If you are a regular visitor to this blog you will have heard me say before that Emily Hilda Young is a truly remarkable writer. I read her Miss Mole in March, and Chatterton Square in the summer. I'd bought this one after I first discovered her, and actually started it a few months ago, and then put it down again as it didn't immediately grab me. But when I picked it up again a few days ago I realised it was an exceptional novel and at least as good, if not better, than the two I'd already read.
The William of the title is William Nesbitt, a self-made man who owns a successful boat building business in Radstowe (aka Bristol). He is middle aged, married to Kate, and has a son and four daughters. The time is the early 20th century -- the novel was published in 1925. All but one of the children is married -- only Janet, the youngest, still lives at home. A quiet, uncommunicative, and seemingly rather unhappy girl, she is a source of some anxiety to her parents who would like to see her happily married. But in fact, as William clearly recognises, none of the other children is particularly happy in their own marriages. The exception is perhaps the rather dull but good natured Walter, whose wife, the beautiful Violet, proves to have a sweetness and an intelligence which William has for a long time failed to appreciate. Of the other girls, Madge is devoted to her narrow-minded and foolish husband, Dora tolerates her bullying and unpleasant one for the sake of the children, and Lydia, her father's favorite -- well, Lydia does something unthinkable. She leaves her apparently nice, kind, loving husband Oliver and runs away to Somerset to live with a rather bohemian writer. This, and the reactions of the family, is the crux of the novel.
One of EH Young's great strengths is in the depiction of family relationships. The complexities here are superbly done. The narrative is told mainly from the point of view of William himself, a man of great intelligence and sensitivity, who plainly sees the problems of the rest of his family without necessarily knowing how to solve them. He is rarely self deceived, and bravely, though sadly, faces the fact that Kate's extreme and harsh reaction to Lydia's departure shows a side of her that he cannot love. He also knows very well that he loves some of his children better than others, and that he will never be able to love Madge, who is narrow and hypocritical and seems like an alien in the family.
This is a novel of great psychological acuity, clear-eyed about human beings and their weaknesses but full of tenderness and compassion for those who struggle to face harsh truths and to acknowledge that perfect happiness is unlikely to be an enduring state in life. If I say it reminded me of Pride and Prejudice, this is not to imply that it is in any way a pale imitation of that great novel. William has an ironic side to him which make him in some ways resemble Mr Bennet, but a Mr Bennet who has managed to regain that self-insight which JA only allows him a glimpse of. And of course he has a Lydia of his own, who elopes in her own way. I'm tempted to think that EHY was attempting (and succeeding at) a P&P for her own times -- an interesting academic essay could be written on this, but I doubt if I am going to write one.
So -- I can't recommend this novel highly enough, or do it any real justice here. You have to read it to appreciate the subtleties and the joys of the complicated relationships and their workings out. Wonderful.