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Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Chatterton Square (1947)

by E. H. Young

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Showing 5 of 5
E.H Young is a fabulous Virago author – and Chatterton Square – her final novel proved to be a fantastic pick for my third All Virago/All August read of the month. Although I have still to read a few of her novels – especially those early hard to find ones – I feel confident in saying that Chatterton Square is almost certainly her best novel. It is complex, multi-layered and fantastically readable.

The setting is Upper Radstowe – the setting of the majority of E H Young’s novels, a thinly disguised Clifton – the genteel, prosperous suburb of Bristol where she herself lived for a time. However, the canvas of this novel like many of her others is far smaller than that, almost the entire story taking place at the titular address.

We are in familiar territory with many of the themes of this novel, those of marriage, provincial life and morality. However, the novel also explores pre-war attitudes, it is the late 1930s and the prospect of another war is at the back of everyone’s mind. Naturally, the possibility of war is contemplated with some pain by those who lived through one war and still bear the scars – either physical or mental. Meanwhile the next generation, face the possibility of having the best years of their lives stolen – and well they know it.

Chatterton Square – not really a square is more of an oblong – has seen better days. Still although fashion has deserted this small corner of Upper Radstowe, these are houses with small gardens, basement kitchens and some – like the Frasers – have balconies. The Frasers occupy a corner of Chatterton square – here live – Rosamund Fraser, her childhood friend Agnes Spanner and Rosamund’s five almost adult children. Agnes, we learn lived a sad, small diminished life with her controlling parents. So, with Rosamund’s husband; Fergus, choosing to live abroad, away from his family – Rosamund took the opportunity to save her friend – bringing her in to the warm, lively family she has never had for herself.

Sitting at right angles to the Fraser household, live the Blacketts; Herbert and Bertha – and their three daughters, Flora, Rhoda and Mary. Herbert Blackett is one of the most pompous, self-obsessed, self-deluded men I have come across in fiction, I could cheerfully have throttled him. He is however, a brilliantly complex character deftly explored. It is testament to Young’s extraordinary skill, that towards the end of the novel, when the reader has spent almost 400 pages loathing him, she allows us to see him defeated, and it is a surprisingly poignant moment.

Mr Blackett is proud of his quiet little submissive wife, in his eyes she is perfectly proper, conventional and loyal. He loves to see her blush if he mentions their honeymoon in Florence almost twenty years earlier. Yet, unknown to him, Bertha loathes him, she suffers his embraces, quietly despising him. Her one consolation that he has no idea what goes on in her mind, mocking him silently keeps her sane – but the reader longs for her to tell him exactly what she thinks – as surely must at some point. There is breath-taking complexity in the characters of the Blackett household, Flora so like her father that her mother can criticise him, through her irritation with a daughter she is unable to like. Rhoda so like her mother – more and more so as the novel progresses. Her father simply cannot understand his middle daughter – and she in turn doesn’t like him at all, and doesn’t really try to hide it. There is a wonderful moment when Rhoda catches a cold, angry look on her mother’s face directed at her unseeing husband, and understands all.

“He pitied widows but he distrusted them. They knew too much. As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, and air of well-being, a gaiety which, in women over forty had an unsuitable hint of mischief in it, he felt that in this easy conquest over, or incapacity for grief, all manhood was insulted, while all manhood, including his own, was probably viewed by that woman as a likely prey.”

Of course, Herbert Blackett does not approve of the Fraser household. Suspicious of Rosamund as she is without a husband, he is appalled when he discovers she is not, as he had assumed a widow, declaring that her husband must have found himself obliged to leave her. Rosamund, manages her family very differently to Mr Blackett, she doesn’t interfere in her children’s lives, they enjoy an enormous amount of freedom, but come to her often nevertheless. Late at night as the household settles down, Miss Spanner or one or other of the children visit Rosamund in her bedroom, where confidences are shared, worries discussed, minds put at rest.

The two households are brought together partly by their proximity to one another and by the friendships which begin to develop between some members of the two houses. Piers Lindsay, disfigured by his injures picked up in the First World War, is Bertha Blackett’s cousin, we sense that there were some tenderer feelings between them once – but Piers returned just too late from the war, which Herbert had not fought in. Now Piers has returned unexpectedly to the area. Herbert Blackett is deeply resentful of Piers and his war wounds he considers an easy way of eliciting sympathy. Rosamund Fraser is drawn to Piers, recognising the goodness in him, his companionship is easy and comforting. Bertha is also fond of Piers, noticing of course, his visits to her neighbour.

“She blushed to remember how once, and for a short time, she had listened for certain tones of Mr Blackett’s voice and watched for certain movements of his long hands and found delight in what was only endurable now because she had learnt to enjoy disliking it. And he did not know, he had not the slightest suspicion, that was the best of it, and suddenly, when she and Piers were sitting in the twilight as Rosamund had pictured them and while Rhoda had left them for a few minutes, Mrs Blackett laughed aloud, a rare occurrence, and it was yet another kind of laughter which Mr Blackett had never heard.”

Alongside the anxieties of a possible war – are the burgeoning friendships and romances between various characters from the two households. However, it is the depiction of the Blackett marriage that will live long in my mind, Rosamund Fraser is a fabulous character, wise, warm unconventional and loving, but for me it is Bertha Blackett (what a name!) who is the real heroine of Chatterton Square. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 11, 2017 |
Young’s final novel shows her mastery of both perceiving and writing about the ebbs and currents that flow within families and between them. In this novel, set in her favourite setting of the Clifton area of Bristol, two families live in a run-down square. The Blacketts consist of an arrogant and vain husband who has basically suffered from not being ‘squashed’ early on, and his wife, Bertha, who secretly loathes in and has drawn her only pleasure from her concealment of this fact – which will surely burst forth at some stage. The description of the little annoyances and physical revulsions of this marriage are delicately done, and Blackett’s dawning horrified realisation that his wife is almost totally unknown to him – with her laughter and her own newspaper – is horrific for the reader, in a way, too, although we have no sympathy for him. However, he is a monster whose origin story we can believe, not a cardboard cut-out cipher. Flora is like her father, and Bertha criticises him through her, and Rhoda is like her mother – again, Young excels at portraying their relationship.

Round the corner, the Frasers are dangerous because they have no visible man at the helm. Rosamund, who is claimed to be the central character of the novel (I don’t know that Bertha isn’t) is delighted that her children’s internal lives are almost totally unknown to her: she’s a self-confessed neglectful mother who sorts out the material but does not pay attention to the spiritual and emotional development of her children. Unlike the controlling parent next door, she does not interfere; interestingly, they grow up like her absent husband or like her all the same. Rosamund’s main sustaining relationship is with her childhood friend, the unmarried Miss Spanner, who now lives with the family, and most of the stories and emotions are played out in their respective bedrooms as everyone visits each other late at night.

The Fraser family is attractive to the Blacketts and a more free association is formed, especially when the Frasers install a wireless on which to listen to news of the impending war. Because it’s not just a light read about families in opposition (I wouldn’t call any of Young’s books light: they explore very hard lessons to learn and the minutiae of marriages and families), overshadowed by two wars as it is. World War 1 casts a long shadow from the past, with Bertha’s attractive but horribly wounded cousin Piers a reminder of the war duty Herbert Blackett somehow avoided; and World War 2 is coming. Although no actual events are referred to, the physical (checking for safe places, Miss Spanner getting her gas mask) and especially psychological effects of the shadow of war are powerfully drawn.

There are no easy answers as to what becomes of the characters even though this was written after the end of the war. A deeply absorbing book and highly recommended. ( )
3 vote LyzzyBee | Oct 28, 2016 |
Mr. Blackley - persnickety man of the house - and his, up to now, meek wife and daughters live next to Mrs. Frazier, a middle aged, but lively and attractive woman separated from her husband, and her 4 or 5 children (a couple of attractive sons) and her old spinster friend. Took a while to become interested, but ended up enjoying it pretty well.
  Jonlyn | Apr 16, 2014 |
Chatterton Square compares two families living across the street from each other. Herbert Blackett rules his family and overpowers them with his strong views on just about anything. He is especially vexed by Rosamund Fraser, an independent spirit and single parent (in the 1930s! gasp!). But Rosamund and her children are a million times happier than the Blacketts, as the Blackett children learn when they begin visiting the Frasers behind their father's back. Eventually Herbert's wife Bertha also begins to see the flaws in her own family and in her marriage. The best part of this novel is the slow, steady increase of her power in the relationship.

I would have rated this book higher except it dragged in parts and overall seemed to a bit long. ( )
  lauralkeet | Aug 24, 2013 |
Set in the months leading up to WWII, Chatterton Square focuses on two people living across the street from each other in Upper Radstowe (based on Bristol). There are the Blacketts: Mr. Blackett, a domineering, selfish bore who stifles his very Victorian wife, and their three daughters, especially Flora and Rhoda, who live under the thumb of their father. Across the street live the Frasers, with no discernable man at the head. Rosamond Fraser is a mostly carefree mother of five children growing to adulthood, who lives with her old childhood friend, Miss Spanner. All of the action is set around the eponymous Chatterton Square, yet it's always referred to as the Square, never by its full name.

This is one of those novels that are frequently described as “character driven.” As far as plot goes, there’s not much to this book; for most of the novel, the characters sit in breathless anticipation waiting for something to happen, for the war to start (especially worrying for Rosamund, considering two of her sons could potentially participate). Where the author excels is character description, but she does it very subtlety; instead of saying that Bertha Blackett is Victorian in her mannerisms, the author says that Bertha is one of those women who should have been wearing a bonnet and bustle. With her meek, mild demeanor, constantly demurring to her husband, she’s an interesting contrast to Rosamund, who’s faced with a very 20th-century decision. But somehow, the two women forge a friendship together, despite Herbert Blackett’s disapproval. Herbert’s character lacks the comedy that many bores in fiction possess, but he’s still a well-defined and interesting character.

Another thing that EH Young does very well is depicting the various relationships between her characters—married relationships, young people courting, friendships between two middle-aged people (especially interesting is the dynamic between Rosamund, Bertha Blackett, and Piers Lindsay; equally interesting is the friendship between Rosamund and Miss Spanner). EH Young depicts all of her characters and their complicated relationships with wit and insight, and I found this book to be a joy to read because of that. Because this book was written in 1947, after the war had ended, there’s a fair bit of foreshadowing with regards to the war, but other than that, I really enjoyed this book. ( )
4 vote Kasthu | Jul 28, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
E. H. Youngprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mooney, BelAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Chatterton Square belied its name. It was really an oblong and, at that, it was unfinished, for one of its longer sides was open to the road which, rising a little, led southwards to the Green, and northwards, dipping a little, to the short curving hill on to the Downs.
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"He pitied widows, but he mistrusted them.  They knew too much.  As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, an air of well-being, a gaiety which, in a woman over forty had an unsuitable hit of mischief in it, he felt that . . . all manhood was insulted . . . But he knew hoe to protect himself." Fastidious Mr. Blackett rules his home in Upper Radstowe with a gloomy and niggardly spirit, and his wife Bertha and their three daughters succumb to his dictates unquestioningly -- until the arrival next door of the Fraser family 'with no apparent male chieftain at the head of it'. The delightful, unconventional Rosamund presides over this unruly household with shocking tolerance and good humour, and Herbert Blackett is both fascinated and repelled by his sensuous and 'unprincipled' neighbour. But whilst he struts in the background, allegiances form between Rosamund and Bertha and their children, bringing changes to Chatterton Square which, in the months leading up to the Second World War, are intensified by the certainty that nothing can be taken for granted.
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