Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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.

33 thoughts on “Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

  1. Radz Pandit

    The British Library really seem to be releasing some wonderful books in this series. I don’t have this one (trying to limit my book purchases at the moment), but I remember enjoying Tea Is So Intoxicating immensely, and I have Dangerous Ages lined up next.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, each entrant in the series has something interesting to offer in its own individual way, and it’s great to see them all back in print.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s great. Thanks for the link, Liz. I’ll pop over to yours to have a read a little later. It’s a very absorbing book, isn’t it? As you say, you’re right there with them, immersed in their lives – replete with all the various hopes and challenges. A little like a Dorothy Whipple, but better written I think!

      Reply
  2. Simon T

    Lovely review, Jacqui! This was my first suggestion for the series (after the first two they had already picked when I came on board) – so glad you liked it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I thought it was terrific, very nuanced and psychologically astute – partly because Young does such a great job in showing us different sides of these characters, both positive and negative (or less desirable at least).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely, I try to do the same when I’m planning to read the book on the near future! You have lots to look forward to with this one, Karen, as the characterisation is particularly strong. An excellent addition to the series, all told.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they all have something to offer, especially the different insights into women’s lives. One of the other things I like is how they capture something about the decade in question, whether it’s society’s attitudes towards women or broader political developments such as the Suffrage movement or the World Wars

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Oh I am delighted you enjoyed this so much. I am a big fan of E H Young and have read most of her books. I read Chatterton Square before this beautiful new edition came out, (in a green VMC) but I have this edition as well for when I want to re-read it. I loved the characters of Rosamond and Mrs Blackett, and the contrast of the two households. I think E H Young is a very sadly neglected writer, and I am delighted that this and Miss Mole (Dean Street Press and Virago) have been reissued.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much a five-star read for me as the main characters – particularly the women — seem so ‘real’ and authentic. It’s rare to find this degree of depth and complexity in the creation of four key characters in the same book – Rosamund, Mrs Blackett, Miss Spanner and Mr Blackett (perhaps the most flawed of them all). I’ve also read Jenny Wren by E. H. Young, but it was quite a long time ago and my memories of it have faded now – one to re-read perhaps, when the time feels right!

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    I’ve loved the three EH Young I’ve read and I have three more in the TBR – sadly this isn’t one of them. Or is that a good thing so now I can buy this lovely edition? She observes so closely but writes with such a light touch.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a lovely description of her style as it never feels laboured or heavy-handed; and it could so easily have been a potential pitfall here, especially with the political thread on the appeasement process. I think you should snap up a copy of this edition (or the green Virago equivalent) should it ever turn up in your charity shop across the road – a veritable treasure trove of vintage delights by the sound of things!

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    The two EH Young books I’ve read are Miss Mole and Chatterton Square and thoroughly enjoyed both. Besides the wonderful portrayal of characters here and their relationships, what I remember the most is how WWI affected them and the feelings about another potential war. Now I’m tempted to revisit this book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the after-effects of the war are very much present throughout the novel, especially in Rosamund’s thoughts. Plus, there’s Piers Lindsay, whose life has been marked by the conflict both physically and emotionally. It’s such a rich book, full of interesting insights and threads, so I’m sure it would yield even more on a second reading!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s an excellent series, and E. H. Young is an ideal fit for its remit. I’ve read five of the BLWW titles so far and they’ve all had something different and interesting to offer. The only one I felt somewhat lukewarm about was May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven – a perfectly good book, but a little loose or baggy for my tastes.

      (PS Re E. H. Young, Miss Mole is excellent and definitely recommended. Basically, I think it would be hard to go wrong with Young from the three novels I’ve read so far!)

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    You do make the dynamics between the families sound fascinating, though the conclusion seems to be that the best route to a happy life is to marry and then send your husband abroad!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Yes, that certainly worked for Bertha. Honestly though, I don’t know how she managed to put up with him for so long as he really was the most insufferable ass. Luckily, there are more escape routes and support services available to women these days, but it must have been hard for women in Bertha’s position to know what to do for the best…

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    Haha, that squirrel comment. You think you know where that exchange is going…but, nope! :D
    This one has been on my shelves unread for years; I’m glad to know it’s such a gem.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great quote, isn’t it? Very representative of Bertha’s mindset by this point in the marriage. I do hope you enjoy this novel whenever you get a chance to read it – as you say, it’s a real treat, wonderfully rich and nuanced.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. Karen K.

    I’ve loved all of E. H. Young so far, her characters are just wonderful! I really wanted to jump into the book and give Herbert and Flora a piece of my mind (though they’re the type that never listen.) I’ve read a lot of mid-century women’s fiction lately and there are SO MANY terrible husbands — I’m just starting The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim and OMG my eyes are rolling out of my head. Also recently read the Little Ottley trilogy by Ada Leverson and again, terrible husband! I strongly suspect many of these men were based on real people, yikes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! Like you, I think The Caravaners contains another excellent example of the ‘pompous ass’ husband from the early-mid 20th century. Otto is utterly insufferable and completely oblivious of his impact on others – a very memorable character to spend time with on the page, but an absolutely nightmare to have to deal with in real life, no doubt! Ada Leverson’s Little Ottley trilogy is relatively new to me, so thank you for the tip. I will definitely keep it in mind!

      Reply
  10. whisperinggums

    I read all of Young’s books that were published by Virago in the late 80s and early 90s – 6 or 7? I loved them all but I think Miss Mole and Chatterton Square were probably my favourites. I wish I had time to reread them and get them on my blog, as I think a lot of people would enjoy her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a very fine writer indeed! I’ve only read three so far – Chatterton, Miss Mole and Jenny Wren — all excellent, with Chatterton leading the pack. She’s definitely a writer I’ll be looking out for in the secondhand shops, especially amongst the Viragos.

      Reply

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