Miss Mole

Miss Mole – E H Young

E H Young, the nom de plume of Emily Hilda Daniell, was a best-selling novelist in her time but after an undeserved period of obscurity her works are now finding a new audience, thanks to this reissue from Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. Originally published in 1930, it was her seventh novel and marks the midpoint of her literary career which spanned from 1910 with A Corn of Wheat until 1947 with Chatterton Square, published two years before her death.

This is not my normal reading fare and I must confess I found it a little bit of a struggle at times. Young is fond of a long rambling sentence and the narrative was a little disjointed, episodic with no obvious flow. It is only some way through the book that, for example, we realise that Miss Mole has saved a man from committing suicide between meeting her cousin and slipping out on the pretence of buying some thread, both of which are recounted at length in the first chapter.

When I had finished the book and thought about it, it dawned me that Young was representing stylistically some of the characteristics of her heroine, someone ever watchful and on guard, sparing on the details of her past, the truth emerging piecemeal, clues and hints that have to be seized upon and fleshed out. In her private life Young was also secretive, living in a menage à trois, something hidden for forty years and knew much about the themes that run through this book, the tensions that exist between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.     

Miss Mole, a farmer’s daughter, has earned her living (just) as a governess or companion to a succession of difficult women and when we first encounter her she is on the verge of dismissal. Although competent in her work, Miss Mole doesn’t suffer fools gladly and, unusually for a servant, will voice her opinion or displeasure, a trait which gets her into hot water. Thanks to her cousin, Lilla, something in the society of Radstowe aka Bristol, she soon secures a position at the household of the non-conformist minister, Reverend Corder, as governess and mother-substitute to his two daughters. Corder’s nephew, Wilfrid, also shares the house and he has little time for his uncle. Miss Mole feels at ease in his company and gradually opens up to him.

Miss Mole also finds solace in the company of the old man who lives next door and Mr Blenkinsop, a lodger in the house she has taken refuge in between jobs. Much of the book centres around Miss Mole’s discomfort as a skeleton from her past emerges in the form of Mr Pilgrim and Blenkinsop’s ill-judged decision to take her back to her childhood home. Miss Mole’s cunning plans to hide the truth and her flippancy towards Corder means that she is often moments away from the sack and a life of penury. What might make for a bleak, tragic tale is rescued by Young’s (and Miss Mole’s) wit and a romantic finale which secures her future.

Thematically, the book deals with morality and the contrast between behaviour that is considered socially acceptable and Miss Mole’s true morality. She has a heart of gold and does good for all she encounters but her reputation and finances are always on a knife-edge because her guilty secrets would be seen as a challenge to the teachings of the church and the prevailing social attitudes of the time. Young shows that much of what the church teaches is hypocritical and that Miss Mole for all her faults is a role model to follow.    

I found it a thought-provoking book with many interesting insights. I was glad I read it, but I am not sure I will read any of her other books.

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