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."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.
"That doesn't matter."
Charles heaved a sigh. "One never knows what matters."
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?