Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Miss Mole

Miss Mole is my favorite of the E.H. Young books that I've read. Which is not that many -- she wrote thirteen novels, and I've read only four of them: Miss Mole, The Misses Mallett, Jenny Wren, and Celia. But Miss Mole is the one that I try to force people to read, because it's so good.

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!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Dark Fairy Tale of The Misses Mallett

The Misses Mallett (The Bridge Dividing), by E. H. Young, was the least cozy and most unsettling of all of the "Miss" books that I read recently. But I loved it. The blurb on the back of my Virago edition says, "Of Young's twelve witty novels, this, her fourth, first published in 1922, is the most reminiscent of Jane Austen." That blurb is why I bought the book in the first place, but I didn't really see much Jane Austen in The Misses Mallett. Yes, it's about sisters in a wealthy family who are contemplating the prospect of marriage, and it is witty and satirical, but it's much less Sense and Sensibility and much more a kind of dark retelling of Cinderella.

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.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Feeling Missish

This week I realized that, somehow, all of the books I was reading had "Miss" in the title. I read Miss Buncle's Book, by D.E. Stevenson, and its sequel Miss Buncle Married, and I also read two books by E.H.  Young, Miss Mole and The Misses Mallett. I must have been in the mood for a certain type of book: a book with quirky characters in a picturesque town, a book that is cozy and unsettling at the same time, a book about an unmarried woman who sees herself as being almost too old to have a romance, but not quite.

I was going to write about all four books -- and all six Misses -- in this post, but I ended up having more to say than I thought I would. So I'll start with the two D.E. Stevenson books, Miss Buncle's Book and Miss Buncle Married.

(This is not how I imagine Miss Buncle. Even after she gets a new hat.)

(This is a better cover, a 1930s/40s edition that I found in this fantastic collection of D.E. Stevenson cover art. I'm still amazed that the internet contains a collection of D.E. Stevenson cover art!)

Miss Buncle's Book is the coziest of this group, about the sleepy village of Silverstream, where Miss Buncle lives. Miss Buncle is "a thin, dowdy woman of forty" with no money, a terrible hat, and an inability to express herself in conversation. But she also has a gift for seeing everyone exactly as they are and then writing her observations down. She publishes a novel set in a thinly-disguised version of Silverstream, and in the novel the two sides of her personality are reflected: she bases a character on herself, a quiet old maid, but she is also represented in her book by a Golden Boy, a magical godlike character who walks through the village and changes everyone's lives. In the actual village of Silverstream, it's Miss Buncle who transforms the village -- by writing her book and showing the villagers what they are really like. So this is a book about a book, and it's totally metaliterary. For one thing, Miss Buncle's book is written in the same style as Miss Buncle's Book, if that makes sense. Miss Buncle is supposed to have written her book in deceptively simple language that makes the satirical portraits of her neighbors even funnier. And D.E. Stevenson combines simplicity and satire in the same way. The difference is that Miss Buncle is a more innocent writer: she writes the truth about her friends without seeing that it's funny, whereas D.E. Stevenson is definitely in on all of the jokes. And the jokes are very funny, like E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books, only with a metaliterary twist. Oh, and later, Miss Buncle writes a second book in which the character based on her writes a book, and the metaliterariness (if that's a word) gets completely out of control.

(This is the most recent edition of Miss Buncle Married.)

(But look at this cover from the 1970s! It's like an old Harlequin Romance.)

I'm not going to worry about spoiling the ending of Miss Buncle's Book, because the sequel is called Miss Buncle Married, so you already know how it turns out. Miss Buncle Married finds the former Miss Buncle trying to navigate her world without publishing novels about it. She does seem to wield a frightening power in the first book -- she can control people's lives with her writing! In the second book, she's trying to avoid using her artistic power because of the repercussions that she suffered earlier. But she can't stop observing people and meddling with their lives. She befriends a pompous artist and his wild children, and she tries to direct the course of the romance between her nephew-in-law and his girlfriend. But things don't go quite the way she plans them, which leads to some hilarious scenes in this book, and also to some disturbing ones. In the end -- and now I am going to give away the ending of the book -- Miss Buncle decides that the best way to control other people is to be a wife and mother. This is the part that Teresa from Shelf Love found so off-putting, and I agree, although I see why Stevenson ends the book this way. But: "She had a man -- all her own -- with his life to make or mar; a house -- the house of her dreams -- where her lightest word was law," and soon she will have a child "to cherish and control." Wow, D.E. Stevenson. That's a disturbing way to put it. It doesn't mean, though, that I'm not dying to read the third Miss Buncle book (I'll never be able to stop calling her Miss Buncle, even though the third book is called The Two Mrs. Abbotts), which should have a new edition out in the U.S. next year.