A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West

Another couple of mini reviews from me – this time covering books by the English writers E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West, both published by Virago.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young (1930)

This is a lovely, traditional novel which features a fully-realised character at its heart, the resilient and ever-optimistic spinster, Miss Hannah Mole.

For the last twenty years, Miss Mole has eked out a humble living for herself as a children’s governess and as a companion to a sequence of demanding women, but her somewhat rebellious nature has often resulted in trouble and dismissal. Rapidly approaching forty with no permanent home of her own, Miss Mole accepts a position as housekeeper to the nonconformist minister, Robert Corder, and his two daughters, Ethel and Ruth, both of whom need sensitive care and attention following the death of their mother. In some respects, this move represents an emotional return for Miss Mole to her home district of Radstowe, a place that holds many memories for our protagonist which are gradually revealed throughout the book.

Unfortunately for Miss Mole, her new employer is a rather pompous man. Blind to his own faults and shortcomings, Reverend Corder has a high opinion of himself and his own standing in the community, a view that is not necessarily shared by his new housekeeper. For her part, Miss Mole wishes the Reverend would show a little more compassion and affection for his daughters, virtues that ought to be second nature to any father, especially a widower.

He was not an unkind father; he was amiable enough and ready to expand under the affection he had made it impossible for them to show him, but he seemed to Hannah to treat his daughters as an audience for his sentiments and the record of his doings and to forget that these girls had characters, unless they happened to annoy him. (p. 67)

While twenty-three-year-old Ethel is sensitive and restless and desperate to be loved, young Ruth presents a somewhat different challenge for Miss Mole, her initial hostility requiring careful handling and a softly-softly approach. In time, however, the bright and resourceful Miss Mole coaxes these two girls out of their shells, winning their affections with her charm, candour and natural gift for storytelling.

While there are many familiar elements to this story – the downtrodden spinster, the conceited employer, the undervalued children and the romantic love-interest – what really elevates this novel above the norm is the character of Miss Mole. There are times when she is too stubborn, reckless and outspoken for her own good; but then again, she is also quick, imaginative and very, very funny. In this scene from the early stages of the novel, Miss Mole is discussing the possibility of becoming the Corders’ housekeeper with her cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith, a respected member of the community who prefers to keep her true relationship to Miss Mole under wraps. Interestingly, it is Lilla who has arranged the position for Miss Mole, not Hannah herself, partly as a means of getting her cousin out of the way.

‘But won’t he want to see me?’

‘Not necessary,’ said Mrs. Spenser-Smith in her best Spenser-Smithian manner.

‘Not advisable, you mean! I daresay you’re right. What sort of a man is he? Is he brisk and hearty, or one of those gentle paw-folders?’

‘That isn’t funny, Hannah, it’s vulgar; I might say irreverent. Do try to remember you’re a lady.’

‘But I’m not. I come of the same stock as you do, Lilla, and we know what that is. Simple yeoman stock, […]. (p. 36)

This is a charming story of an invisible woman who knows that her best years may well be behind her, and yet she rarely loses hope that something wonderful could be just around the corner – even when some distressing secrets from the past threaten to catch up with her. All in all, a truly excellent read.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

I really enjoyed this classic story of an elderly woman who grasps the opportunity for a little liberation in life following the death of her esteemed husband, Henry, the Earl of Slane.

The novel is written in three parts, the first of which opens with a family gathering in the wake of Lord Slane’s demise. For the past seventy years, eighty-eight-year-old Lady Slane has devoted her life to the needs of her husband and their six children (now all in their sixties and feeling the responsibilities of middle age). Her own needs and desires have been pushed aside in favour of playing the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on his diplomatic duties in India and the UK.

As they come together at this momentous time, the Slane children – most of whom are patronising, dismissive, money-grabbing creatures – assume their mother will have next to nothing in her life now that her husband has passed away. In their infinite wisdom, the four eldest Slanes decide that their mother must be parcelled up like a piece of furniture and sent to each of their houses in turn on a rotational basis until the time of her death. The possibility that Lady Slane might have a mind of her own does not come into the equation. As far as her children are concerned, Lady Slane is rather dim and helpless. They see her as an impractical woman, someone with no understanding of the workings of the real world, utterly reliant on her husband for everything; naturally she will be pleased with any arrangements they care to make for her.

Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of. (p. 23)

Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive—an appendage. […] She was not a clever woman. She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years. (p. 24-25)

Contrary to the prevailing view, Lady Slane is actually much sharper than her children give her credit for. Before long, she declares her intention to leave her prestigious home in Kensington to go and live in a modest house in Hampstead, a place she had first seen and desired some thirty years earlier. Her dutiful French maid, Genoux, is to accompany Lady Slane in this new phase of her life, but other than that, there are to be no regular visits from members of the family – particularly the great-grandchildren who are far too full of the joys and exuberance of youth for Lady Slane to cope with. Naturally, Lady Slane’s children think she is mad, particularly given their (utterly misguided) perception of her as an unworldly, submissive ‘appendage’. Only Edith, Lady Slane’s youngest daughter – herself an outwardly hesitant but insightful woman – has any real appreciation of her mother’s inner life.

In the second and third parts of the novel, we see Lady Slade and Genoux in their new home, their burgeoning friendship with the delightfully eccentric Mr Bucktrout, who acts as an agent for the house, and Mr Gosheron, the decorator/handyman. Mr Bucktrout’s little gestures and small acts of kindness towards his new tenant are very touchingly portrayed.

As the novel unfolds, Lady Slade is revealed as a woman of distinction, one who values art and beauty – in her youth she longed to develop her skills as an artist, an opportunity denied her by an early marriage to Henry and the domestic/diplomatic duties that ensued. Reflecting on various aspects of her life with Henry, Lady Slade is reminded of her youthful dreams and passion along with everything she has lost.

As the novel draws to a close, there a couple of developments which contribute to the enrichment of the remainder of Lady Slane’s life. She receives a visit from Mr FitzGeorge, an old acquaintance of the Slanes from India who has carried a flame for Lady S. for several decades. As a consequence, the pair strike up a gentle friendship, taking walks together on nearby Hampstead Heath. There is another visit too, this time from one of the great-granddaughters, Deborah Holland, a young woman with a passion for music, who reminds Lady Slane of herself in her free-spirited youth.

This is a touching story of a woman who finally finds a sense of freedom and liberation in her twilight years. On the whole, the novel is very well-written novel with some lovely descriptive passages and sensitive insights into the protagonist’s inner life. Definitely recommended.

I’m sure there are quite a few reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here’s a link to a recent post from Simon of Tredynas Days, and one from Madame Bibi lophile, which actively encouraged me to read the book. .

45 thoughts on “A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Aren’t they just? I do wish Virago would return to this style of artwork on their covers; they’re so much nicer than the more recent look (40th anniversary editions aside, of course). I think you’d like Miss Mole, a very interesting character and well able to hold her own when faced with adversity. If anything, I preferred it to All Passion Spent, although the latter was still very good.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. Funnily enough, this particular pairing came about more by accident than design as I just happened to read both novels at around the same time. Anyway, when I came to write them up, they seemed to fit quite well together, mainly due their focus on less visible women.

  1. Tina

    I bought a 1930 hardback MISS MOLE at the weekend for a pound.I already had a FLORIN edition but it is one of my favourite books,Always feel silly having 2 copies of a title.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how lovely! There’s no need to feel silly for having more than one copy of a favourite book, especially one as enjoyable as this. Sounds as if you bagged yourself a real bargain there. :)

  2. Brian Joseph

    Both books sound very good. All Passion Spent seems like it is a kind of story, that of an older person finding liberation, that is very popular these days. However, I am not so sure that it was as popular back in 1931. In some ways it sounds very modern.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it must have been quite unusual for an elderly woman to strike out on her own back then. Her family clearly consider Lady S. to be absolutely bonkers for wanting to move to a different area of London, away from her children and their own families. The scenes in this first section of the novel are very well done as they really give a sense of how much of a spare part she must have felt in that situation.

      On a similar theme of a woman finding liberation late in life, there’s also Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Towsend Warner, although Laura/Lolly is in her late-forties when she breaks free from her family – a mere youngster compared to Vita Sackville-West’s protagonist!

  3. realthog

    Ha! I love the way your “mini reviews” are as long as most other people’s full-length ones . . .

    E.H. Young is an author I’m not familiar with; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by her. I should probably rectify this, and Miss Mole looks like a reasonable place to start.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – that’s very true! You know, I was thinking pretty much the same thing after this post went up this morning. ‘Why am I calling these mini-reviews when they’re actually 600-800 words apiece?” Ah, well – they’re definitely shorter than my usual posts with multiple quotes.

      I think Miss Mole is considered to be one of Young’s best novels, certainly a much-loved book. Plus it would make an excellent basis for a TV adaptation, just perfect for the Sunday-night drama slot!

  4. Grier

    I loved both books and like how you have paired the two novels. I’m attracted to stories with older women protagonists and so found All Passion Spent of particular interest to me. I had a bit of difficulty imagining how clueless and uncaring her children were but really liked how Lady Slade’s true identity was revealed after being hidden for all those years and also how she found happiness with unlikely friends. Lovely post of two wonderful books.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grier! I’m so glad to hear that you loved these books. It’s hard to go wrong with Virago, isn’t it? Their novels always seem to have something interesting to offer, particularly in terms of how the protagonists as portrayed – their hopes and dreams, concerns and challenges etc. The Slade’s attitude towards their mother reminded me a little of the daughter in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as there are hints that the she has virtually no time for Mrs P. in the twilight of her life. People can be rather insensitive or intolerant sometimes, especially with an elderly member of the family, almost as though the person in question doesn’t have the same feelings any more just because they’re old and possibly infirm. A sad situation indeed.

  5. Caroline

    I like the sound if both of these. At the end of the part about Miss Mike you write she thought her best years might behind her. Sadly, it sounds as if they never came.
    I actually think I have this Vita Sackville-West novel. She’s never disappointed me so far.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s good to hear. I think you’ll enjoy the Vita. For some reason, it feels like a novel for summer, possibly because of the liberating nature of the section where Lady S. moves to her new home in Hampstead. Anyway, it’s a nice one to have at hand for a rainy day.

      Oh, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the ending of Miss Mole. Without wishing to give too much away, there is a note of optimism as the story draws to a close. Maybe her life isn’t quite so downbeat after all…

  6. heavenali

    I love these books, so very glad you did too. I think Miss Mole was my first EH Young book, I love E H Young’s writing very much. It’s ages since I read All Passion Spent, so I had forgotten some details. You’ve reminded me why I had it in the back of my mind to re-read it. Actually I would love to re-read both of these.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, two very enjoyable reads for me, Miss Mole in particular. I’m glad I took your advice a couple of months ago to bump it up the pile! My only worry is that I might have read her best novel first? Or maybe there are others you would also recommend?

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, great. I shall have to bear those in mind. These two came from a secondhand bookshop in Penn which has now closed down. A shame, really, as it was a veritable treasure trove for book lovers. One of those places where books are crammed into every nook and cranny across multiple rooms. I think they had something like 60,000 books in total covering all sports of subjects and genres. A dying breed, I suspect.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like the Vita a lot. Oddly enough, I had sort of decided that she might not be for me following a disappointing experience with another of her books, something about Signposts and the Sea? It was only other bloggers’ positive comments about All Passion Spent that encouraged me to resurrect it from the ‘donation’ pile!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. It’s uplifting without being sugary or schmaltzy in any way. A delightful book for a lazy summer’s day, despite the fact that I read it in October!

  7. madamebibilophile

    I really enjoyed All Passion Spent when I read it – I think we had a similar experience! Miss Mole sounds an absolute joy and I have it in the TBR, I’m especially looking forward to it now :-)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Have you reviewed All Passion Spent, Madame Bibi? I looked for it on your blog, but couldn’t find the relevant post. I could have sworn we had a conversation about All Passion Spent as I’m convinced it was your enthusiasm that persuaded me to fish it out of the charity shop donation bag before my last drop! Anyway, thank you for the encouragement as it turned about to be a very enjoyable read. I liked how Lady S. managed to find a sense of liberation and friendship so late in life. There’s hope for us all yet…

      And yes, Miss Mole is a real delight. I’m pretty sure it’ll be right up your street. :)

      1. madamebibilophile

        Yes, I reviewed it back in July – I’m so pleased my enjoyment of it persuaded you to read it & that you enjoyed it! Absolutely – hope for us all :-)

        I’m sure I’ll enjoy Miss Mole – thanks for the nudge to get it dusted off & read!

  8. Sarah

    All Passion Spent is wonderful, isn’t it? I fully intended to explore more VSW after reading it which I must do, as well as finding a copy of Miss Mole asap for the title alone – anything else will be a bonus!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really enjoyed All Passion Spent, a very pleasant surprise after my less than successful experience of VSW’s No Signposts in the Sea a few years ago. I’m glad I gave her another chance. Oh, and I think you’ll love Miss Mole. She’s such a refreshingly unguarded character that it’s hard not to fall for her charms right from the start.

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