Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Penguin no. 8: William
by E.H. Young

    "And, Dora," Mrs. Nesbitt made a half-hearted attempt to placate her conscience, "I beg you not to make Herbert unhappy."
    "Mother dear, when you see Herbert, please beg him not to make me unhappy."
    "Does he?" Mrs. Nesbitt demanded, all the mother in her ready to do battle.
    "No more or less than I do him. You can't expect to live in perfect peace with anybody."

This is a lovely book, although perhaps it starts a little slowly. On the first page we meet William Nesbitt as he walks home from work, and perceive immediately how pleasant and likable he is. A successful business man living in Radstowe, an ex-seaman, a man conscious of beauty and of order. But perhaps his most important quality, at least for the story that follows, is revealed  in a trivial incident when he notices a little iron gate loose on its hinges. Despite the fact that he likes things working properly, and for his own enjoyment of order he would like the owner to fix it, he does not intervene. He recognises that it is someone else's business, they do not need to do what suits him.

It is a quality that his wife Kate does not possess. She seems to picture herself as family matriarch; she knows what every member of her family should be doing and she tells them. Even worse, she believes that they should tailor their lives and their plans to her benefit. If anyone puts their own interests above hers she labels them selfish. She does not recognise this difference between herself and her husband, as she is not self aware. But William perceives it and through his droll little comments the reader's attention is drawn to her lack of awareness of her impotence, and this pathetic belief she has in her own authority.

William and Kate are the parents of five children, four married and one still at home observing the others, and concluding that marriage is not for her. The core of this story is a comparison of these two individuals and how this fundamental difference between them impacts on their relationships with their children.They share the same set of worries, the same concern for their children's welfare, and the same sense of uneasiness that comes from being a parent, but the difference is in how they respond. William is concerned with his childrens' experience of life, while is wife is concerned primarily with her own. He can give them liberty but she cannot.  However there is no suggestion that he is a perfect parent, as he has his favourites, and one of his daughters violates his sense of beauty, so that he seems to not even like her.

All this takes place within a novel which reflects on the experience of married life, and the unexpressed reality of even the happiest marriages. William and Kate have a successful marriage, and have been apparently happily married for years, and yet there are times when she seems a stranger to him. And he is aware that by choosing and sticking with her there are things that he desired which have been foregone. None of the marriages in this book are idealised. It is emphasised repeatedly that love, whether for a child or a partner, does not inevitably bring either security and happiness.

But the strength of this novel is in the characterisation of William, and when I finally put down this book I  wondered if there was ever a real father as wise, perceptive and wonderful as this one. It offered a blueprint for a different and superior approach to parenting, and considerable food for thought.

Simon's review of William
Darlene's review of William
books as food


  1. I'm so glad you could join in with reading this; I'll link to your review when I post mine - and Darlene ( will be holding a discussion about William on 24th Feb, if you'd like to pop by!

    I'm so interested by your lovely review - I agree that the novel is very good, but I disagree in my opinions of the characters. I thought William had many good qualities, but was overall incredibly selfish and manipulative, under the guise of selflessness. He seemed to care much more about knowing what his children were thinking than he did about their happiness... hmm. I will think on't before writing my thoughts down!


  2. Your comment has had me thinking all day, Simon. I sit down meaning to study, but find that my thoughts have drifted back to the events in the book, and a reappraisal of William's character.

    I'm very glad you suggested joining in reading this book. I'm so used to reading and reflecting on books in isolation, that I'm looking forward to considering other perspectives. And I will edit it to include the links to your review and Darlene's, and any others once they've been put up.

    I concede that William could be seen as manipulative, and the storyline covering the youngest daughter is a clear example of this. But I have the sense that when he wants things for his children he provides the means, but gives them freedom to find their own solutions, whereas his wife would impose the solution as well. As an example I would think of his son's home which William considers too small. He increases his wages, and leaves it at that.

    I look forward to reading your complete review.

  3. Thanks for your reply, Karyn! This is the sort of discussion I'm looking forward to on Darlene's blog - although I suppose she won't be awake at the same time as me - and since you're in Australia, none of us will be there together! Should still be fun.

    I still haven't written down my full review (MUST do this before I forget any of it) but will definitely keep these points in mind. I think part of my problem was that Young seemed to be presenting an even spectrum of responses, but in the end all those who were anti-adultery were shown to be near-hysterical, and not thinking about it clearly or sympathetically. Oh, it's such a rich novel!

  4. I just read along (though in a Virago, not a Penguin). I agree that the book started slowly, but it definitely picked up at the end. I'm starting to feel that I should have more sympathy towards Kate...I keep thinking of something I read that said that Mrs. Bennett wasn't silly, she was practical, and Mrs. Nesbitt, although she was rigid, probably had the right idea about the consequences of Lydia's actions.

  5. Hi Audrey, I enjoyed reading your review. I thought it highlighted just how delightful the writing was, which perhaps I didn't elaborate on here.

    I saw that Simon commented in the discussion on Darlene's blog that he had sympathy for Kate as well. And of course it is made clear in the novel that William loves her, so she must have had good qualities, although I found it difficult to see them.

    There are a number of small incidents early in the novel that disturbed me with regard to Kate. The one that comes most clearly to my mind is the way she wants to stop her youngest daughter from going on a walking holiday, because she will worry about her, and she calls her selfish for insisting on this one freedom. But it can only be conceived of as selfish if Kate weights her own happiness above that of her children, without recognising that she does it. I understand it though - I have five children myself, and I know this inate inclination as they grow older to discourage them from taking risks so that I don't have to worry. But it is a limiting way to behave, and I think Kate thought far too much about herself and how things would affect her.



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