My reading for The Seven Ages of Women theme read continues apace, this novel by Irish writer Maura Laverty fitting snuggly into the coming of age section of our list. I think we can all identify with those first stumbling steps of the almost grown, striking out into an uncaring world. Those mistakes, naivetés and youthful passions that wait to trip us up, and show us we’re not so very grown up after all. Maura Laverty understands those pitfalls well, faithfully portraying the path to adulthood that must so quickly be negotiated when one is alone and trying to make a precarious living abroad.
No more Than Human is Maura Laverty’s 1944 sequel to Never no More, which was the wonderfully engaging story of Delia Scully growing up in rural Ireland, living with her adored grandmother. At the conclusion of the previous novel, Delia was on the brink of great change, seventeen and going out into the world alone.
No more than Human, takes up the story of Delia as she arrives in Madrid in 1924 to take up a post as governess. Delia is still very young, not yet eighteen, a head full of dreams, she remains as irrepressible and hot-tempered as ever.
“I had no very well defined plan for the future, but I had a simple and lively belief that my governessing was to be a prelude to something grand and wonderful”
Upon her arrival in Madrid – dressed Delia firmly believes entirely suitably – the expression on her new employers face tells Delia that she may have made an error. Her coat; rather too small, the satin dress bought for her by her grandmother suddenly seem all wrong. Delia finds she must transform herself into a plain, conventional governess who will fade quietly into the background. Delia’s first employer is Señora Basterra whose disappointment in her new governess becomes quickly apparent. Delia is not quite ready for such a deferential role; the rules of her new world have still to be learnt. Spanish society keeps their governesses firmly in their place, there are few if any hours of freedom, and yet the ex-pat English community had no place for governesses either. Therefore the governesses form a little society all of their own. Delia can’t help but do things in her own way though, she makes friends with servants, goes into kitchens to watch the preparation of Spanish food, declaring the local cuisine to be wonderful, which is not the opinion of all the other non-Spanish governesses, who look with some disapproval on Delia’s enthusiasm.
Delia is given some sensible and sensitive counselling by experienced, middle aged governess Miss Carmody who Delia finds surprisingly sympathetic and who becomes her first and very best friend, despite the disparity in their ages. Miss Carmody is just one of a number of governesses most of them like Delia from Ireland – it seems many Irish Catholic girls were employed by Spanish families at this time – who Delia meets soon after coming to Madrid. The stories of these governesses are quite wonderful in themselves, in that they seem to tell the true unromantic story of such women, stories of unhappiness, loneliness and bitterness.
It isn’t too long before Delia falls foul of the rigidity of her new employment, quite by accident, and with the help of a scarlet bathing costume, Delia gains herself a reputation for being ‘fast’. Delia is dismissed from her job, and acting on advice received from her friends, she decides to strike out on her own. Delia decides to become a “professora,” in Madrid, a free-lance tutor and chaperone, many of the good positions are already filled, and Delia struggles to cope, existing on two small meals a day she watches the weight drop off her. Delia lives in a boarding house, where she makes friends with La Serena – an elderly servant who shows Delia great kindness, and who can’t but help remind Delia of her beloved grandmother.
Not all of Delia’s friends were women however, and Delia falls in love with an entirely unsuitable man, before meeting up again with a young Hungarian who does seem more suitable. All the time she is away, Delia keeps up an affectionate correspondence with Michael, a man from home, someone she met quite briefly but who had never forgotten her. Michael – helps Delia to find magazines who will publish her poems and stories, earning her a small amount of much needed extra money.
While struggling to make ends meet, especially over the difficult summer months when all her potential clients leave Madrid, Delia becomes determined to qualify herself for office work. She is told, in no uncertain terms, that this is a very difficult, nigh on impossible, transition to make. Yet with the help of a friend in the same boarding house, and due diligence in teaching herself shorthand and typing, Delia eventually secures herself a temporary position in an office.
“The sight of the Basque peasants wakened little stirrings in me and a hundred times a day I found myself thinking of how the gorse would be scattering its golden sovereigns at home, and how the banks on the Monasterevan road would be cream splashed with primroses. At the thought of primroses my fingers would feel the sweet coolness of delving deep in the moss and leaves for the little darning wool stems of downy pink”
Yet the pull towards Ireland is never far away, memories of her life with her grandmother, the people of the rural community she always felt at home with always in the back of Delia’s mind.
In writing No More than Human, Maura Laverty used many of her own experiences, and it is these experiences no doubt, that give the novel such a feeling of truth. Delia is a warm and engaging character, her voice so wonderfully distinct.
Both Never no More and No more than Human are delightful novels, I probably liked the first novel slightly more, the setting and the characters are so delightfully engaging, but No More than Human superbly depicts the reality of the work of governesses in the 1920s, and it was so nice to meet up again with Delia.