Published in 1932
(Reviewed as part of Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors and for The Classics Club.)
I already had two books by E H Young on my shelves, both unread. I picked them up in passing because they were green Viragos, but I knew nothing about the author herself or her work. Here was a good opportunity to remedy that. Although I started in plenty of time, it seems that time has gotten away from me, since E H Young Day has arrived and I’m only about three-quarters through the book. This is not a book I can read in a rush, so I chose not to force the pace when I realised I’d misjudged the timing. I don’t consider that I write book reviews – I just write about my own impressions of what I read. And I’d like to contribute to the discussion today, so I’m going to write based on what I’ve read so far and hope that’s okay!
E H Young’s writing career ran from 1910 to 1947. She wrote 11 adult novels, one of which won the James Tait Black award in 1930, and 2 books for children. She led an unconventional life: she was a suffragette and enjoyed a lifelong affair with a friend of her husband’s, her husband having been killed in the First World War in 1917.
Jenny Wren was published in 1932 and like many of Emily Young’s books, is set in the fictional town of Upper Radstowe – a thinly disguised area of Bristol called Clifton. Jenny Rendell has recently moved from the countryside to Upper Radstowe with her sister Dahlia and their newly-widowed mother, Louisa, who intends to make a living taking lodgers into their new home. Louisa is a countrywoman, from farming stock. Vivacious and pretty, she caught the attention of a number of local men, unsuitable for various class-related reasons, and moved away from the family farm to escape them. But out of the frying pan into the fire – she then met Sidney Rendell: a bookish man from a good family, who fell heavily in love with her and married her without a thought for the potential complications. The marriage was strained but produced two daughters: Jennifer and Dahlia, who are sent away to school and find themselves straddling an uncomfortable breach between their mother’s uneducated life and their father’s scholarly one. Sidney is presented as having been withdrawn and sombre, earnestly educating his daughters and imbued with the seriousness of life. Louisa at her best is vivid and joyful and brimming with simple good humour and joie de vivre, though she endures loneliness and many knocks to her confidence as her daughters are schooled and seem to be moving away from her and towards the life and aspirations of their father.
In many respects this is a coming of age novel: Jenny and Dahlia are longing to get away from the restrictions of their lives and they’re each seeking a good match. There are other parallels too, which put me in mind of Jane Austen. The canvas is small, the romance is gentle; and the book moves slowly with relatively little story. The characters are carefully drawn and there is a good sprinkling of wit and caricature. There are also a number of male characters which seem very much in the mould of Austen’s men, including some vividly and wickedly drawn reverends!
Before Sunday came around again the vicar had called at No. 15 Beulah Mount. He had come and gone like a child’s india-rubber ball, lightly bouncing up the steps, into the hall and Mr Cummings’ sitting room. There he rested precariously, as a ball does, threatening to move at a breath, hovering between stability and motion, and in his repetitive, staccato speech he confirmed his likeness to a ball.
“Yes, yes, no, no, I see, I see,” said Mr Doubleday, and each phrase was a gentle bounce in which he seemed to be preparing for the larger, freer leaps of his departure. This he was about to take when Jenny entered the room, not knowing he was there with Dahlia and her mother in attendance, and the rhythm of his remarks had to be changed from a double to a treble beat. He liked to please everybody, and in the comfortable conviction that he had done so he went trippingly down the steps and was carried off swiftly by the slope of Beulah Mount.
But I can’t place Jenny Wren fully alongside Austen’s books. This seems a very wordy book. It’s not especially long, but a lot of words are used to convey a point, especially when we are privy to Jenny’s thought processes. Sentences feel cumbersome. Although they flow, they seem unwieldy. Descriptive passages – of life in the neighbourhood, of the countryside and of the passing months – are frequently a joy, and some are pithy and straightforward yet paint a picture with clarity and immediacy. But for me overall, Young’s writing, in this novel at least, doesn’t have that lightness of touch that characterises Austen’s books.
It was too early for the push-carts and playing children of the poorer streets. The mothers had not yet had time to dress their families and themselves in their best, though a few managing women had put their babies into their perambulators and told their husbands to take them out, and those fortunate in peaceful or sleeping infants were sitting on seats and reading newspapers: but the road encircling The Green was already lively with motor cars, shabby ones filled with family parties – fat, cheerful women and red-faced men and a scattering of children, some with gay, fresh young people in them – setting off for picnics, Dahlia thought, and some small shining ones containing only a man and a girl, and through the noise of the engines and the hooting of horns the single bell tolled warningly from the church.
When I began the book, I wondered if I would finish it. There are too many other books to be read: did I want to devote my time and attention to this one? Had it not been for the Birthday Book I suspect I would have abandoned it. I’m pleased that I persevered. I’m pleased for several reasons. The novel offers a window into the complications of class and especially into the fortunes or otherwise of women between the wars. The conflicting hopes and dreams of young woman are laid bare, but also of older women and women of varying backgrounds. The complexities of class and gender, education and money are each under the spotlight. But the main reason that I’m pleased I persevered and am happy to continue with this book is because of the characters. Without my realising it, Emily Young has given me fully-formed, rounded people in this book. I feel like I know them and would recognise them in the street or in conversation. Without my realising it, they’ve got under my skin. I care about all of them, men and women, and I want to know what happens to them – even the less appealing ones. That is a skill to be celebrated and applauded. And is certainly reason enough to continue reading.
Jenny Wren is the first in a pair of books. The second, The Curate’s Wife, focuses on Jenny’s sister, Dahlia. This is the other E H Young book that I have. I suspect that I won’t go straight onto reading this second one, though the introduction to Jenny Wren recommends that they be read together. At the moment I have too many other books I feel committed to and Dahlia’s story may have to wait. But I do find myself hoping that Jane runs another E H Young Day next year. I’ll be ready and waiting with The Curate’s Wife, if so!