In her first novel written after the Great War, the death of her husband, and her embarkation on a rather unconventional new life, E H Young tells the story of four Misses Mallett.
There are two sisters in late middle age, Caroline and Sophia Mallett. They live in a large, beautiful and comfortable home that had been left to them by their father, the Colonel; together with their much younger half-sister, Rose Mallet, the child of the Colonel’s second marriage.
Caroline is delighted with their situation, and she explains to their niece:
‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’
Henrietta was the fourth Miss Mallett, the daughter of the Colonel’s disinherited son, who had come to live with her aunts after her mother’s death. She had lived a very different life, she had an independent spirit, and she wanted to make her own decisions and not be told that she must follow a particular traditions.
She would learn that things were not quite as simple and straightforward as Caroline suggested.
Sophia had a great love in her past, and she cherished her memories of him
Rose had been beloved by a local landowner, Francis Sales, but she had rejected his proposals because she wasn’t sure that she loved him enough. She wondered if she had made the right decision when he went away, and when he returned with a bride who was quite unlike her; but she knew that she had to live with her decision.
And then there was a particularly cruel twist of fate.
Henrietta and Rose learned each other’s stories, but they were of different generations, they had different backgrounds and different outlooks, they didn’t talk about the things that were most important to them and so they didn’t understand what the other was feeling and what the other would do.
E H Young drew and delineated four the Misses Mallett quite beautifully. Caroline was warm and vibrant, Sophia was delicate and empathic, Rose was reserved and controlled, Henrietta was modern and independent; and as she portrayed their lives and their relationships she showed the advantages and disadvantages of being an unmarried woman between the wars.
By contrast, the men in the story were all flawed: Henrietta’s father, Reginald Mallet, was charming but he was utterly self-centred. Francis Sales was completely lacking in self knowledge and in understanding of the women he said he loved. Charles Batty, the son of Caroline’s dearest friend, was eccentric, and today it would probably be said that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but he was true to himself and he would be a reliable friend to the younger Misses Mallett.
They were all interesting and believable characters; but it was the women who were strong and who set the course of the story.
That story was simple, but there were deep waters swirling below the calm surface. There was danger that Henrietta could be led astray, that Rose’s control could snap, that the good name of the Malletts’ could be tainted by scandal …
The playing out and the resolution of the story is a little predictable, and maybe a little unsatisfactory in that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted for characters I had come to know vey well; but I believed that it could have happened, I understand why it could have happened, and I loved my journey through this book.
I loved spending time with each of the Misses Mallett, and I loved spending time in their world.
E H Young wrote so well. She could capture so much in a single sentence, and she could sustain a point over much longer passages.
The depictions of the family home and the other homes that are part of the story are so perfect, every detail is so well drawn, that I was transported there. The descriptions of the countryside, the woods, and the fields, are so evocative that I wished that I could be there, riding with Rose or walking with Henrietta.
It was lovely, but there times when it was a almost too much and I would have liked to get back to the story a little more quickly.
I can’t say that this is E H Young’s strongest book; the later books that I have read are more subtle and more sophisticated, and I am inclined to think that she grew as a writer over the years.
I can say that this is a lovely period piece, that it is a wonderfully engaging human drama, and that it has made me eager to fill in the gaps in my reading of its author’s backlist.