Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (1947)

Review by Thecla:

This is the story of two contrasting families, the Blacketts and the Frasers, who live in adjacent houses in Chatterton Square, Upper Radstowe (Bristol). The Blackett family consists of Herbert and Bertha and their three daughters Flora, Rhoda and Mary; the Fraser family of Rosamund and her children James, Felix, Chloe, Sandra and Paul. Her husband, Fergus, is absent. Also living with the Frasers is Miss Agnes Spanner, a childhood friend of Rosamund’s.

Although it was published after the war, the novel seems to be set in 1938. The possibility of war ( and for some characters, the need for it to deal with an evil threat) is an ever present concern but Young refers only obliquely to historical events. At one point Mr Blackett mentions

 “The annexation earlier in the year of a country speaking the same language and with many of the same ideals and traditions..”

which surely refers to Austria and the Anschluss of March 1938. And later in the novel at the end of September there is some anxious listening to the wireless followed by Rosamund’s sarcastic comment “Another interview has been graciously granted”, presumably the Münich agreement.

This vague and understated quality is characteristic of much of the novel. In many ways not much happens. Tentative relationships develop between individuals in the two families. Flora and James walk out a few times though nothing comes of this. Rhoda likes to visit Miss Spanner and talk with her. Bertha likes Rosamund. There is little description of some important family events; Chloe’s wedding to a young man barely seen takes place almost off stage. But for Young, the importance lies in the impact on others, for example, Bertha giving Chloe a wedding present in spite of her husband’s disapproval.

People do grow and change over the course of the novel and the greatest change takes place in Bertha and her relationship with her husband,Herbert.

Mr Blackett is a conceited, pompous fool who believes that all women are attracted to him and that it is good of him to resist the lures thrown out to him and remain faithful to Bertha. He entirely lacks self-awareness and has no understanding of others. He believes that Bertha loves him and that her retiring manner is a sign of modesty. In fact she despises him and loathes his touch. (While avoiding graphic detail, Young writes effectively about female sexuality.) She has dealt with her situation over the years by ridiculing his follies to herself while remaining outwardly a proper submissive wife but through the novel she finds this position increasingly hard to sustain. Her manner remains gentle but there is a delicious sharpness in some of her conversations with Herbert. Here she is encouraging him to take Flora away on holiday,

 “ ‘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.”

Mr Blackett believes firmly in the inferiority of women. Towards the end of the novel he goes across to the Fraser’s house to listen to the news on the radio. The word appeasement is not used but he believes that war should be avoided at all costs. After the broadcast the Frasers (who think that war is inevitable and necessary however painful it will be) discuss it while Mr Blackett waits in vain for them to ask his opinion and defer to him as a man. He is astounded when this doesn’t happen and later dwells on the arrogance of Miss Spanner, “that plain spinster”, who, he thinks, “had no right to any opinion and still less to offer one to him.”

Bertha accuses him of having “got out” of fighting in the First World War and he dislikes Piers Lindsay who did fight and has facial wounds as a result. Although he doesn’t mention Piers, Mr Blackett is particularly unpleasant on this subject during a family discussion about whether the boys next door will fight,

 “…wounds are not altogether a disadvantage. For one thing, they carry a comfortable pension with them and a disfigured face has extra compensations. It gives distinction to what it may have lacked before and assures its owner of admiration, solicitous and probably unwarranted admiration.”

But much as he sees himself as a wise patriarch controlling his household, he is in fact an ineffectual domestic tyrant. He says that his family should avoid the Frasers; they don’t. He says that he doesn’t want Rhoda to have a bicycle but Bertha gets her one and so on.

Bertha finally tells Herbert what she thinks of him and what she has been feeling all the years they have been married. He is amazed and she feels some pity for him.

The Fraser household is very different and for me much less satisfying to read about. Rosamund is a warm, affectionate and sexually attractive woman who has an air of mystery because of the absence of her husband. Herbert of course thinks she is attracted to him but he also distrusts her as he does all experienced women. Far from being a controlling parent, she sees her role as helping her children find their own way.

It is plain that her relationship with the absent Fergus was sexually satisfying even if they were incompatible in other ways and the development of her relationship with Piers is presented without any disapproval. She has late night conversations with Miss Spanner in which she often finds herself deflecting her friend’s questions about herself or her family, something she does very effectively (I did wonder if Young had found herself likewise parrying questions about her unusual domestic circumstances). But apart from this, there is little of the satirical edge which characterises the picture of the Blacketts. And there is a lot, an awful lot, of Rosamund mulling over her feelings and her situation.

I did find this novel interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. The contrasting natures of Herbert and Rosamund and their impact on others form the centre of the novel but for me there is something uneven about it. I found the portrayal of Herbert and Bertha’s relationship marvellously pointed and effective while I found Rosamund less real and even a little dull at times.

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