Reviewed by Harriet
When the British Library announced the first three titles in their new Women Writers series, I was delighted see that one of them was Chatterton Square. I read this in 2010, spurred on by a reading in a book club of EH Young’s earlier novel Miss Mole. I’ve read several of her novels since then and all are brilliant, but this one stayed in my mind as particularly good. It was her last novel, published in 1947 when she was sixty, but set in the summer of 1939.
The setting for the novel is a rather shabby but still beautiful Georgian square in an area Young calls Upper Radstowe. All her seven novels take place here, and it’s closely based on Clifton, in Bristol, where she spent the early years of her adult life. If you know the area, as I do, this adds an additional pleasure (not that it needs one) as various characters walk up to the Downs or over the suspension bridge to the beautiful countryside on the far side.
Living next door to each other in Chatterton Square are two families, the Frasers and the Blacketts. You might imagine that such close neighbours would be friends, but this is not so. At the beginning of the novel they have pretty much nothing to do with each other. This is entirely owing to the Blackett paterfamilias Herbert, who looks down on the Frasers as vulgar and showy and forbids his wife Bertha (“I don’t think she is the kind of woman you would care for, Bertha”) and his daughters Flora, Rhoda and Mary, to have anything to do with them. This tells us much more about Herbert than it does about the Frasers, who we soon see are a delightful, if slightly unconventional family. Rosamund Fraser, the mother, is still beautiful but mysteriously husbandless. Most people assume she is a widow, but this proves not to be the case. She lives there with her five children: three more or less adults, James, Felix and Chloe, and two teenagers. And then there’s the lodger, Miss Spanner, a spinster lady of about Rosamund’s age.
Herbert Blackett is an amazing creation. He works at a paper factory, but has literary leanings. Handsome, dapper, and highly sexed, he really is a monster of a purely domestic kind. Completely self-centred and terrifyingly conceited, he believes that the whole world revolves around him – he is certain that Rosamund is attracted to him, though in fact she finds him rather horribly ludicrous. And he is absolutely sure that Bertha, his wife of some twenty years, is devoted to him, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Bertha literally cannot bear him, and her revulsion seems to have stemmed from his forcing himself on her while they were on honeymoon, a trip to Florence which she can’t remember without shuddering. Bertha has repressed her feelings for twenty years, but right from the beginning of the novel she is starting to let them out. The first sign of this comes when she is in bed, watching Herbert get undressed. As he approaches the bed, dressed only in his shirt and socks, she bursts into uncontrollable laughter, which course she can’t explain and he can’t begin to understand.
The cracks in Herbert’s embargo against the Frasers soon start to make themselves felt. His oldest daughter Flora – almost a mirror image of her father – is attracted to young James Fraser, and a flirtation begins but quickly peters out, much to Flora’s chagrin. Rhoda, meanwhile, who is very much like her mother, befriends Miss Spanner and takes to visiting the Fraser’s house to borrow books and listen to the news (Herbert does not allow a radio in the house). She and James slowly start an innocent friendship, based on a shared loved of gardening and farming.
A catalyst in these changing relationships is the appearance of the scene of Bertha’s cousin and erstwhile sweetheart Piers. Damaged in WW1, he is a gentle, intelligent man who has set up a business nearby and sells vegetables to the Upper Radstowe inhabitants. He and Rosamund form a loving and warm relationship. He would like to marry her, but she is forced to tell him that she already has a husband, though he has deserted her. She remembers Fergus with mixed feelings – he was difficult and unreliable, but they clearly had a powerfully physical relationship, which she cannot put out of her mind. As Piers passes between the two households, he provides another reason for Rhoda and later her mother to start visiting the Frasers.
All this, and much more, takes place in an England on the brink of war, and the attitude of the various characters to that threat increasingly appears in the novel. Rosamund and her family are only too aware that whatever the cost, this war must be fought, but the cost, as they also realise, will include sending the two grown up boys off to fight and possibly lose their lives. Herbert, on the other hand, is in complete denial and would be happy to make peace with Hitler, yet another indication of his terribly poor judgement.
There’s so much to enjoy in this wonderful novel, but the prize has to go to Bertha’s gradual discovery of her own increasing inner strength and Herbert’s corresponding deterioration. Her final scenes with Herbert, when he finally realises what she has been thinking and feeling for so long, are totally brilliant – not least because Herbert, finally forced to face what he has never before looked in the eye, is revealed as a rather pathetic and weak man who may, possibly, uncover some better qualities with the help of his newly strong wife.
Harriet is one of the Shiny editors and has happy memories of Bristol, where she lived many years ago.
E.H. Young, Chatterton Square (British Library, 2020). 978-0712353229, 368pp., paperback original.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)