Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young

The Misses Mallett - E.H. Young
Original Publication Date: 1922 (Under the title "The Bridge Dividing")

Genre: Fiction, Woman's History, Romance

Topics: Spinsterhood, Single Women, Love, Relationships

Review: I picked up The Misses Mallett (also published under the title The Bridge Dividing) on a whim. I came across the title on a list of "similar reads" while browsing through GoodReads and I could not believe my luck that here was a Virago Modern Classics title available in the public domain. On top of that, the plot promised to revolve around single women, a topic that I love to read about in early twentieth century fiction.

The Misses Mallett is about four single women who live together, all of them keeping to the idea that being single and an inability to commit is a family tradition. The four women consist of three sisters: Caroline, Sophia, and Rose, and the unfortunate child of the sisters' brother who left his wife and child in poverty. The child, Henrietta, moves in with the three sisters when her mother dies. She finds herself in a household that is very different from her previous surroundings; the sisters are reasonably well off and often spend time contemplating which dresses to wear on any of their social calls, while Henrietta is used to helping her landlady in order to keep her mother and herself in reasonable conditions. Henrietta struggles with a balance of the qualities she valued in her mother and her previous life, while she also learns to recognise the similarities to her father (who was known as a little bit of a rascal and had a number of affairs) during her stay with her aunts. 

The story focuses on Rose and Henrietta, while Caroline and Sophia remain more marginal figures. What we do learn is that Caroline likes to reminisce and talk about her past conquests and improprieties, which may not necessarily all be true. Sophia mostly lives in the shadow of Caroline, but every so often comes out to correct Caroline’s stories, especially when she feels they exaggerate her past lack of decorum, or the number of her conquest. Through these commentaries we learn that Sophia might be happy living in Caroline’s shadow in public, but that she privately knows that she received as much male attention as Caroline in her day.

Caroline functions as the matron of the family, and she is sure to remind her family of their upholding the family’s standard, which, rather comically, involves the rule that the Mallett women prosper in spinsterhood:

“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.”

Exactly because these books seemed to subvert the social expectations regarding women and marriage, by having spinsterhood be proclaimed an ideal, while marriage was professed to consist of trouble, this book had me interested. Of course, through some of Caroline’s silliness, and the emerging storyline of the longing for love felt by most of the Malletts, society’s ideal is eventually upheld. Nevertheless, the slightly mocking tone made me settle down for an enjoyable read during the first quarter of The Misses Mallett.

I am sorry to say that these expectations did not pay off. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the main storyline soon starts to revolve around Henrietta and Rose. Both Malletts compete for the love of Francis Sales, who is married to an invalid woman who terrorises her husband and the Mallett girls because of suspected infidelity on their part. 

The thing is, while I could sympathise with Rose and Henrietta in their singleness, and while they were somewhat interesting in their contemplations on life separate from Francis Sales, it was their professed love for him, and their obsession with winning his affection, that got tiring very quickly. The only thing that seemed a likely explanation for the way Rose and Henrietta chased him, was that he was, in effect, unavailable. It appears to be the chase that made him desirable, not the person himself. And who could blame the girls for that, because if anyone seems undeserving of their love, it is Francis Sales. I grew tired of his self-pity and “woe is me” quite quickly, and I couldn’t really understand why the Mallett girls persevered in convincing themselves they loved him.

Contrasting Francis Sales with the single man Charles, it is rather obvious to the reader who Henrietta *should* choose. Of course, it takes Henrietta ages to acknowledge this. Charles is one of the more interesting characters in the book (next to Sophia, whom I would have loved to learn more about) in that he is both an astute observationist, but also a dreamy philosopher with a love for music, mixed with a dash of a heroic lover. He might have been a little bit too much of a Romantic for me, but he was certainly the more interesting male lead. The fact that it took Henrietta so long to recognise this made the book feel extra long in the end. I really wish I could have woken the girl up and directed her to him at some point in the narrative. Because, as much as I enjoy the Austenesque setup of a “Mr Wickham” and a “Mr Darcy” (though Francis and Charles really do not compare to these gentleman except for one being the “wrong” and the other being the “right” choice for the girl), somehow E.H. Young’s story did not have the same magic.

Luckily, Simon pointed out that The Misses Mallett is one of the least strong works by Emily Hilda Young that he has read. He recommends her later works William and Miss Mole instead. Unfortunately, these titles are not (yet?) available in the public domain. Her earlier novel Moor Fires is, but what I gather from Simon’s statement that The Misses Mallett is considered to be the novel that connects her mediocre rural novels to her later novels of much higher quality, I am not sure if I should bother to try her earlier books.

The Misses Mallett had some promising aspects and themes going, especially during the first quarter of the novel, but I feel it died down quickly in the rather long parts dedicated to Rose and Henrietta chasing the, in essence unlikeable, Mr. Sales.

The Misses Mallett can be found on The Project Gutenberg here.