Home > 1930, 20th Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, British Literature, Novel, Young E.H. > Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

  1. May 16, 2021 at 10:21 am

    I loved this book. I read it years ago – thank you for reminding me of it. I shall now recommend it to the few friends I have not yet suggested it to.

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:51 pm

      Thank you and happy reading to your friends!

      Like

  2. May 16, 2021 at 11:24 am

    I adore Miss Mole! It’s great to hear how much you enjoyed it. She’s such an individual and as you say, loveable character.

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:53 pm

      Isn’t she delightful? I loved her optimism and her good sense and I was sorry for her that her time didn’t allow her to fully use her talents.
      Fortunately, she meets people who get her, along the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 16, 2021 at 1:34 pm

    I read all of EH Young’s novels that were published by Virago in the 1980s – about 7 of them – long before blogging. I loved them, and have often wished I had time to reread them. SO glad to see them being read now and enjoyed. I started with Miss Mole, which was recommended to me by a small independent bookseller in a little coastal town I was visiting,

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:54 pm

      We’ll never be able to thank properly all the libraires who helped us discover reading treasures.
      Which Young would you recomment after this one?

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 17, 2021 at 12:26 am

        To be honest Emma, it’s so long, but perhaps The Misses Mallet, or Chatter ton Square… One early, one late, in her career!

        Like

  4. May 16, 2021 at 7:19 pm

    Wonderful post on a great comfort read; I loved Hannah’s quick sense of humor and subtle wit and how she finally came across people that appreciated and valued her strengths.

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 9:00 pm

      She’s a great character. I wonder why it’s not translated into French. It’s strange, isn’t it?

      Have you read other books by her? Which one would you recommend next?

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 17, 2021 at 8:17 pm

        The only other one I’ve read is Chatterton Square and enjoyed it though Miss Mole is definitely my favorite. But be forewarned – it’s set right before WWII and worries and conversations about a potential war do take place, though it’s not the focus of the book.

        Like

        • May 19, 2021 at 9:41 pm

          It’s the second time that Chatterton Square is recommended. I’ll keep it in mind.

          Like

  5. May 16, 2021 at 8:33 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book, Emma. As you say, it’s neither rosy nor unrealistic, just thoroughly enchanting. Virago reissued it last year in a brand new edition, so hopefully a new generation of readers will discover Miss Mole as a result.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:58 pm

      I really liked that Young drew such a balanced character. Hannah sounds real and I rooted for her and hoped she’d get a better future than going from one house to the other.

      *spoilers*
      I was also glad that Young didn’t take the easy route and make Hannah and Robert Corder fall in love and be a happy family or some romance like this.

      Like

  6. Susan
    May 16, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    You wrote a wonderful blog of this delightful novel by really capturing the essence of the book without giving away too much of the story.

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:56 pm

      Thanks a lot for your kind comment. I try not to give away too much of the story in my billets (posts) but I try to give an idea of the atmosphere of the book and why I enjoyed it or not.

      Like

  7. May 16, 2021 at 8:51 pm

    I saw you’d asked me about this. I must have missed Ali and Jacqui’s reviews because this is the first I’ve heard of it. It sounds very good – I’ll pick up a copy.

    Like

    • May 16, 2021 at 8:54 pm

      If you like Pym, you’ll like this one.

      Like

  8. May 17, 2021 at 8:06 pm

    I really enjoyed your billet, and it is really quite nice to see all these posts about books by & about women from the interwar period, showing women as they are/can be (both as writers and as characters). Was yours a paper or an electronic copy of the book?

    Like

    • May 19, 2021 at 9:43 pm

      Many thanks to blogging and fellow bloggers: I would never have discovered these books without them.
      I have an ebook version. That’s the easiest and cheapest way to get untranslated books, I think.

      Like

  9. May 20, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    A wonderful review of a ‘wonderful character study’ as others above me have said. By 1930 the Miss Moles were a dying breed, and after the war they were gone. Well sort of, there was a gap of a decade or two and then there were immigrants desperate for work. You made me think of Harriet in Emma who was able to step back out of the middle class and become a farmer’s wife, but also of Rose Hancock,a Philippina housekeeper who married her (Australian) billionaire boss and led a sad life for all her wealth.

    Like

    • May 22, 2021 at 6:52 pm

      Miss Mole also belongs to a generation of women that were more numerous than men because of all the deaths in WWI. I suppose that later, there were more jobs for women.
      Yes, Harriet was lucky to become a farmer’s wife.

      Like

  10. buriedinprint
    May 21, 2021 at 9:46 pm

    This sounds simply delightful. I’ll have to keep it in mind, while we are losing track of our numbered lockdowns over in Canada, although my Daphne Du Maurier (speaking of Virago finds) is scratching that itch just now. No wonder you enjoyed it so much!

    Like

    • May 22, 2021 at 10:14 pm

      Delightful is the right word. It’s also a good way to show how hard it was for single women at the time. Miss Mole is someone I would have liked to meet in real life. I’m curious about other books by Young.

      I wonder who the French equivalent of Miss Mole or Patricia Brent are. I don’t think I’ve heard of that type of books in French literature between the wars.

      Like

  11. May 26, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    I have this, and a few others from this author, yet to read. Something to look forward to….

    Like

    • May 26, 2021 at 9:23 pm

      Yes, I imagine you’ll like it. (Like The Romance of a Shop, for example)

      Like

      • May 26, 2021 at 11:07 pm

        Funnily enough I have another by Amy Levy sitting on my desk

        Like

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