Wednesday 23 February 2011



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


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I haven't read this one, so I'll be off soon to read and enjoy the other reviews. But, one thing you said really resonated with me, " I don't mind a novel being didactic, but it rankles a bit when one is didactic under the guise of open-mindedness." I have to give that a hearty "Amen!" Thanks for the review!

  3. Wonderfully written, Simon! I absolutely agree with you, this was a book to be read slowly and savoured. Now I'm off to read some of the other reviews!

  4. Great review, Simon. So glad you loved it. Aren't we lucky to be rediscovering EH Young?

  5. What an excellent review, Simon. I've had this book on my shelves unread for several years and now I absolutely must begin it today!

  6. Thanks for this, Simon! it was fun!

  7. It's a pity my library has none of her books--I've been lucky in other cases, but after all the chat about this one I will have to see if I can get a used copy!

  8. Thank you for this review of William. At first I thought you were talking about Cicely Hamilton's William, which I didn't much like, and then I caught the E. H. Young part and was enthusiastic. I'm currently on a non-book-buying diet but hope I'll be able to find this at the library someday.


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