I think that E.H. Young was a genius at characterization. How did she make her heroines so flawed and so likable at the same time? Hannah Mole seems completely real to me. She's a plain woman of about forty, a farmer's daughter with a good education and very little money, who is forced to make her living as a housekeeper. She is occasionally self-pitying, deceitful, and sharp-tongued, but all of her faults are offset by her imagination, her love of beauty, and her kindness to everyone around her. Also, like all of E.H. Young's heroines, Miss Mole has beautiful feet. (Isn't it strange when you find that kind of quirk in an author? It's like in L.M. Montgomery books where all of the heroines have thin, pale faces, or in Josephine Tey mysteries where the villains always have pale blue eyes.) Oh, and also, Miss Mole has a scandalous secret in her past. I love a misfit heroine with a scandalous past!
Miss Mole takes a job as housekeeper to a widowed minister, a controlling man with high principles, and she befriends his two daughters. As I've come to expect from an E.H. Young novel, the family relationships are wonderfully complex. But as Miss Mole sees it, every relationship is full of possibility. One of the things I like best about this book is the way that Miss Mole is constantly imagining that something good is just about to happen to her -- that the curmudgeonly old neighbor will leave her a fortune in his will, that the dashing uncle of the family will fall in love with her and take her away to a new life. What really happens to her, though, is completely unexpected. I probably should have seen the end of this book coming, but I did not, and I loved the surprise.
(I love the cover art by Ruth Cobb in this first edition, published in 1930.)
Reading E.H. Young books will make you want to live in Radstowe, Young's fictionalized version of Bristol, with its lovely old buildings and river mists. I have no idea what actual Bristol is like, but fictional Radstowe is gorgeous. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the scenes where Miss Mole walks around Radstowe, drinking in the beauty of the city and imagining things. Take this passage, for example:
"There was her walk on the hill overlooking the water, with the bright tree showing through a grey mist which seemed to darken when the wings of a swooping gull flashed through it: there was the sound of unseen ships hooting or booming at the turn of the river and, at her will, she had been able to imagine them as huge amphibians, calling to each other as they floundered in the water and sought the hidden banks, or she could acknowledge them as the sirens of ships which were coming home from distant places or setting out on fresh voyages, and standing up there with the soft rain on her face, she had marvelled at the richness of human life in which imagination could create strange beasts though facts were sufficient in themselves ..."
(This is a 1920s souvenir postcard of Bristol, and is basically how I imagine Radstowe.)
I think that Miss Mole must be a little like E.H. Young herself. Young does the same thing that Miss Mole does: she transforms her world into something beautiful, without ever forgetting the reality behind it. That is a marvelous gift, and it's what makes Miss Mole the book that I push into people's hands, demanding that they read it right now.
Read this book right now!