Monday, June 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "Jenny Wren"

E.H. Young, Jenny Wren.  Virago Modern Classics 1985.  First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Limited, 1932.  

Comparisons to Jane Austen are inevitable.  "Jane Austen" becomes a kind of shorthand for an English novel that concerns itself primarily with the lives and relationships of women, and in particular their pursuit of husbands.  Jenny Wren centers on the lives of two sisters, Dahlia and Jenny Rendall, who live with their mother in the upscale suburb of Upper Radstowe, where the widowed Mrs. Rendall keeps a boarding house. The girls' father, Sidney Rendall, was a scholar who married below his class, and his younger daughter, Jenny, has inherited his cultured distaste for her mother's rusticity.  She dreams of marrying a squire—and when she actually meets one, she hides the shame of her mother's origins, and the deeper shame of her mother's affair with the farmer Thomas Grimshaw.  

Like Jane Austen, E.H. Young has a a subtle sense of humor, a satirical attitude toward the British class system, and a beautiful prose style.  Like Jane Austen, E.H. Young explores the conflicts between the inner lives of her characters and the external reality in which they are forced to live and interact with other people.  Jenny, with her prejudices and her self-absorption, is in many ways an unsympathetic character, but Young is interested in exploring the ability of people to love each other despite, and perhaps even because of their flaws.  One of the most affecting aspects of the novel is the relationship between Louisa Rendall and her daughters: Young beautifully renders the ways in which their antagonism—Jenny's  shame, Louisa's resentment—shades into loyalty and mutual affection.  

Unlike Jane Austen, E.H. Young is acutely aware that her characters possess physical bodies, with all of the desires or aversions that accompany those bodies.  In her longing for intimacy, unfulfilled in her unequal marriage to Sidney Rendall, Louisa has an extramarital affair with Thomas Grimshaw.  The pious young curate, Cecil Sproat, discovers, in his attraction to Dahlia, that he can be motivated by concerns of the flesh as well as by concerns of the spirit.  Miss Morrison, a spinster who would have been more at home in a novel by Barbara Pym, comes to realize that, having entirely repressed her sexual nature, her charm even for a pious curate is incomplete.  Sidney Rendall represents mind and spirit; Louisa Rendall represents sexuality: the question is whether Jenny and Dahlia can reconcile both sides of their inheritance, and express them in a healthy and fulfilling manner in their own lives.  

E.H. Young writes beautiful sentences, many or which are like short stories in themselves. Here, for example, is a description of Miss Morrison, who comes to board with the Rendalls: "Here was the desired respectable spinster, without the fussiness Dahlia feared: here, also, was money punctually paid, but Miss Morrison's desire to be at home in Beulah Mount, to be sisterly with her young hostesses, sympathetic with their mother and comradely with Mr. Cummings, to assert, by practice, her belief that all was right with the world, had the nature of a lesson disguised as a play."

I wish I could regularly write sentences that say so much, so flowingly, and that come around to such a witty and astute summing up.


Hannah Stoneham said...

I know what you mean about sentences like that - they really have movement and grace! This sounds like an extremely interesting novel of social commentary.

thanks indeed for sharing your review


laytonwoman3rd said...

One of my favorite Virago reads so far.

Penelope said...

My mother gave me this one quite a number of years ago. I'll have to reread it.

BTW, it appears we have similar taste when it comes to blog redesigns... ;-)

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .