The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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February 23, 2011

Another unhappy family, unhappy in its own way

      'But there's always happiness for me where Lydia is,' Dora replied, and now it was Mrs. Nesbitt's turn to gesticulate her despair.

      'It is all very well to make happiness where you are,' she said, 'but what about making happiness where you are not?'
I would be, I know, the world's worst, most earnest book club member. So, once again, I want to thank the Internet for being the book club I could never find in real life. The shared interests and the passion for reading found at every turn is something I'm very grateful for.

A few weeks ago, Darlene from Roses over a Cottage Door and Simon from Stuck in a Book suggested that we read William, for discussion starting today. This is now the fourth novel by E.H. Young that I've read. Two of them (Celia and The Misses Mallet) were read so long ago, in my early days of collecting those green Viragos, that I don't remember much about them, and I read the third one (Chatterton Square) last month for Virago Reading Week.

I liked, but didn't love, Chatterton Square, the way that many other people did, and it took me a while to fall into the wonders of this earlier novel. From what I can gather, what EHY writes are family portraits, all or most set in the same English city. Other readers have already noticed the Bennet-like qualities of the Nesbitt family, and I think that's very true (was it intentional?). {I remember reading somewhere that Mrs. Bennett wasn't silly, she was realistic, and I wonder if, given the times, the same could be said of Mrs. Nesbitt.  Then again, there's this from William, which I loved:  ‘He thought this amazing woman was actually beginning to believe in the opinions she had adopted…’}.  The parents, William and Kate, have had a long and happy marriage, and their grown children -- Dora, Mabel, Lydia, William and Janet -- are wry, preachy, whimsical, practical, and knowing about who their parents, especially their mother, have become.

The second part of this book, for me, was much different, and much more compelling, than the first.

These children who had been her joy were now, it seemed, and so cruelly late in life, to ruffle her peace and threaten her with sorrow, but her anger had suddenly changed to a calm readiness to bear it. And yet, her common sense retorted, what had they done? Little enough, but there was menace in the air and while she accepted that, she now saw, too, the lovely mellowness of the evening, the great trees heavy with the burden they would soon cast down, autumn flowers in the garden, and people strolling contently through the streets and, when she found that William was waiting for her at the door, she smiled in genuine happiness. He teased her with his funny ways but he was never satisfied without her.
This mood doesn’t last for more than an inch (‘He seemed to have gone grey all over except for his eyes’) but what happens next, sadly, can only serve to make the book and its characters much more interesting.

In the end, I liked William more than I expected to from the early reading. There was a lot of the gentle humor that I found in Chatterton Square:

      ‘And I don’t think,’ Dora went on thoughtfully, ‘I don’t think John would have much chance. I think it’s more than likely that Henry would be very violent.’
      Janet laughed again — twice in one morning, and once more Mrs. Nesbitt turned her head to look at her.
      'And,’ Dora said, in the same, almost dreamy tones, ‘If I were Henry, I should kick John hard, as hard as I could.’
      ‘So would I,’ said Janet.

In Upper Radstowe there were subscription dances for which only those who were considered the cream of that society could buy tickets. There was, perhaps, a good deal of preservative in the cream, but cream it was called, and the Nesbitts, in spite of Violet’s doubts, were still admired to be of it.
This is one of the novels where we're told much, sometimes too much I think, about the characters' thoughts and feelings. (This can make me want to stop and say, 'Wait. Please. People, especially parents and children, never talk to each other that way. No one is that interesting.') But it's those unusual perspectives, and the metaphors and similes that accompany them, that give this book its power. (There's an image, for example, of Lydia resembling a tulip that was somehow just perfect.)

Thank you, Darlene and Simon, for letting me come over. This was fun!

{This photo of Bristol, a.k.a Upper Radstowe, seems to be from the same period, or close to it. I found it by Google-searching, on Old UK Photos.}

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1 comment:

Nan said...

I've seen this title around but not read any reviews till yours. I can't decide if it is just too, too sad to bear. That passage was achingly good. I wonder if it that children grow up to have their own ideas and ways of doing things that may not be the same as their parents? Is that too simplistic? Anyhow, I think that I must read William - sad or not.

Thank you for visiting!

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