me that its positively balmy and their water dishes need refilling (they’re immigrant cats from NZ, I think their years with me have turned them into Northern hemisphere wusses). This week I’m looking at novels set in summer, quickly before Autumn starts (ie next week).

This is from The Long Hot Summer so it’s totally relevant and not at all gratuitous *cough*

Firstly, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2011) set in France in 1994, where Joe, a poet, his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, and their teenage daughter Nina are on holiday with family friends Mitchell and Laura. One day, a naked young woman is floating in their pool.  She is Kitty Finch, and Isabel surprises everyone by asking her to stay.

“The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife helped him.”

Deborah Levy has a piercing gaze for middle-class mores and Swimming Home could have been a sharp social satire:

“Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart.”

But with the arrival of fragile, destructive Kitty, the novel shifts into a psychological examination of the family unit and the individuals who comprise it. Kitty’s arrival exposes all the faultlines running through the relationships and Levy explores this in a delicate, subtle way, never resorting to caricature or cliche. Isabel is a successful journalist but an absent mother:

“She had attempted to be someone she didn’t really understand. A powerful but fragile female character. If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to, or even how it made sitting alone at a table laid for two on a Saturday night feel better.”

Joe is vain but has also struggled with depression in the past and seems on the precipice of something overwhelming. Nina is coming to terms with her screwed-up parents “Flawed and hostile but still a family” and her burgeoning sexuality. Mitchell and Laura’s business is flagging and they are financially desperate.

Swimming Home is a short novel (157 pages in my edition) that packs a significant punch. The beauty of Levy’s language sometimes belies its violence:

“She was not a poet. She was a poem. She was about to snap in half.”

It is a novel about the psychological warfare that can take place in the most ordinary of families:

“The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

and it is about loss and grief and trying to make sense of ourselves and others, and the desperate need to be loved.

I thought Swimming Home was brilliantly written and acutely observed. Levy’s not a comfortable read but in some ways she is reassuring. Everyone’s messed up, and yet somehow we endure.

“This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.”

Another non-gratuitous clip from The Long Hot Summer…

Secondly, In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (1961), another of Taylor’s beautifully observed, funny, sad and wholly original gems. Kate is a middle-aged widow, who much to everyone’s surprise has remarried the feckless, significantly younger Dermot. They live in the commuter belt with the slightly batty, cello-playing aunt Ethel, who writes long letters to her friend Gertrude (they were suffragettes together) and who observes Kate thusly:

“A typically English woman, I should say – young for her age, rather inhibited (heretofore), too satirical, with one half of her mind held back always to observe and pass judgement. This temperate climate has its effect – ripeness comes slowly and all sorts of delicate issues find shelter to grow in and so confuse the picture.”

This ‘ripeness’ is a somewhat surprising theme for a Taylor novel; she doesn’t shy away from the fact that Dermot and Kate have a mutually satisfying sex life and this is probably what keeps them together. For their lives are fully of perfectly ordinary but difficult to manage tensions, which create disharmony in their home.  Kate’s daughter Louisa is in love with the local curate, who is seen as too High Church for the vicinity:

“This derisive atmosphere [Louisa] could not thrive in. The love there was in the house seemed fitful, leaving uneasiness.”

Kate’s son Tom is a local lothario who seems to want to be tamed by the return of childhood friend Araminta*, who is ambivalent about him at best. He is struggling with the expectations that come with going into the family business.

“ ‘This bloody, damned family gathering,’ he thought furiously. ‘The mix-up of the age groups, the cramping fools, the this, the that, the rubbishy tedium of it all, with the bloody everlasting chatter, sitting for hours at the table with pins and needles in my feet, all the sodding knives and forks. Aunt Ethel with her surreptitious pill taking. ‘Have you seen anything of old so-and-so lately?’ ‘No, old son, I can’t off-hand say I bloody well have.’ “

Dermot never earns any money, his mother Edwina is interfering, their cook Mrs Meacock only makes American cuisine and seems set to leave on travels again… and then old family friend Charles (father of Araminta) starts to confuse Kate’s feelings.

In a Summer Season is an absolute treat. In Taylor’s writing no one word is wasted. She observes unblinkingly but compassionately and while she doesn’t shy away from tragedy, her gentle humour brings a fine balance to the story. It’s pretty easy to see how things will play out in In a Summer Season, but this doesn’t matter. The reader is in the hands of a master craftsman and the joy is the journey.

 “She would keep his remark in mind for later and bring it out in the solitude of her bedroom and enjoy it privately, like a biscuit saved from tea.”

To end, Mr Weller in his short-lived Brideshead phase. (This being a book blog, I’m sure some of you will note the video was shot in Cambridge and Brideshead’s set in Oxford, so I’m asking in advance for you to please forgive my lazy shorthand). Because nothing says summer like a man taking a big bite out of a weeping willow:

*This is why children are not in charge of their own names: when I was nine I was adamant I would change my name to Araminta, because I’d just read Moondial. Now I think about it, it’s never too late…