Review by Jane V:
Alexander is a country boy living in a remote place with his mother, a strong, capable character, and his father, a weak failure of a man whose heredity has made him so. Theresa is a lively, highly imaginative girl who lives in a port town with her father who is a failed commercial traveller and her mother, a semi-invalid. Alex gets a scholarship to Oxford and goes off rather as Jude the Obscure with his country accent and his rough clothes. Hardy springs to mind.
Theresa is an odd girl, quick to temper, living in her imagination and determined to become a great writer. She is championed by her father who, however, is unable to give her the start in life he would like. She loves to hear tales of his visits to Alex and his mother in the mountains and of Janet, a single, independent woman with inner sight. Mary Webb springs to mind. Both young people are thwarted in their ambitions by their acceptance of duty to their parents. But of course, as this is a highly romantic view of life we know that everything is working towards a happy ending.
In the first 60 to 100 pages I struggled with the dense, convoluted prose and the awkward dialogue. On the point of abandoning the book, I looked for the author online and found fulsome praise for all her books, not only from women but also from some men! So, I persevered.
E. H. Young digresses frequently into over-blown descriptions of nature; nature seen as a brooding force which influences the mood and the actions of the characters. To the modern reader these passages are too rich and cloying a diet:
‘ .. across a wide stone-strewn space there rose a cliff of black riven rock. In its grandeur and aloofness it looked immutable, yet the rents in its great sides, this rocky hollow which was the pit into which it flung the fragments time had stolen from it, were proof that even it must suffer change. But it suffered bravely, stoically, lifting a proud and peaceful face to the sky.’
[What??] Thus the narrative progresses (rather slowly for the modern reader!). But bit by bit I became more engaged with the young characters who are the main focus of the story.
The dialogue sometimes jars on the modern reader who feels that it is inappropriate to the situation. Alex hates his drunken father. This impassioned speech uttered to his visitor ends in a thump:
‘I can’t feel anything for him but hate. I hate the things he’s touched; I hate to think I’m of his flesh.’… ‘I feel all black inside. I’m burnt up like a cinder.’ He went to the door (he sees his mother who has been off looking for his father). ‘She’s coming back. I’ll make the tea.’
This last sentence jars because it breaks the heightened feeling of stress with a banality. There are many incidences of dialogue which seems to ‘collapse’ in this way.
There are several markers which betray Yonder as very much a book of its time. For example several references to phrenology – skull shape as a true indicator of character. Theresa says to her older sister who is inclined to fall in love with some frequency and has just got engaged – again, ‘Is it that Wilkinson with the undeveloped head?’ Wilkinson later proves to be entirely untrustworthy. And when Alex goes to tell his father he has won a scholarship he finds him planting seedlings ‘his face with the heavy moustache drooping over the weakness of his bearded chin . . .’
Yet there are times when Young gets exactly right the thoughts and emotions which are shared by all human beings. She perfectly describes the contradictory feelings with which a young person living a rural life in which they are deeply embedded, contemplates leaving this life and going to live among a different class of person in an urban setting.
‘He looked at the ruffled water and shivered with it; he looked at the new green of the hillsides . . . and his heart turned sick with dread of going away. He could not do it, he told himself; he could not live outside his own place, yet, while he swore, he knew that he would do it.’