Thursday, February 15, 2018

Miss Mole by E. H. Young: Not Exactly Mary Poppins for Grown-Ups


I am always envious when bloggers mention how they just happened to find a Persephone at a charity shop or a used bookstore. Other than the Persephone Classics, which don't have the distinctive dove-grey covers, they are is nearly impossible to find in the US, new or used. However, it's not unheard of to find Virago Modern Classics, both the lovely green-spined editions and the earlier Dial press editions with the black covers. There's a wonderful Half-Price Books location in Austin, Texas that is massive and I remember walking out with at least a half-dozen on one visit a couple of years ago. I also found quite a few at John King Books in Detroit back in 2016. 

One of my finds (from Austin, I think) was a black spine copy of Miss Mole (circa 1985). First published in 1930, Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and is considered her masterpiece. I was inspired to add this to my TBR Pile Challenge list after Rachel and Simon discussed it on their wonderful podcast Tea or Books? 

So, Miss Mole is set between the wars and is the story of Hannah Mole, a fortyish spinster who ekes out a living as a companion or housekeeper -- she has a sharp tongue and quirky spirit that sometimes get her into trouble. At the beginning of the novel she's returned after a long absence to the fictional town of Radstowe (which is a thinly disguised portrait of Bristol). Miss Mole is not getting along well with her current employer and after a few days in a boarding house, gets a new job via her cousin Lilla, who is from the wealthier side of the family and has some good contacts. Without revealing the family connection, Lilla recommends her for a job as a housekeeper of sorts for a rather stuffy, pompous minister named Robert Corder, whose wife has recently passed away. 

The household consists of Reverend Corder, a nonconformist; daughter Ethel, who's rather desperately looking for a man so she can escape the house; leaving two daughters; young Ruth, who is still in school and longing for a mother figure; and their sassy cousin Wilfred, who's attending medical school nearby. Wilfred's presence in the house is rather awkward and raises a few eyebrows, but his mother is wealthy and the Reverend can't risk offending her. A spinster housekeeper/chaperone is exactly what they need to keep the house respectable. Or so they think. Miss Mole moves in and simultaneously elevates their lives and yet turns things upside-down. She's comforting and yet slyly subversive, and Reverend Corder doesn't quite know if he should appreciate her or fear her, as Hannah is smarter than he is. Wilfred takes to her instantly, recognizing her sharp with, and Ruth grows to love her. Eventually, though, there are whispers about Miss Mole's background which much be addressed, and we learn the real reason for her long absence from her hometown. 

The writing in this book was really great, very insightful, and the dialogue between the characters is especially sharp:

There was every reason why Ethel should have been an inefficient housekeeper, and every reason why Miss Mole should be a good one. At forty, all distracting desires, ambitions, hopes, and disappointments must have passed away, leaving the mind calm and satisfied with the affairs of every day, a state for which Ethel sometimes envied Miss Mole, more often pitied her. . . . They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die.

Mr. Blenkinsop was a solemn infant who asked for what he wanted and Robert Corder was a spoilt one who expected his needs to be divined.

"I often envy women," Robert Corder said. "They have useful and not exacting occupations for their hands, and no labor need be dreary."  Riiiiight.




Cover image from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog 
I loved this book but for such a short novel (288 pages) it took me a surprisingly long time to finish it. The writing style is a bit quirky, but it took me more than three weeks to complete. This puzzled me but I realized part of the reason could have been the edition. The print was quite small, and there are a lot of pages that are one solid paragraph, or nearly so, which I find off-putting (fun fact: there is a Gabriel Garcia Marques novel that is ONE SOLID PARAGRAPH WITHOUT CHAPTER BREAKS. It's The Autumn of the Patriarch, and I can tell you right now that I will never, ever read it.) Also, this book is 40 chapters, most of them quite short, so there were a lot of breaks. I wonder if that made me more likely to put the book down instead of plowing through it.

This is my first book by E. H. Young, and I also own two others in the Virago imprint, The Misses Mallet, her first novel, and Jenny Wren, which apparently has a sequel also published by Virago. I also want to read Chatterton Square, which was beloved by both Rachel and Simon in the Tea or Books? podcast. I'll have to buy it but I feel like I work through some more of my unread Viragos (25 at last count) before I buy another which could just end up collecting dust on the TBR shelves.

This is third book for my TBR Pile Challenge 2018

10 comments:

  1. I am always so thrilled to see a green spine on the shelves! I haven't been to the HPB in Austin, but I will keep it in mind the next time I'm there.

    I have never read E.H. Young, so now I have a new author to look for!

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    1. She's very good. If you're interested I highly recommend Simon and and Rachel's podcast Tea or Books? I think they reviewed Miss Mole and Chatterton Square back in September. They're on iTunes.

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  2. I will pretty much try anything Simon recommends! I think I skipped the end of that podcast, however, for fear of spoilers? Maybe I zoned out.

    Anyway, you make it sound delightful.

    Where I live, even the Virago paperbacks are rare...but you never know. Or I could just break down and order it! But there is something about book serendipity and letting the copy find the reader which is lovely when it happens.

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    1. Any time I see a green spine I snatch it up! I have bought a lot of my VMCs online, however. Most of them are pretty reasonably priced used.

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  3. How nice to come and find lovely things being said about my recommendations in the comments! I loved this novel and Chatterton Square - though I think my absolute favourite EH Young so far is 'William'. But a really good writer in general!

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    1. I definitely want to read both Chatterton Square and William! Must make some progress on my TBR pile first before I start buying more, sadly.

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  4. I love E.H. Young and have been saving Miss Mole because it is the only one of her novels I have left. Chatterton Square made it onto my list of best books of 2017.

    I wish there was a Half-Price Books anywhere near me. I went to one when visiting my in-laws in the midwest but didn't have nearly enough time to look around.

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    1. I think Miss Mole might make my top books of 2018 and it's only February! I have had pretty good luck with HPB, it just depends on the neighborhood. I nearly always find at least one book I want -- I don't know if that's good or bad as my TBR pile never seems to shrink!

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this one and Chatterton Square but haven't got my hands on the others yet. My husband has read the Gabriel Garcia Marques book and although he enjoyed it he says it was a difficult read.

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    1. My daughter has started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude which has a whole cast of characters with the exact same name! I just don't have the patience for that at the moment, maybe someday.

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