Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Let's Talk About William...

This post will appear sooner than I had planned but out of consideration for those of you joining me and Simon from Australia and many time zones ahead...here we go!

When I first pulled a copy of this book from behind a stack of used books in a shop my first thought was 'It's about a man'.  And to be honest I wasn't that happy about it.  But flipping the book over I read the sentence that convinced me EH Young was an author I needed to discover.  It was 'She published eleven novels of provincial life in which her precise and truthful portrayals of relationships and social conventions are enhanced by a subtle humour.' 

Simon has written a beautiful review of this book and posted links to other fabulous reviews of William so please have a look.  And what did I think?  My overwhelming thought throughout the book was how did, E.H. Young, who never had children understand so well what it is to be a parent?  Before becoming a parent myself I had no idea that when your child is sad, you are sad.  When they are happy, so are you and if you think they are headed for disaster and ruin you will try your best to head them off.  Young understood this and expresses it so well.

Kate Nesbitt well and truly plays the role of matriarch.  It is a command performance every year for her birthday and a great to-do is made.  Her fan-waving, arm flapping, over-bearing style of mothering is positively Mrs Bennet-esque.  I laughed  and rolled my eyes when Mrs Nesbitt places lozenges on Lydia's bedside table 'in anticipation of a cold'.  Her persistance in a matter is admirable and irritating at the same time.

There are differing opinions as to whether or not William Nesbitt is a good father.  He certainly shared more dialogue with his children than I would have stereotypically expected from a father during the 1920s.  And yes, he could be a bit manipulative at times but when you're a parent you call it 'guidance'.  He was a kind and generous man, sharing flowers from his buttonhole with children on the street.  For a man who was financially well off it was his time that he gave most to his children and I admired that.  The way he admired Lydia was more than a tad icky at times, I'll give you that.

There are five adult children and it took a chart in the beginning to keep everyone straight.  Add in spouses and grandchildren and it was a very busy book until I knew who belonged with whom.  Each is an interesting character but we really don't get to know their only son, Walter, all that well.

There were some rather funny lines in the beginning and the feeling was charming and cosy.  Family dynamics and conflict created a poignancy that I wasn't quite expecting which gave the story depth and I could have happily read a version twice as long.  In the introduction, John Bayley, wrote 'Every true addict of the novel will want to make, or remake, her acquaintance; and for those meeting her books for the first time William is certainly the one to start with.'  It worked for me.

Thanks to everyone who found a way to get their hands on a copy of this book and joined in.  And to anyone feeling as though they've missed out, Simon will be offering up a copy so watch his blog!  Now it's your turn to comment and feel free to engage others...how did you get on with the Nesbitt family and this book?


  1. What a treat to discover this book through Simon and Darlene’s blogs. It is also so civilised and thoughtful that you have considered your readers in other time zones and opened the discussion “early”.

    The local library had a copy in stack from 1949. The very helpful librarian confided that there were other E H Young titles there if I enjoyed William,

    And enjoy it I certainly did. As a parent of adult married children I found so very much to relate to. There were moments of painful and touching recognition. In Chapter 11, “I’ve told you, Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are”. That exchange resonated with me! There was the challenge of a daughter who makes a choice which at the time is most controversial and how the parents will deal with that. Simon comments that there is no character who disapproves in a balanced way, but I sensed that Lydia’s pain and discomfort was very clearly drawn. She ultimately makes a difficult and “moral” choice in her own fashion and what is most crucial, for this novel, is her father’s reaction to it.

    My mind was exercised as well by the consideration of the male POV. And such a male!! There was a touch of the Mr Bennetts about him as others have noted. As Mr B did, he has his favourites. He sees much in his relationship with Lydia which does indeed pull you up, the “icky” factor that Darlene observed. Young seems to be trying to convey the identification that a parent can have with a particular child and use this as part of her depiction and development of the parents’ own relationship. His is quite a complex characterisation, providing such a counterpoint to that of Kate.

    The portrayal of the marriage was also most intriguing, subtly done and leavened by some wonderful comic moments. The moments with the grandchildren for the trial trip on the new boat were specially memorable for me. So delightful!

    He is tempted to intervene in the lives of his children [and who isn’t?] , but manages generally to restrain himself and to allow them to be self determining . The final paragraph evokes his gratitude to “that pervading goodness in which he trusted” Beautifully rendered picture of trust and peacefulness in a man of his time of life. Quite prayerful in a way.

    Thanks, Darlene, for the opportunity to share this reading experience. Great choice!!

  2. This novel was one of the inaugural 10 titles published by Penguin, and so I had it sitting on my bookshelf, one of many waiting to be read. I am very grateful to Simon and Darlene for encouraging the joint reading of this novel, because I really enjoyed it and I thought it was an interesting reflection on different ways of parenting.

    There is much that Simon comments on that I agree with, even though I am in the camp that is strongly in favour of William. E.H. Young's lifestyle no doubt influenced her attitudes towards adultery: she doesn't condemn it, and I agree that the characters who do are presented as narrow-minded or hysterical, and invariably concerned with how it affects themselves. However, as Martina points out E.H. Young addresses the consequences; she doesn't suggest it as an avenue to happiness.

    There are many books which I find disturbing in their glib portrayal of adultery, but this was not amongst them. In fact, I saw the novel more as a comment on parenting. William's strength was in the way he supported his children but never imposed his own solutions upon them.

    I reflected on William's character after Simon suggested that he found him manipulative, and it seemed to me that any interested parent could be criticised as manipulative. I think Darlene captures it exactly - one person's manipulation is another person's guidance.

    It is a book that begins slowly, but it is well worth reading.

  3. Ahhh im not very far into it. Not enough time and all that. I am enjoying it so far though and one of my first impressions was that mrs Nesbitt reminded me if Mrs Bennett! So very alike.
    Looks like its been a hit with most readers, so ill carry on.

  4. So many wonderful things to discuss here!

    I know that a consideration of a novel shouldn't boil down to what we thought of the main character, and none of us are doing that, but it is interesting how opinions of William differ. I suppose my opinion is affected by the fact that I am younger than many of William's children, let alone being in William's position. Since I'm not a parent, perhaps I see his actions from the child's pov instead?

    I do agree with GRC and Darlene that Kate had some similarities to Mrs. B, but thought she was much more wise. For me, she was the most sympathetic character - certainly one of them - even when her actions got a little overblown and silly. She was dealing with things the best way she knew how.

    Martina - that librarian was very helpful! I'd be surprised if any I spoke to had heard of EH Young. I love what you said about Young's depiction of married life - although I'm not married, it did seem realistic to me. Considering Young's life was so different from William and Kate's, she understood it so well.

    Karyn - that's a very good point, about the novel not being glib about adultery. Even though I disagree with Young's ultimate message (and I do believe she had one) it isn't just passed off as one of life's incidents. Perhaps it was still rather shocking for 1925, especially given its predominantly middlebrow audience, it is certainly a thought-through topic.

    Loving this discussion! Hope everyone comes back for more....

  5. Martina, Oh wasn't that line about taking the children the way they are absolutely magnificent! And yes, there were some delightful moments...the grandchildren could have filled a book of their own I think, they were quite funny. I am so glad that you enjoyed the book and aren't you lucky to have more titles to choose from at the library!

    Karyn, There is a certain magic contained in these pages. How you perceive the characters will greatly depend on what your relationship is or was like with your family. William would make such a fascinating book group read..oh the stories! The adultery was presented so well with shame burning the pages on one hand and Lydia's attitude of refusing to live unhappily in a marriage on the other. Goodness, I could go back and read it all again! Thank you for pulling this one off your shelf and joining in!

    Gypsy Rose, Finding enough time to read a book by a deadline isn't easy with small children is it! It was lovely of you to stop by though and I do hope you manage to finish the book. The essence of P&P is definitely present throughout the book and made me very glad to have only one daughter. More would have had me over the edge!

  6. StuckInABook, I wish we could all be in the same room!

    As I wrote to Karyn, this book will read differently to so many. My parents were extremely indifferent, almost to the point of being remote, and I did well up at one point just because Kate and William talked to their children.

    I also had to laugh at how mothers worry so much more about etiquette and convention than fathers seem to. How children behave in a community is often felt by mothers as a reflection of their parenting. So I can well understand Kate's frantic efforts and yes, she was doing her absolute best.

    If you want to have an interesting discussion with your parents, Simon, ask them how much they discuss you and your brother. And what they would have done with four daughters!

  7. It's interesting that Emily Hilda uses the word 'romantic' to talk about William's love for Lydia (yes, icky, but he would never see it that way?) and then uses it again to talk about Kate's -- but it seems to mean something different. I thought this was a very different (livelier, sometimes funnier) book in the second half than in the first; there's almost a specific page (when William tells Kate what has happened) that marks a turning point. I loved some of EHY's descriptions and metaphors/similes; the one where she describes Lydia as looking like a tulip stayed with me.

  8. Audrey, Ah yes, the tulip. Another fine example of a line that stopped me in my tracks! And...William's gifts of gems for his wife were given with the line that they were eventually to go the girls. I'm still wondering if there is anything to that or not.

  9. I think the word 'romantic' might have been meant in a different way from the way we use it now - more along the lines of 'Romanticism' - i.e. concerned with beauty and the side of life which isn't practical or sensible. That's a broad brushstroke of what I understand romantic to mean in 1925, but I think it's probably closer than how we'd see it?

  10. Oh, definitely....but it's still not the way we expect parents to think about their children, and only icky because it seems a little obsessive. It makes it hard for me to quite like William, though it's also part of the power of the writing.

  11. Audrey, 'Obsessive' sums it up exactly!

    The only thing wrong with being enamoured with the writings of departed authors is that they won't show up on The Woman's Hour or in The Guardian to explain just what they were thinking!

  12. Great discussion. It is intriguing to see it as being about parenting, the "passions" that parents inevitably have for their children. The differing styles are on view in the two daughters as well, the need for Mabel to see hers as perfect!! The challenges presented to parents of adult children are most sympathetically developed. And most entertainingly as well!!

    As I have library access to some other novels of hers, what do my book group friends recommend? This has been an enticing start.

    Loving the comments.

  13. Martina, For many mothers, their children are a direct reflection of themselves and their parenting abilities. I (red-faced) must admit to this as well! If my daughter went out looking a sight I would worry that someone I knew would see her and think 'tsk, tsk'. Some things never change.

    This was my first introduction to Young's work so I'm afraid that I can't suggest a follow-up but Simon certainly could! Send him an email!

  14. Martina - The only other Young novel I've read is Miss Mole, and that's brilliant - Harriet Devine knows rather more than I do about Young's work.

  15. I can see from the interesting discussion you're having I am going to have to look for this novel! I think I would have had the same first reaction seeing it was not written from the woman's perspective, but I need to be better at not letting that stop me from picking up a book! It reminds me a little of some of Dorothy Whipple's novels.

  16. I haven't read your posts on William or any of the comments because my book hasn't arrived yet! Maybe today!

  17. Elizabeth, Oh dear! Well better late than never and I do hope you're still inspired to read the book. Please share your thoughts here or post a link to your review!

    Danielle, It is also a fault of mine to zero in on books with my image of perfect settings and characters. But almost every time I step outside of that I am pleasantly surprised!

  18. It still hasn't arrived, I think they must have sent it by seamail!!

  19. Finally my William has arrived! I still haven't read your post or the comments, will keep them until I've read the book.