‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ (p. 79)
And that’s the book, in a nutshell. Caroline, Sophia, and their stepsister Rose are all unmarried women of a certain age, although Rose is several years younger and still considered attractive. When their niece Henrietta comes to live with them, she upsets the gentle rhythm of spinsterhood. These women have become very, very comfortable just being themselves:
Sitting up in bed looking grotesquely terrible, they discussed the event. Caroline, like Medusa, but with hair curlers instead of snakes sprouting from her head, and Sophia with her heavy plait hanging over her shoulder and defying with its luxuriance the yellowness of her skin, they sat side by side, propped up with pillows, inured to the sight of each other in undress. (p. 32)
Hmm … perhaps they’re a little too comfortable!
Henrietta is young and has a mind of her own. While she loves and admires her aunts, she has no intention of following in their footsteps. And so she sets her sights on local heart-throb Francis Sales who, incidentally, has had a secret “thing” with Rose for some time. And who, incidentally, is also married to an invalid confined to her bed. Meanwhile Henrietta is being pursued by the dull but caring Charles Batty, a man who loves music, but can’t stand to attend concerts because other patrons whisper and crinkle their programs. Rose attempts to resolve the conflict with Henrietta in many ways, all indirect because heaven forbid the situation be brought out into the open. I found this infuriating, and lost patience with them more than once.
While Young’s social satire is amusing, autobiographical details add much interest to this story. E. H. Young’s husband died at Ypres, and later she went to live with Ralph Henderson, a school headmaster, and his wife, who was a wife in name only. They were inseparable, and while those in their social circle understood the situation, their relationship was not publicly acknowledged. Young wrote The Misses Mallett when her living arrangement was still fairly new, and I can see how she used the experience to work through issues she must have wrestled with at the time. Oh, how I wish she could have written more openly about that situation!