Marina Endicott was born in Golden, British Columbia. She worked as an actor and director in Toronto before moving to London (England), where she began to write fiction. Her novel Good to a Fault won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean, and was a finalist for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her new novel, The Little Shadows, chronicling a sister-trio-harmony vaudeville act touring the prairies in 1912, will be published in the UK next February. Marina now lives in Alberta, Canada. Here she writes about E.H. Young's Miss Mole.
Marina Endicott on Miss Mole by E.H. Young
When I list the books and writers that formed my ideas about writing and about being human very early on, I'm perplexed to find how many are obscure or mostly forgotten. And how many go by their initials: the miraculous E.C. Spykman (Terrible, Horrible Edie and several more masterpieces), P.G. Wodehouse, T.H. White, and above all E.H. Young.
All right, I added Wodehouse and White for their initials, but both The Man With Two Left Feet and Mistress Masham's Repose were pretty important books for me. And of course there are many other women to add to the list, including Penelope Fizgerald, Annie Dillard and Rose Macaulay (whose lost treasure Towers of Trebizond is the book I've given to others most often).
But the book that informed my thinking as a young woman and has stayed with me ever since is E.H. Young's Miss Mole, for which she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.
I was surprised when I read Miss Mole again last week to realize how strongly it shaped my ethical understanding, and I hope my writing.
The book begins just after Miss Mole, a poor companion out on a spree, has saved a man from suicide by breaking the basement window where he'd put his head in the oven - but Miss Mole is only an ironic hero, never sure that she's done the right thing (and neither is the suicide's upstairs neighbour, the thorny Mr Blenkinsop).
At forty, Hannah Mole has been a companion and dogsbody for 20 years. She has no prospects but impoverished old age, or perhaps a new career as a charwoman, but her interior life is as rich and varied as her clothes are dull. Fired by her current old lady (and after a little gentle blackmailing of her wealthy cousin Lilla), Hannah takes on a new role and becomes a kind of cock-eyed Mary Poppins to a Nonconformist minister's family: the patriarchal toad, his two desperate daughters, a son at Oxford (his fees paid by Lilla) and an amiable nephew.
They all need fixing, one way or another, and Hannah sets to work willingly, proud of her swift intelligence and subtle understanding of human pain, and only hampered by the appearance of the nasty Mr Pilgrim, who might reveal her 'sad little past'.
But nothing in this lovely book is as you expect it to be. There is more to Miss Mole, much more. I will not spoil it for you by talking plot.
The first joy of the novel is Miss Mole herself. She adapts herself so flexibly to whomever she is with that we understand their characters by her behaviour. To the frank boarding-house landlady Mrs Gibson, Miss Mole is outspoken, honest and a bit brash; to her devious, suspicious cousin Lilla, Miss Mole is a snake.
Her enduring optimism reminds me of my mother, who made two or three of her children go along as she hunted for a house for years, always expecting that a rich and lonely old lady would decide that she ought to give her house to such a lovely family. But my mother lacked Hannah Mole's insouciance, and also her self-awareness. The optimism is a game, and not one Hannah truly expects to win.
Subtle, Machiavellian, convoluted and elliptical, Hannah's mind is the structure of the book - a roundaboutation that will lead to the point, eventually, but can take some getting used to. Since there is no way for the reader to tell what will be important later, we are forced to share Hannah's interest in everything.
In adversity, Miss Mole has developed her own standards: however shabby the rest of her, her shoes 'will always stand inspection' and even the dreadful ulster she wears, while it mortifies the minister's sensitive daughter Ruth, has a certain dash. Miss Mole's aesthetic gave me a sense of style, independence and fair play; her courage - perhaps better characterized as gall - gave me a view of a woman's independence, and the usefulness of a sense of humour.
The writing is beautifully transparent. Nothing impedes us from falling through the text and straight into Hannah's mind and heart. It is acerbic almost to cruelty, and very funny. (On the minister: 'Is he brisk and hearty, or one of those gentle paw-folders?') But Miss Mole reserves her harshest judgement for herself and her own mistakes.
Written in 1930, but looking backwards, the book is imbued with sadness and wounds. Miss Mole's own life has been attenuated by her contact with the Great War, and her ironic conception of herself is the armour she assumes against 'a world which has not been friendly'.
She is a constant, conscienceless liar. 'Truth is a relative good,' she says; but her myriad small dishonesties are balanced by her giant honesty, and the perpetual click of her interior abacus tallying honour and dishonour.
I don't admire everything Young wrote, but this book is extraordinary. It is her most honest, I believe, in examining the question of dishonesty: who we are to ourselves and to others, who we favour with the intimacy of honest understanding - and to whom, and when, we tell the truth.
All Miss Mole's deceits spring from, and serve, her conviction of the dignity of the self, and of all human beings. It's an angle on feminism, on humanity, that I still entirely embrace. Miss Mole, in her own estimation, 'was a human being more abundantly than she was a woman'. Me too.
I'm glad to have had reason to revisit Miss Mole. At my present age, a little later than forty because our era has pushed that milestone back, I have now assumed Miss Mole's cloak of invisibility, and find it a great comfort to feel the shape of her thin shoulders still within it as it slips over my own.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]