Virago Modern Classics #177
Jenny Wren is the first of a pair of novels about a pair of sisters – Jenny and Dahlia Redfern. This book takes Jenny as its main subject and it’s sequel, The Curate’s Wife, takes Dahlia. The two sisters have completed their eduation and both are now looking for their paths in life. They have a close bond but are very different.
As the story opens their father, Sidney Rendall, has recently died. He came from a good family, but they cut him off when he married Louisa, a farm girl from a much lower class.
And class is at the very heart of this novel….
The widowed Louisa tries to build a new future for her family by borrowing money to open a boarding house. But, while Jenny and Dahlia have the eduation, manners and accents of their fathers class, their mother does not. And that leaves them in social limbo.
Dahlia is pragmatic about her family’s uncertain situation, but Jenny finds things more difficult and lives in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
The story is simple. Jenny and her family deal with family, neighbours and lodgers. The joy is in the details, the nuances and the wonderful characters.
There’s Mr Grishaw, the countryman who lent Louisa money and now wants more from here; Miss Jewel, a morally upright and most disagreeable neighbour, Mr Cummings, the first lodger, Mr Sproat, the curate who tries to help the family; Miss Cummings, a charming lady lodger. All are perfetly drawn and you an understand and empathise with all of their points of view.
And then there is Mr Merriman, a young country squire, who Jenny meets in the countryside. They form a relationship but, though she longs for a different life, Jenny does not tell him her real identity. She is sure that her status would be an insurmountable object.
Jenny Wren is a wonderful story – slow-moving and dense, but always with a small detail or inident to draw you into the Rendalls’ lives
And E H Young could just be the missing link between Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.