There are four Misses Mallett. The best characters, as far as I'm concerned, are the two eldest sisters, Caroline and Sophia, two old ladies who refuse to acknowledge their age. Caroline is stout and dashing, while Sophia is tiny and sweet, but they both delight in rouge and debutante dresses. They could easily have been pathetic figures, but E. H. Young makes them seem magnificent. I especially wanted to hang out with Caroline, who leaves French novels around her parlor and tells shocking stories about her heart-breaking days. "We're all wrapped up in cotton-wool nowadays," she says. "I ought to have lived in another century. I, too, would have adorned a court, and kept it lively! There's no wit left in the world, and there's no wickedness of the right kind." And even though Caroline is deluded about her past -- she never really shocked anyone, and her love affairs have been mainly imaginary -- her eccentricity adds to the fairytale atmosphere of the book. She does seem to belong to another century, or to a magical time that never existed. When Caroline tells her outrageous anecdotes, her stepsister Rose remembers "her childhood, when, like a happier Cinderella, she had seen her stepsisters, in satins and laces, with pendant fans and glitter jewels, excited, rustling, with little words of commendation for each other, setting out for the evening parties of which they never tire. They had always kissed her before they went, looking, she used to think, as beautiful as princesses."
(Edmund Dulac's illustration of Cinderella at the ball, 1910.)
The story of The Misses Mallett is really about the two youngest Misses Mallett and their tangled relationships. It's about the calm, secretive Rose and her niece Henrietta, a prickly young woman with her own Cinderella story. Henrietta's father was disowned by his family for making a bad marriage, and Henrietta was raised in poverty by her mother. After her mother dies, she comes to live a life of wealth and status with her aristocratic sisters. It's at that point that Henrietta falls in love with Francis Sales, the country squire who might be the prince to her Cinderella. The problem is that Rose is also in love with Francis, and the other problem is that Francis is already married to someone else.
Even though this is a romance, the most compelling relationships are the ones between the Malletts, especially the complicated relationship that Henrietta has with Rose. But what I really loved in this book were the fairy tale elements: the coaches, the balls, the gowns, the enchanted forests and lakes, and the disturbing twist that E. H. Young puts into each of these. Henrietta meets her lover by a moonlit lake, but she ends up rejecting him. The sisters attend a fantastic ball, but it ends not in a coronation but in a death. I loved how all of the characters kept shifting roles -- each one seems like Cinderella at some point in the story, but at other points they are foolish stepsisters, wicked witches, an evil stepmother, or a fairy godmother. I was anxious to see which (if any) of the Misses Mallett would live happily ever after. And even though this is not a thoroughly happy book, I found the ending very satisfying. It made me want to read everything that E. H. Young ever wrote.