Chatterton Square

Chatterton Square is E. H. Young’s first novel in almost a decade. The nine or ten years which separate it from its immediate predecessor also separate today’s world from a world almost as lost as Atlantis. In her novels written in and for that lost world, E. H. Young wrote with ironic tenderness — an irony more revealing because of the tenderness — about the rather comfortably off English middle classes. She wrote about love and hate and, of course, about sorrow and joy and pain and all of the little, almost imperceptible emotional mutations which mean that we are living, that we are alive. She wrote about people and their interior lives. She wrote quietly, carefully, and with delight. In Chatterton Square, E. H. Young continues to write about people and their paradoxical interior lives, but since the world has moved on and she has never been a starry-eyed recluse in her own ivory tower, she is also writing about England.
This beautiful novel is ostensibly about two families, the Frazers and the Blacketts, who live and love and like and dislike on Chatterton Square in a town in the West Country just before the Second World War. But it is even more about that big family which lives on the Channel and on the Irish Sea and along all the other rivers and seas which bound a state of mind called England. Although the book is as fragrantly fresh and bittersweet with revelations and confirmations as any of E. H. Young’s other novels, and although it is centered on one of her most memorable characters, Rosamund Frazer, it is both more important and more compelling than any of her previous novels because of the decade which has intervened between it and her others.
“The qualities of a second-rate writer can easily be defined,” Willa Gather wrote in one of her less frequently read books, Not Under Forty, “but a first-rate writer can only be experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be.”Well, that is all very true, but it is a function of criticism to place that so elusive “timbre.” E. H. Young’s special “timbre” is the result of writing in the best tradition of English fiction and never for a moment forgetting that she is a woman writing in this tradition. Chatterton Square is not a great novel like Middlemarch nor an important one like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. It is akin to Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford. It differs from Cranford, however, not only in structure but in the fact that only one of its people is a spinster lady; almost every other person in the book is a facet of love. Chatterton Square is, indeed, one of the most lovable novels I have read since E. H. Young’s last.