First published in 1947, E. H. Young’s marvellous novel, Chatterton Square, is another of the titles recently reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series.
Having now read five of these books, I think this is probably the richest, most satisfying in the series so far. It is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. As Simon Thomas points out in his excellent afterword, on the surface, Chatterton Square appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families, one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes for a particularly compelling read – more so than that description suggests.
The two families in question are the Frasers and the Blacketts, whose houses are situated perpendicular to one another in the corner of Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a setting modelled on Clifton in Bristol. The Fraser household is the happy one – a relaxed and loving environment created by Rosamund Fraser for her five children, most of whom are teenagers. Rosamund – whose husband has disappeared off to France to find creative fulfilment – is an attractive, liberated woman, the kind of mother who encourages her children to pursue their own ambitions and preferences in life wherever possible. Also living with the Frasers is Rosamund’s close friend, Miss Spanner, a spinster in her forties, somewhat akin to a maiden aunt.
By contrast, the Blackett household is much more subdued than its lively next-door neighbour. Headed by Herbert Blackett – a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to the Frasers – the Blackett family have three children, Flora, Rhoda and Mary, all similar in age to some of the Frasers. Mr Blackett’s wife, Bertha, has lived a narrow, restricted life, effectively penned in by her husband’s self-satisfied, high-minded behaviour, a damaging culture that permeates the Blackett household.
In reality however, Bertha – who is constantly referred to as Mrs Blackett in the novel – is far smarter than her husband suspects. While at first glance, Bertha seems willing to defer to Mr Blackett’s better judgement on family matters, under the surface there is a steeliness to her personality, one that reacts to her husband’s arrogance with a mix of frustration and amusement. In short, it is a kind of coping mechanism for Bertha, her way of making the best of a bad situation. It is also something that Rhoda, Bertha’s favourite daughter, notices at an early point in the novel when her father makes one of his many disparaging remarks.
Without turning her head, Rhoda turned the eyes which had been watching her father towards her mother and intercepted the glance Mr. Blackett did not see and in the very short time it lasted, Rhoda saw in it a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too. (p. 27)
One of the things Young excels at in this novel is to portray the complex network of relationships that develop between various members of these two families – connections which frequently reveal different aspects of their personalities. At first, Flora Blackett – who takes after her father in outlook and temperament – is attracted to James Fraser, an aspiring farmer. When James ultimately shows more interest in Rhoda Blackett – who is much kinder and generous than her sister, very much in the mould of her mother, Bertha – Flora’s nose is put out of joint. Even though she has lost interest in James by this point, Flora cannot help but feel envious of her sister’s connection with him due to their mutual love of the outdoors. It’s just one of the ways in which Young demonstrates her acute understanding of the human psyche.
Rhoda Blackett also develops a gentle friendship with Agnes Spanner, another woman rarely referred to by her first name, seemingly defined instead by her status as a spinster. Agnes is another woman who has lived a largely unfulfilling life, recently rescued by Rosamund following the death of Miss Spanner’s puritanical parents. When Rosamund receives a letter from her husband, Fergus, requesting his release from their marriage, Agnes fears for her own happiness. Having joined the Frasers in Chatterton Square, she is loath to relinquish her right to this newfound happiness if Rosamund decides to remarry. There will be no shortage of suitors for Rosamund to choose from should Fergus divorce her – not least Piers Lindsay, Mrs Blackett’s kindly cousin, who has recently moved to the area. In truth, Rosamund feels deeply for this somewhat wounded soul with his noticeable limp and scarred face – both of which were sustained in the First World War.
Perhaps the most fascinating interplay between the two houses is the one involving Mr Blackett and Rosamund herself. Given his priggish nature and fixation with respectability, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr B disapproves of Rosamund and her liberated attitudes to life and parenting. And yet, he remains strangely intrigued by this woman, sometimes going out of his way to observe her, if only to fuel his disapproval. Any signs of the furthering of connections between the two households are also gravely frowned upon.
As the narrative progresses, Mr Blackett becomes increasingly baffled by Bertha’s behaviour, particularly her responses to his pronouncements. Like the hapless Baron from Elizabeth von Armin’s novel, The Caravaners, Herbert Blackett – with his pompous nature and lack of self-awareness – has completely underestimated his wife’s intelligence, something that is all too apparent to the reader. When it is proposed that Mr Blackett should take Flora on holiday to Europe, Bertha is all for it, knowing full well that she and Rhoda would be happier as a result.
“I think you might feel quite different when you came back. Your mind would be refreshed. You would have other things to think about.”
“But I don’t want to feel different!” Mr. Blackett exclaimed irritably. “And as for my mind, I wasn’t aware that it showed signs of flagging.”
“Oh no,” Mrs. Blackett said pleasantly, “it’s too active,” and she gave him one of her rare, full looks. “Like a squirrel in a cage,” she added and carried away the tray before he could reply. (pp. 143–144)
Once Mr Blackett and his darling Flora are out of the way, Bertha visibly relaxes, as if a burdensome weight has been lifted from her shoulders. Consequently, Bertha, Rhoda and Mary are free to come and go as they please, to enjoy picnics with Cousin Piers, and to cement their connections with the Frasers, whose spirit and vitality prove a breath of fresh air.
As the novel draws to a close, the political developments in Europe become an increasingly dominant factor. The book is set in the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Chamberlain was advocating for appeasement. While many Britons – Mr Blackett included – consider the avoidance of war as a victory, others – including the Frasers, Piers and Miss Spanner – see Chamberlain’s actions as treacherous. There is a clear political dynamic running through the novel – not least the impact of developments on Rosamond’s eldest sons, Felix and James, both of whom would be called up in the event of another war.
In many respects, it’s an important component of the various uncertainties we are left with at the end of the novel. Rosamund’s marital status, and hence her freedom to marry Piers Lindsay, remains somewhat open – as does the nature of the Blackett’s marriage when Bertha finally bows to the pressure inflicted by her husband.
I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the sadness of this couple’s situation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Derdons from Maeve Brennan’s brilliant Springs of Affection collection. While the Derdons are very different individuals to the Blacketts, there is a similarity in their marriage – a kind of stasis and lack of communication that has prevented them from reaching out to one another to address their situation.
There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, looking at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life. (pp. 253–254)
In summary, this is a superb addition to the Women Writers series; my thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.