February 17th, 2011

woman's magazine

E H Young

Donkey’s years ago, I bought a copy of Chatterton Square by E H Young from a charity bookstall. I loved it, kept an eye out for more of the same and have collected the books in the picture. It’s hard to explain what makes this author so readable. The books are almost all set in and around Bristol and Clifton (fictionalised as Radstowe) and are quiet family stories with a moral twist. On the surface, all is conventional but there’s always a character who is anything but. For instance, in The Curate’s Wife, which I’m currently reading, the heroine Dahlia is recently married to a clergyman but doesn’t share his beliefs. Her relations are not the kind a clergyman’s wife would be expected to have: her mother is a countrywoman who used to take in lodgers and at one time had a lover, whom she has now married. Dahlia, very self-assured and independent minded, has to cope with parish duties, parishioners and her new married state while worrying about her mother and sister.

William, which I’ve just re-read, is an odd story because it's told from the man’s point of view. William is a former sea captain who has made money building ships. He’s a thinker, unlike his wife. Kate shared his early hardships, has brought up five children and is essentially practical; she runs the home and lives for and through her husband, children and grandchildren. At the time of the story, four children are married and one daughter still lives at home. The only son is cheerful, easy going and not very bright. One daughter has become a puritanical prig, always martyring herself for no reason, but the other three are originals. Like so many of E H Young’s characters they appear conventional but are capable of subversive thoughts and in one case, behaviour.

Lydia is her father’s favourite, to a degree which I find unhealthy. It’s hard to tell what the author really thinks of her or expects the reader to think. She’s been spoilt and always does just as she pleases yet everyone forgives her because of her liveliness and charm. When she leaves her husband for another man, the family is split between those who feel that all her relatives will be ruined by association and those who think anything she does is right because she’s Lydia. Her father, of course, is in the second category and this causes a temporary estrangement from his wife. This is all very unusual in what we think of as ‘women’s books’. We’re used to heroines (The Provincial Lady is one) who are livelier and less conventional than their husbands. Here, the boot is on the other foot as it’s William who feels he’s missed out on something in life through marrying Kate; that a girl like Lydia has more to give a man. It’s almost as if William is a heroine.

I find the book very enjoyable but unsatisfactory. The central issue seems to me to be whether or not William has been a good father and I have to conclude that he has not. He’s provided well for his children but of the five, four are unhappy for most of the book and his favouritism may have made it impossible for Lydia ever to be happy. He’s always wanting to interfere in the children’s lives, even when they’re grown up; another feminine trait. Nevertheless, his children love him more than they do their mother. I have a lot of sympathy for Kate, as I do for all Marthas, and I don’t much care for Lydia.

I’ve previously recommended Miss Mole. I think I like that one, The Misses Mallett and Chatterton Square best.