Published by Virago
Publication date – 1 October 2020
Source – review copy
‘Who would suspect her sense of fun and irony, of a passionate love for beauty and the power to drag it from its hidden places? Who would imagine that Miss Mole had pictured herself, at different times, as an explorer in strange lands, as a lady wrapped in luxury and delicate garments?’
Miss Hannah Mole has for twenty years earned her living precariously as a governess or companion to a succession of difficult old women.Now, aged forty, a thin and shabby figure, she returns to Radstowe, the lovely city of her youth. Here she is, if not exactly welcomed, at least employed as housekeeper by the pompous Reverend Robert Corder, whose daughters are sorely in need of guidance. But even the dreariest situation can be transformed into an adventure by the indomitable Miss Mole. Blessed with imagination, wit and intelligence, she wins the affection of Ethel and her nervous sister Ruth. But her past holds a secret that, if brought to life, would jeopardise everything.
Miss Hannah Mole, much to her chagrin, is a companion, there to do the bidding of the wealthy widow employing her. When she walks away from her job one evening she seeks assistance from her rich cousin. She in turn finds Miss Mole a role as housekeeper to the pompous Reverend Robert Corder and his two daughters. There she settles, if not happy then happy enough, until a secret from her past threaten her present life.
From the first page I was charmed by Miss Mole, and that enchantment continued throghout the novel. Miss Mole is, according to society, past her prime, not yet 40, she is middle aged. There is no chance that she will marry, though she holds onto her daydream that a rich, elderly gentleman will see fit to leave her a legacy. She is unhappy in her role as companion and feels she is wandering aimlessly, waiting for a retirement she can’t actually afford.
When she goes to work for the Corder family, she soon finds herself growing attached to Ethel and Ruth, both still coming to terms with the death of their mother. Miss Mole sets herself the task of winning the girls over, driven by that unfamiliar attachment. She finds amusement in gently and covertly antagonising Robert Corder, who knows he dislikes his new housekeeper but isn’t sure why.
Miss Mole retreats into her fantasy world, when she needs respite from her life, one of servitude without being a servant. She is used to keeping detached from others, her role as companion it’s own class divide.
She has few friends. There is her cousin, Lilla, who Hannah likes to gently tease, but for whom she has genuine affection. There is Mrs Gibson, with whom Hannah lodges between her employment and who is always pleased to see Miss Mole when she visits after her move to the Corders. Also lodging there is a family, who Hannah helps in an unforeseen way and Mr Blenkinsop, who rouses Miss Mole’s curiosity and interest, an interest that grows into an attraction she tries to hide by creating an imagined romance for him with another woman.
The fictional city of Radstowe, a homage to Bristol, is a delightful sounding place, with plenty of side streets to wander and the countryside within touching distance. The childhood home of Hannah is easily imagined from her recollections and the reader walks with her around the city on her evening escapes.
Watching the relationship develop between Miss Mole and Mr Blenkinsop is a delight. She, through experience and lack of self-worth, fights her growing attraction and hides it behind gentle teasing, whilst he finds Miss Mole perplexing yet intriguing. Indeed all of the characters are a delight, each eliciting a reaction from Hannah that makes the reader she her as she truly is.
Not only was Miss Mole an entertaining read, it was also a fascinating insight into the role of women during the years after the First World War. Whilst society was changing, there was still much that left women behind. There were little work options available for those who could not or had not married into money and there was still stigma attached to those single women of a certain age. It was also still the case that the actions of others would only stain the reputation of a woman and not a man.
The thing I love about the Virago Modern Classics is that they allow modern readers to discover authors who were much loved and who have now been forgotten. There are many gems to unearth and now there is a new audience to welcome them.
I was charmed by Miss Mole and E.H. Young. Luckily for me I have her whole back catalogue to explore.
About the Author
Emily Hilda Young (1880-1949) was born in Northumberland, the daughter of a ship-broker. She was educated at Gateshead High School and Penrhos College, Colwyn Bay, Wales. In 1902, after her marriage to solicitor, J.A.H. Daniell, she went to live in Bristol, which was to become the setting of most of her novels.