Jenny and her older sister Dahlia Rendall have recently moved from their old home at the white farm, in the countryside to a house in Upper Radstowe. Here their mother has installed the first of her lodgers, young Mr Cummings, who knows about antique furniture and has ambitions for a shop of his own. Jenny and Dahlia are socially superior to their mother, taking after their gentleman father who had previously protected them from their mother’s common ways and the gossip surrounding a supposed affair years earlier. Now Jenny and Dahlia feel the sharp glances of their neighbours who see the still beautiful Louisa as not respectable and assume her daughters are no better. Dahlia is more laid back, but Jenny is acutely embarrassed by her mother, and lives in horror of her mother’s older sister Sarah descending on them. Next door – in another house of lodgers lives the vicious Miss Jewel, jealously guarding her lodger the curate Mr Sproat and watching Louisa with delicious disapproval, noticing farmer Thomas Grimshaw’s weekly visits and spying on Jenny and Dahlia too.
“Jenny stayed in the sitting room. She was wondering why, among so many disadvantages, they had to endure the daily annoyance of hearing their names mispronounced, when there were so many which could have been uttered without offence. This thought had often occurred to her father, and he had to blame himself. Louisa chose the first child’s name, when he was still sufficiently in love to forget how she would misuse it but, when Jenny was born, he insisted that her name must not end like Dahlia’s with a vowel, and characteristically overlooked the dangerous consonant. Jenny was registered, she was not christened, as Jennifer, and Louisa stubbornly refused to accept the abbreviations he and Dahlia used.”
Although a tentative friendship develops between Jenny and Edwin Cummings the lodger, Jenny dreams of another life, a life she feels must be denied her because of her mother. So when Jenny meets the handsome young squire Cyril Merriman – Jenny is afraid of him knowing her real name. Cyril meets Jenny secretly in the woods and fields that she loves – believing her name to be called Jenny Wren. Dahlia meanwhile befriends the rather serious Mr Sproat, who given the task of finding more lodgers for the Rendalls, encourages the rather sad little Miss Morrison to make her home with them. Poor Miss Morrison, who sees Mr Sproat’s interest in her living arrangements as being something more than they are.
This is a novel about social inequalities and the dissatisfaction that this can cause. Dahlia and Jenny’s father married beneath him, and rued the day. He made sure that his daughters grew up young ladies, but they are now caught between the class they feel part of and their mother’s background, and the realities of living in a boarding house. Louisa works hard for her daughters, beginning sadly to acknowledge that she may be holding them back. Jenny and Dahlia have to learn that those things which are best for them and will provide for them a safer happier and more stable future are maybe closer than they thought.
Having read other E H Young books – I could see where the story was going right from the start, although this predictability didn’t in any way spoil it for me. I already have the sequel to this novel; The Curate’s Wife on my TBR and I am looking forward to it. Although not my favourite E H Young novel to date – that would be William, this is an excellent novel, I love E H Young’s Upper Radstowe, and the small disappointed lives she often writes about.