I have enjoyed several E H Young novels, a writer who is probably read far less these days than she deserves to be. The Curate’s Wife is the sequel to her 1932 novel Jenny Wren; and is again set in the fictional Upper Radstowe – a thinly disguised Clifton, where she set several of her novels. Ridiculously it is three years since I read Jenny Wren (I was convinced in my own mind it was a little over a year – before I checked) – and so I had to look back at my own review before starting to read.
The Curate’s Wife, takes up more or less where Jenny Wren left off – only the focus shifts from the character of Jenny Rendall to her sister Dahlia. In the previous novel gently educated Jenny and her sister – the daughters of a gentleman who had married beneath him – struggled with aspects their new life in Upper Radstowe following their father’s death. Their mother – who everybody acknowledges to be their social inferior starts a boarding house – next door to a nasty, vicious old gossip, and openly conducts a relationship with a farmer. Jenny particularly feels the social difference between herself and her mother – which leads to trouble in her own romantic life.
“Cecil’s long legs and his love took him very rapidly up the street and across The Green. He had already done several errands and he was willing to do more. He liked leaving the house for the sake of coming back to it and finding Dahlia there, always busy but also always ready to stop work and talk and tell him how the house would look when she had finished with it.”
The Curate’s Wife of the title is Dahlia – who has just arrived back to Upper Radstowe from her honeymoon. She has married the rather serious, very conventional, curate Rev. Cecil Sproat. Dahlia is anything but conventional; beautiful, irreverent she sees Cecil’s vocation as rather old womanish – and ridiculous, seeing humour in things that leave poor Cecil a little puzzled. Dahlia is kind though, and well intentioned, she wants to be a good curate’s wife and assist him in his work. Dahlia is fond of Cecil – but she isn’t madly in love with him, as he is with her – for Dahlia, marriage with Cecil is safety and stability. Dahlia and Cecil have married each other without knowing one another very well – Dahlia is very young – and Cecil so very serious, the two have a lot to learn about each other from the start. Their marriage is compared and contrasted with that of Cecil’s vicar and his wife.
“She cried without tears while she undressed. She found the loneliness of trouble in marriage greater than its joy when all went well, for happiness need not be concealed. The success of marriage calls for proclamation, its failure must not be acknowledged and now she could not creep into Jenny’s bed, as she wished to do, and warm herself and find comfort in a love that needed no explanation.”
Cecil’s vicar is Mr Doubleday – a slightly ineffectual but basically decent man – married to a managing harridan, who is immediately determined to disapprove of Dahlia. Mrs Doubleday is horrified by the idea of Dahlia’s mother, now married to her farmer and living over the bridge in the countryside setting she is more comfortable with. The Doubleday’s have been married for over thirty years; their son who they both adore having been abroad is on his way home following an attack of Malaria. Their relationship has been one of dominance and subservience, Mr Doubleday it appears has lived in thrall to his wife’s more dominating and difficult personality. The portrait of the Doubleday marriage is a sombre one, two people living together so long – yet they long ago ceased to communicate properly. Mrs Doubleday is gradually made aware of her husband as an unexpected subversive. While she jealously guarded her own relationship with their son – trying wherever possible to cut her husband out of Reginald’s life – her husband has been writing his own private letters – letters filled with humorous stories that have been a great delight to his son.
“Week by week, he had slipped a short and very dull note into the envelope addressed to Reginald, week by week, she had read and scorned it, and he had been writing long, funny letters secretly and posting them on the sly! She was ready to suspect him of almost any wickedness. Had he been writing such letters for nearly twenty years, while Reginald was at school and university? If so, the really dangerous change was in Reginal who no longer cared to spare her feelings”
Jenny meanwhile has been living with a former lodger of her mother’s and his family in the antique shop he runs. About the time that Jenny reappears in Upper Radstowe Dahlia meets and is momentarily distracted by a couple of glamourous young men. Reginald Doubleday is quick to notice Jenny, much to his mother’s horror.
The Curate’s Wife is a lovely, thoughtful portrait of marriage – showing how damaging and difficult it can be when two people marry without knowing one another well. Many of the attitudes are very old fashioned – even for the times in which the book was written. Dahlia and Jenny are very much the new generation – the Doubledays – and even Cecil seem to represent a different, earlier society. By examining the life of the vicar and his wife even Dahlia is able to see the worrying parallels with her and Cecil’s marriage.
E H Young allows her characters to each learn the lessons they perhaps need to – but the novel itself ends fairly abruptly – in a sense the reader can never be certain of the future of the curate’s wife. I actually really like such endings – but I know not everyone does.
When re-arranging some books on my tbr bookcase the other day I was delighted to come across a lovely green virago edition of E H Young’s 1937 novel Celia. I hope it doesn’t take me three years to get around to that one.