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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January 23, 2011

Virago Reading Week: Chatterton Square

E.H. Young's 1947 novel Chatterton Square made its way onto my reading list well before Rachel and Carolyn announced their Virago Reading Week, because several other reading blogs had mentioned it with enthusiasm.  This all made it much easier to choose my first green-spined book for this week! (As I've mentioned before, I collected a number of them when they were first being published, so I had heard of E.H. Young, even though I've never read her before.)

I like to read at least a snippet of biography when I can, and E.H. (Emily Hilda) Young had a very interesting life. She was married at a young age to a solicitor who died at the Battle of Ypres in World War I, but while he was still alive she fell in love with Ralph Henderson, a married headmaster who had been his school friend. After her husband's death {according to the afterword in my edition), she 'went to live, ostensibly in a separate flat,' with Mr. and Mrs. Henderson in their home in South London, an arrangement that continued, 'in this tolerant, outwardly conventional way,' for more than 20 years.

Chatterton Square is essentially a novel about two marriages, taking place in two neighboring houses in a genteel but shabby neighborhood in Upper Radstowe.  We first meet the odious and self-important Mr. Blackett, who escapes from the life that has been thrust upon him by talking pretentiously about books and the life as a writer he would otherwise have had, and his wife Bertha, who comforts herself by holding onto her grievances against Mr. B. and her long-ago love for her cousin, Piers Lindsay.  The Blacketts and their daughters live next door to the Frasers, a family doomed, in Mr. Blackett's eyes, by the lack of a man at its head.  There's instant friction between Mr. Blackett and Mrs. Fraser, who is dreamy and unsuitable, and as it turns out, not widowed but abandoned by her husband. 

She thought of Fergus with another sudden gust of longing as she ran down the hill. She knew how willing he would be to smash the blandness out of Mr. Blackett’s face. The physical difference between the two men was that between a tomcat and a tiger and she would have been glad to show Mr. Blackett what kind of man she had married, a brave man with all his wounds in front, incapable of a sneering insult and if she had seen him coming towards her at that moment, lean and lithe, as he had been when she first saw him in this very place, she would have flung herself against him and burst into tears. And soon afterwards, he would have become an intolerable nuisance and she would have wanted to be rid of him.  The power responsible for the world to whom she had been grateful, early that morning, for the necessary tasks imposed on men and women, have evidently determined that nothing should be perfect. Even a fine summer evening must be ruined by midges, in the desire, perhaps, to create a divine discontent and the hope of a midgeless life hereafter.
I have to admit that it look me a while to get into the flow of this novel and to really start to enjoy it (as I did by the end). I have the feeling that this is a book where more might come out in a re-reading.  There is wonderful humor in many of the characters (I grew very fond of Miss Spanner) and their encounters (Rosamund with Mr. Blackett, Mr. Blackett with just about everyone, Flora with James, James with Rhoda, Miss Spanner with the people in the wireless shop), and although the story seems to center on Mrs. Fraser, there is something much more subtle and very satisfying about Mrs. Blackett. The novel is set in the summer leading up to World War II, and except for one relationship (and it's one involving one of the less interesting children), nothing is tidy or resolved at the end, which also seems right. 

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Anonymous said...

Sounds fantastic, Audrey! I think you're the first person to post during Virago Reading Week - brilliant first post and a wonderful sounding book. I'm yet to read any E H Young and you've intrigued me.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read her either, but am intrigued enough to get this now, so thanks for leading me to an author whose name I knew, but not her work. I love novels of that era, have been reading a lot of them lately.

Anonymous said...

I have read every EH Young novel Virago published (at least I'm pretty sure I have - 7 all told), starting with Miss Mole. Loved them all ... and what an interesting woman she was too. I too like t read about this era.

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