Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Harshly Feminine Novel: E. H. Young's Celia

I spent a month reading two brilliant but exhaustingly masculine novels by Howard Jacobson.  Let's face it, I read mainly women's novels, so I was simply following my usual path when I decided to hunker down with a comforting women's novel.

I turned to E. H. Young's Celia, a Virago which proved to be an equally exhausting feminine novel.

Virago, a publisher which has achieved the celebrity of a name brand, like Nike or Jones New York, for its "Modern Classics" (some bloggers swear by them), has revived interest in masterpieces by Molly Keane (M. J. Farrell), Elizabeth Taylor, and Mrs. Oliphant.  Not every Virago Modern Classic, however, is a classic. Virago has also published lesser-known, middlebrow novels by E. H. Young, whom I very much like, and an occasional puzzlingly terrible book, like Elaine Dundy's The Old Man and Me

Other feminist presses have not been so popular. The Feminist Press, founded in 1970, is an American publisher which revived interest in Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Now FP has become an edgier publisher of radical women's books, including Pussy Riot!  A Punk Prayer for Freedom, an e-book of essays about Pussy Riot.

Viragos are safer overall, or so it seems to me. Yet it is silly to expect to like all books by a single publisher.  We should remember the caveat published in the back of early Viragos:

"While the series is called 'Modern Classics' it is not true that these works of fiction are universally and equally considered 'great,' although that is often the case.  Published with new critical and biographical introductions, books appear in the series for different reasons:  sometimes for their importance in literary history; sometimes because they illuminate particular aspects of women's lives, both personal and public."

E. H. Young's disturbing novel, Celia, begins cozily.  The heroine, Celia Marston, is a 45-year-old housewife and the mother of two children.  In the opening paragraph, she admires a lovely spring day from the window of her attic flat.  

"Celia loved the sun and she loved the view from the top of this tall house, so she had mounted the stool and saw, straight in front of her but a long way off, the high ground above the village of Easterly stretching, almost as level as a wall top, against the sky."

But a few sentences later, Young reveals the complicated jaggedness of Celia's sensibility.  She is not just an admirer of picture postcard scenes.  She thinks the church tower, which points heavenward, sometimes looks "more like a little black exclamation mark on a big, blank page, making some sly, malicious comment on itself and all it observed from its place on the hill."

E. H. Young
And so we become acquainted with Celia, a serene, humorous, likable woman who holds herself apart from and is often contemptuous of intrusive friends and family, harbors whimsical, original, if sometimes harsh, thoughts, and bears the grief of a joyless marriage to Gerald, a mediocre architect, sensibly and without complaint.  She is not unhappy:  she loves her adult son, Jimmy, and teenage daughter, Catherine, dearly, and does her duty to her family.  But she lives very much by herself.

Marriage is not often a happy topic in novels, and marriages are unraveling all around Celia, who believes her wretched marriage is stable.  

Her conservative, comfortable sister May loves her husband, Stephen, but he takes off one morning without notice, leaving May and her daughters, saying he doesn't know where he's going and when he will be back.  Celia's brother, a shopkeeper, hears his spiteful, pretty wife criticizing him to his children and questions their history together.  

Celia privately is angry and jealous.  Her son, Jimmy, is in love with his cousin, Susan, who looks like Celia, and captures the affection of Celia's men.  Celia despises Susan for locking up a  dollhouse, which she has never allowed anyone to touch:  the dollhouse to her is a symbol of Susan's closed personality.  After Celia suggests that her friend Pauline Carey take Susan with her to Paris on a weekend, she is terribly upset to learn that Richard, Pauline's brother, met and liked Susan.  Celia fell in love with Richard shortly after marrying Stephen during World War I, and all these years later carries a torch for him.  

We like Celia a little less by the end of the novel, because she makes it so obvious to Gerald that she despises him, and he confronts her.  But Gerald is not exactly loyal himself.  She does not always see things clearly, and learns that some of her perceptions were wrong.   

It is not Young's best novel--that would be Miss Mole--but I enjoyed parts of it.  It goes on a little too long for what it is, but it isn't bad. 

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