Book Review//Chatterton Square by E. H. Young



Chatterton Square is the story of two families, the Blacketts and the Frasers, in the time leading up to WWII when Britain was waiting to see if Chamberlain would achieve peace. Of course, we know how that ends but the thread of tension runs throughout the whole novel. As is usual with Young's novels, not a lot happens. She does not write about huge events but instead, she writes with incisive clarity of the people themselves; their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and their weaknesses as well as their strengths. One of her greatest abilities is that she can make even the most unlikeable character human.

Mr. Blackett is supremely unlikable while being completely convinced that he is irresistible. We are shown this clearly in the first chapter.

Mr. Blackett smiled. He laid a hand on her shoulder Its firm pressure emphasized what it was unnecessary to explain. She must trust his wider experience. She had had a sheltered girlhood in her father's vicarage; she had been sheltered as a wife and it would have been beneath his dignity and hers to have told her of the little attacks he had had to parry, easily enough, from women secretaries and clerks and typists. No doubt this sort of thing occurred in most offices where the sexes, unfortunately, mingled. Perhaps his share of it had been unusually large, but he could not change his appearance for the easing of these troubled young women! It was not his fault that he looked like an elegant poet with his pointed, little black beard, his slim figure in well-cut clothes and his hat just a fraction of an inch broader in the brim than the hats of other men. And he was neither the hearty business man who was jolly with the girls nor the suave man of affairs who treated them like machines. They knew he was different. He was a man in uncongenial surroundings who had made himself master of them and they found him interesting. 

 Isn't that a masterly description? Mr. Blackett loves his children, loves his wife, is convinced he is always doing what is best for them but is making them miserable. However, they are not outwardly miserable. Mrs. Blackett is the picture of the perfect wife and mother. She has survived her marriage by inwardly mocking Mr. Blackett while outwardly catering to him. Slowly you come to realize that the inner person is very different from what she is showing to the world. It is an unflinching and disturbing picture of a marriage that has gone wrong between a deluded man and a woman who has contributed to his delusion.


...she told herself that she had only to fool this man to the top of his bent and she could do what she liked with him except make him into the kind of man she wanted. For less than that, the price would be too heavy. She would never be able to change the contents of his mind of which self was the chief ingredient and already her own mind was warped enough by her passive deception of him. She would have been a better woman, she thought, if her behaviour had seemed worse and perhaps--this was an altogether new idea and a disturbing one--he would have been a better man, and, all at once, she felt deeply sorry for him in his unconscious isolation. There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure  he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, lookng at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life.  

Rosamund Fraser is the mother of five children and the wife of a man from whom she is separated. They were deeply in love but that did not make for a happy family life.

She had not married the wrong man. It would be mean and disloyal and untrue to pretend now that he had not been everything she wanted and, without children, their undeniable claims and what, to him, was the burden of them and the pressure of their personalities, she and Fergus would have been together still and in all probability nothing would have happened to reveal the faults of either to the other. 

 Rosamund worries greatly about the world and what will happen to her children, particularly her sons, if war is declared. She is a loving but slightly hands-off mother who lets her children live their own lives and make their own mistakes. It makes for a happy, warm home and the Blackett children are drawn to it. The two families slowly come to know each other better and come to know more about themselves as a result.

Rosamund has a childhood friend who live with her. Miss Spanner has had a difficult life and worries greatly about her future and whether she will be able to continue to live with Rosamund. She has made a life for herself surrounded by her possessions including her books.

I've had my books and while you've concentrated on six people, six ordinary people," she said, and paused for contradiction but Rosamund, as usual, disappointed her and nodded pleasantly, "while you've only had them, I've made hundreds of friends, yes hundreds of them, good and bad and all interesting. They can't possibly die before I do. I'm sure of them for as long as I want them and when. There's somebody for every mood and though they don't go off in tempers," she said, giving Rosamund one of her meaning looks, "and leave you in the lurch, you can send them away when you've had enough of them, as you'd do with me now if you weren't afraid of hurting my feelings. 


 The Blacketts and the Frasers live next door to each other and by the end of the book, the reader feels as if they have lived in the house opposite watching the comings and goings and interactions of the two families. Chatterton Square is wonderfully written with characters that are well-rounded.

 I am very glad that this was included in The British Library Women Writers series. My thanks to them for the review copy.

2 comments

  1. I read this one a few years ago and really enjoyed it. The female characters in particular are so well written. You made a great choice of excerpts.

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    1. I enjoyed how nuanced the characters are.

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