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Posts Tagged ‘E M Delafield’

“Thank heaven fasting for a good man’s love.”

(William Shakespeare – As You Like it)

There’s an irony in the title I think – proving that there is much more to this novel by the author of The Provincial Lady than we might at first suspect.

E M Delafield had much to say about society and women’s place within it – that she does so with a light touch, and even with humour is perhaps what makes her such a delight to read. In Thank Heaven Fasting she show us the restrictive absurdity of upper class society in Edwardian England. There is nothing actually to date the setting of this novel precisely; there is no mention of the war, and the attitudes toward society and parental authority seem to place it before WW1. This is a society in which all girls are expected to marry within three seasons of being launched into society, everything in their upbringing and education has been arranged to bring this about.

“Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.”

Any young woman left unmarried or at least unengaged after her third season is a failure – and so by association is her mother. The years after this third season becoming more and more difficult – with each young woman and her distressed parent having to have just the right excuse ready to defend herself against any implied criticism from curious ‘well-wishers’.

Monica Ingram has been brought up well in Eaton Square she has been protected and cosseted just the right amount – she is obedient and properly educated. Monica knows that she must marry as soon as she can to be a success and she wants to be a success – she wants to marry, to have her own life and to make her parents proud. Anything else is unthinkable. Monica is no protestor to this way of life – she knows nothing else – and the idea of being left on the shelf is terrifying. As the novel opens Monica is about eighteen, she is just about to attend her first ball – her excitement is palpable, after all it’s just possible that she might encounter her future husband at her very first ball.

The ball is being held by Lady Marlowe a friend of Mrs Ingram’s. As she was growing up Monica was forced into a friendship with Lady Marlowe’s two daughters Frederica and Cecily who are a few years older than Monica, with some seasons already behind them, the sisters are already beginning to look like failures and Monica only hopes she can do better. Lady Marlowe has practically given up on her two daughters and is planning to abandon them to her house in the country in her disgust at the close of the present season. This toe-curling exchange between Frederica and her mother Lady Marlowe perfectly showing the pity on one side and the sad, embarrassed desperation on the other.

“‘I don’t want to get married. I hate men. I wouldn’t marry anyone – whoever it was.’

Lady Marlowe gazed at her in astonishment for a moment, and then laughed again.

‘So you’ve reached that stage, have you?’ was all she said.”

These sisters who have spent their whole lives together, are a pitiful pair, Frederica dominating her shy, nervy younger sister, unable to live without each other, and yet caught up in a rather unhealthy dependent relationship. With these characters Delafield reminds us that the fate of the unmarried woman in these days was not at all attractive.  

Poor Monica despite knowing all the rules backwards and inside out, has her head turned by the rather caddish Captain Lane. All her life she has had it instilled in her the right way to act around young men, not to show too much favour toward one man, and only to foster friendships with the right sort of man, a man who could be useful – i.e., marriageable. Monica allows Captain Lane to kiss her – and that is enough to almost completley ruin her chances for good with anyone else.  For one terrible, wonderful week poor Monica believes herself in love – assuming a proposal is imminent. When it all comes crashing down and her naïve foolishness is exposed she is devastated.

Time moves forward and the second part of the novel is called The Anxious Years – Monica has had her three seasons – she remains unmarried and unengaged. Frederica and Cecily are almost completely exiled to the country. The anxiety of Monica’s unmarried state is felt as much by her mother as it is by Monica herself – the only way she can have a real life, a place in society, a home of her own, children, is to marry. Marriage for young women like Monica is a sanctuary from a far worse, more useless, wasted life. This theme of the necessity of marriage and the fate of women who don’t marry is one Delafield wrote about in her earlier much darker novel Consequences. Thank Heaven Fasting is altogether lighter and wittier – Delafield is sharp though, especially in some of her absolutely pitch perfect dialogue.

Whether Monica gets her happy ending I shall leave you to discover for yourselves – although sadly out of print this is not an impossible novel to find second hand.

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I had started to think that there were two sides to E M Delafield. The side she shows us so delightfully in The Provincial Lady so beloved of many of us, satirical, tongue in cheek with superbly sharp observances. Then there are her significantly more serious books like Consequences and The War Workers in which she shines a light on aspects of her society. However now I realise that is too simplistic, I am saying that with all the confidence of someone who hasn’t read all that many Delafield, though I have been wanting to read a lot more for years. In this novel I can definitely see aspects of both of the above – themes explored in both The Provincial Lady and Consequences are in evidence.

The central character in The Way Things Are is a little reminiscent of The Provincial Lady (earlier though and less hilarious) it’s a kind of subdued Provincial Lady and 1920s Motherland (BBC comedy if you haven’t seen it you must.) Her topic isn’t especially comic though, at the centre of this novel is a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. E M Delafield explores how women like her character Laura could be trapped by marriage – though readers can’t help but recognise that these trappings were rather comfortable. In the hands of another writer, this could be a really rather sad novel, however there is lightness and humour here, and while there is a serious point about marriage being made, Delafield knows how to keep her readers engaged.

Laura Temple is a wife and mother in her early thirties, living comfortably in the country beset with all the usual domestic problems and feeling deeply unsatisfied. She is married to Alfred, he is desperately dull, but in no way a bad man, or unkind, he spends most of his time outdoors, and is mainly interested in vegetable matter. Laura is also a writer, she has had some success with getting some stories published, though her writing takes something of a back seat to everything else.

“Laura now admitted to herself – what she had not admitted to herself at the time – that she had been rather anxious to be married, just when she first met Alfred.

The war was over, and there had been a question of her returning home, which she did not want to do, and so many other people seemed to be getting married… She wanted the experience of marriage, and she was just beginning to be rather afraid of missing it altogether, because so many of the men belonging to her own generation had gone.”

Alfred has a habit of being quite strict with their two spirited little boys and otherwise hides himself behind The Times to prevent himself having to engage too much in matters domestic. Each morning Laura wakes to the knowledge of what the day has in store, that includes wrangling with her sons, their Nurse, the domestic staff, and trying to come up with an interesting menu that won’t upset cook. She is a little intimidated by her servants, terrified of them giving notice – which they all seem to with hilarious regularity.

Laura’s two boys are Edward and Johnnie, Edward is the eldest, a quieter more thoughtful boy, far better behaved than the younger precocious, temper tantrum throwing, Johnnie. Laura though, seeing something of herself in her younger child favours Johnnie, she knows that she does, and while acknowledging it to herself she does nothing to redress the balance, and my heart broke a little for Edward. Laura went down in my estimation here, although I didn’t totally dislike her, I found her very annoying on lots of occasions, and my sympathies were often with her husband and children.

There are some fabulous peripheral characters, Edward and Johnnie sometimes go to a dancing class with some other children. Here Laura is plagued by a boastful mother who is keen to show her own little darlings in their best light, much to Laura’s chagrin.

“‘It’s very nice of you to say so, but then,’ returned Mrs Blakewell more brightly than ever, ‘Cynthia has danced ever since she could walk.’

Laura thought: ‘I wonder whether the mere fact of being a mother does really reduce one, conversationally, to the level of an idiot.’ Aloud she said: ‘Yes, of course.’”

One of her near neighbours is Lady Kingsley-Browne, who has a grown up daughter Bébéé (Laura, her sister Christine and Alfred call her Bay-Bay when speaking of her in private). Bébéé is a hit with eligible men, and her mother has high hopes for her and the richest commoner in England. When Christine comes to visit her older sister, local entertainments are organised, and Laura meets a friend of Christine’s; Marmaduke Ayland (known as Duke). He is a good looking, thirty five year old single man, who immediately sees more in Laura than her marriage and motherhood – and Laura is ripe for that kind of attention. Laura finds herself falling in love with Duke, arranging secret meetings when she goes to see Christine in London, revelling in the attention he gives her. Duke wants them to be together – but their love affair – if that is what this is, is pretty tame. Laura is plagued with guilt about her husband and children, she can’t possibly give up her children, and Alfred is totally undeserving of any betrayal.

Ultimately, there is a kind of acceptance in Laura for the kind of life she is living and must continue to live. Also, her great love for Duke is unconvincing, it’s more that she craves the affection that Alfred doesn’t show, desperate for romance before she is firmly middle aged, Laura falls in love with an idea. Her ‘romance’ is contrasted with those of her sister and Bébéé – who are younger with a more modern approach to romance.

The final few lines of the novel are just brilliant – and possibly quite poignant. A little less brilliant than The Provincial Lady perhaps, The Way Things Are is a more reflective novel and I liked it enormously.

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Half term week always seems like a good time for a big fat Persephone book – and I had several to choose from. Consequences is one of Persephone’s rather older titles – but I only bought it last year. I think I already knew what to expect – a tone very different to the one E M Delafield is best known for in The Provincial Lady. I am embarrassed at how few Delafield I have read – she is a writer I have wanted to explore more of a long time. In Consequences we encounter Delafield’s concern with women’s place in the world, but here there are none of the wry observances I remember from her most famous work. It was in The War Workers; that I first saw the anger that Delafield is also capable of. It is clear, that in Consequences it is that same anger which fuelled her.

Delafield’s own fate was thankfully better than that of the central character in Consequences, the Great war, and her writing gave her a purpose and a direction in life that many women – whether they married or not did not feel. After the First World War, E M Delafield did marry and went on to have two children, publish lots of books and worked with the ministry of National Service, her life was full, and successful – not so the life of Alex Clare in Consequences.

The theme of this beautifully poignant novel is the fate of women of a certain class, who do not marry. Her central character is Alex – an awkward girl, who in time becomes an awkward young woman. The eldest daughter of a gracious society couple Sir Francis and Lady Isabel Clare, Alex continually finds herself at fault, is overly sensitive and easily aggrieved. It is the late nineteenth century, and Alex is a child of a traditional Victorian household, where provision will be made for the boys, the girls expected to marry. In this novel Delafield recreates upper class Victorian family life, convent school days, the anxious social whirl of a young debutante and the hard, privations of the religious life of a nun.

The novel opens with the children playing the game of consequences in the nursery – I remember playing the game at school myself – you write down a name, fold the paper over, pass it to the next person, who writes down what’s said and so the game goes on. Alex is twelve as the novel opens, she has two younger sisters and two younger brothers, all of whom are ably managed by Nanny.

Having several times incurred the wrath of her parents and been responsible for an accident involving her sister Barbara – Alex is sent to a convent school in Belgium. It seems that from here on Alex’s life is set on a path that won’t end happily. Her starry eyed infatuation over her friend Queenie Torrance, puts her at odds with the nuns, who decree that girls should not show any special preference for one over another.

“She left the misery of that black Saturday behind her, and was left with her childish nerves a little shattered, her childish confidence of outlook rather more overshadowed, her childish strength less steady, and above all, set fast in her childish mind the ineradicable, unexplained conviction that because she had loved Queenie Torrance and had been punished and rebuked for it, therefore to love was wrong.”

Alex isn’t a very likeable character, she is just as able to annoy the reader as she does the people around her, she is a product of her upbringing and environment, and is often her own worst enemy. Yet, it is still possible to feel some sympathy for this awkward young woman as she attempts to make her way in a world she doesn’t quite understand. The time comes for Alex to return home, to put her hair up and be launched upon society. Other young women are as little prepared as Alex, and yet they seem to find their way much better. Alex had expected that everything would be fine once she was grown up – everything would fall into place, she would be successful, and she would be happy.

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Alex comes out into society, dressed beautifully and accompanied by her mother. She attends balls and dinners, with some enthusiasm at first, but isn’t a great success. She feels what she sees as her own failure keenly, and once again she is at odds with those around her. She enjoys a brief illusory sense of success when she meets again a young man she knew slightly in childhood. Following a very brief, aborted engagement to the only man to show any interest in her – Alex is lured back to convent life by a local Mother Superior who shows her kindness. After a year, she is back in Belgium at the convent where she was once a schoolgirl.

Though even this isn’t the end of Alex’s story. Just as her engagement had once felt wrong, after nine years in a convent Alex realises, she has no vocation for the religious life – and must ask to leave – a long, difficult process, and what possible life will she have back in England?

“Alex found herself reading of emotions and experiences of which her own seemed so feeble a mockery, that she was conscious of a physical pang of sick disappointment. 
Was all fiction utterly untrue to life? Or was hers the counterfeit, which the printed pages but reproduced something of a reality which was denied to her?” 

There is a terrible inevitability to Alex’s fate – she has never learned to get along with people, is unable to empathise with them – and just as in her days of childhood she is still quick to feel other’s criticism. The reader knows even at this stage that Alex is unlikely to find her happy ending.

Despite being over 400 pages, Consequences is a fairly quick read – it is hugely compelling – and Delafield’s writing made me sit up late turning the pages – I just had to know what was next for poor Alex Clare

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the war workers

The War-Workers is an early novel from E M Delafield, published about twelve years before her most famous work The Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I re-read recently). This is one of the titles on the list of books for the LibraryThing Great war theme read – it was actually one of the books for March and April – I’ll be playing catch up for the rest of the year I think, and I am rather surprised at just how much I loved it.

This novel is not one which takes us to the trenches of the Western Front – plenty of the other books we are reading this year do take us there – this is a home front WW1 novel, with an army of a wholly different kind. The army in question is an army of women, the women who ran the supply depots, met hundreds of men off troop trains late at night supplying them with sandwiches, cake and steaming cups of tea, and ran canteens. Women war-workers who were indefatigable in their approach to their duty, and who put their own lives on hold, and kept going even when ill.

E M Delafield’s wonderful wit and eye for the ridiculousness in people is quite evident in this early novel. I did chuckle over the marvellously dreadful Mrs Willoughby – who talks incessantly to her spoilt little Pekinese Puff, and the equally dreadful Miss Delmege – whose stubborn devotion to Miss Vivian blinds her to Char’s obvious faults, and who declares anything she doesn’t like or agree with to be strange.

“The new Canteen in Pollard Street was opened before Christmas. Lesbia Willoughby, in an immense overall of light blue-and-white check, stood behind a long buffet and demanded stridently whether she wasn’t too exactly like a barmaid for words, and Char’s consignment of helpers worked for the most part briskly and efficiently, only the unfortunate Miss Plumtree upsetting a mug of scalding tea over herself at the precise moment when Miss Vivian, trim and workmanlike in her dark uniform, entered the big hall and stood watching the scene with her arrogant, observant gaze. She did not ask Miss Plumtree whether her hand was scalded, but neither did she rebuke her very evident clumsiness. She moved slowly and imperially through the thick tobacco-laden atmosphere, speaking to several of the men, and silently observing the demeanour of her staff.”

Delafield’s ‘The War-Workers’ is centred around a Midlands supply depot run by domineering 29 year old Charmaine Vivian, the only daughter of Lady and Sir Percy Vivian, who struggle to understand her total absorption in her work. It is to their wonderfully comfortable rural estate Plessings – that Char returns later and later each evening – after a day of organising and managing her slavishly devoted underlings. At home Miss Bruce, another blindly devoted woman – once Char’s governess, now her mother’s secretary – fusses happily around Char upon her return each day. Char is blissfully unaware of how the little comforts she takes for granted are managed for her by other people. Her beloved Brucey and her maid, make sure she is warm and comfortable, her room lit by a wonderful fire, good food and hot water available upon her late return. Her office is always lit by a good fire when she arrives at ten o’ clock each morning – yet Char gives no thought to how it might have got there. warworkers

At the over-crowded hostel across the street from Char Vivian’s busy little office – live the squabbling exhausted women who work for Char. They share rooms, manage with limited hot water, and small kettles in their rooms, working ridiculously long hours for a woman who is barely aware of them as human beings. For Miss Vivian keeps her workers firmly at arm’s length, never entering into personal or friendly conversation, or considering their small discomforts and illnesses, irritated should one want to take time off. Miss Vivian is proud to put work before everything else, and declares herself puzzled should anyone think to do anything else. These women workers are a wonderfully drawn bunch of characters, gossipy, fretful, snobbish and highly entertaining. Into their midst comes Grace Jones, “a lady” Grace becomes Miss Vivian’s under-secretary, although quite obviously enormously capable – Miss Vivian stubbornly refuses to see her as being as capable as she is. When Grace meets Lady Vivian, Char’s mother immediately takes to her – much to Char’s enormous irritation.

When Char’s father is taken ill, Char’s mother requests that she should stay at home more – as her father is becoming distressed by the constant late night comings and goings. Char is outraged by the suggestion that the office could possibly manage without her constant attention – and after only a few days off because she herself is suffering from flu – she returns to her office in high dudgeon – her mother has insisted she move into her worker’s hostel.

There are those who recognise the monster within Char Vivian, Grace Jones not the least of them. John Trevellyan, her mother’s cousin, is annoyed and dismayed by Char’s behaviour, John is just one more thing Char takes for granted, and so she is a little uncomfortable when she sees him getting rather friendly with Grace. Dr Prince, the doctor who has known Char since childhood, thinks Char’s slavish obsession with her work has more to do with being seen to do it and the power and prestige it gives her than anything else.

“I’ll tell you something else. It’s not the work you want to get back to, young lady, it’s the excitement, and the official position, and the right it gives you to interfere with people who knew how to run a hospital and everything connected with it some twenty years or so before you came into the world”

Char is finally forced to make some changes to her organisation, and Grace finds herself to be deeply appreciated by others whose good opinion she is glad to have. I really loved this book; I really should have had more faith in it.

EMDelafield

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Having treated myself to the new Persephone edition of Diary of a Provincial Lady I decided to re-read it right away. One of the things that sold me on the new edition (already owning an old Virago copy of the complete Provincial lady) was the lovely endpaper – which will remain one of my favourites.

Our eponymous Provincial Lady – is an upper middle class wife and mother – who records in her journal the daily vicissitudes of life. Married to the often taciturn Robert, mother to Robin and Vicky, the provincial lady has large house and is served by a cook, house-parlour maid, and French governess. She is a nice lady; she tries to keep everyone happy although frequently assailed by hilariously irreverent thoughts – which she shares with her journal. Socially speaking she is frequently embarrassed, not having read the right books, seen the right plays or got around to seeing the exhibition that everyone else seems to have. Hopeless at tennis, tennis parties are awkward, and the PL finds her children not always quite as well behaved as the other children. The provincial lady – whose name we never learn, lives in Devon, battles with her indoor bulbs and is driven to quiet distraction by the dreadful Lady Boxe – who not only knows exactly what to do with bulbs but holidays in the South of France at the height of the season.

“Find myself indulging in rather melodramatic fantasy of Bentley crashing into enormous motor-bus and being splintered to atoms. Permit chauffeur to escape unharmed, but fate of Lady B. left uncertain, owing to ineradicable impression of earliest childhood to the effect that It is Wicked to wish for the Death of Another. Do not consider, however, that severe injuries, with possible disfigurement, come under this law – but entire topic unprofitable, and had better be dismissed.”

provincial ladyIn the company of the delightful provincial lady, whose wit is really quite infectious, we meet a number of memorable local characters from the village including ‘our vicar’s wife’, Barbara Blenkinsop and her mother, about whom the whole village is talking when Barbara becomes engaged. With aspirations of authorship, our dear P L casts her wry observant eye over her friends and neighbours – including her old school friend Cissy Crabbe – who lives in a bedsit with a gas ring in Norwich, her best friend dear Rose, and a school friend of Robin’s, who the P L is forced to admit is more attractive than her own children. Despite her social position, her servants and her furs, the PL is often in rather strained financial circumstances, which forces her to visit the pawnbroker with her great aunt’s diamond ring. Constantly worrying over the state of her wardrobe and her general appearance she is driven to try modest improvements with mixed results.

“Later. – Worst fears realised, as to hair. Dear Mary, always so observant, gazes at it in nerve-shattering silence but says nothing, till I am driven to make half-hearted explanation. Her only comment is that she cannot imagine why anybody should deliberately make themselves look ten years older than they need. Feel that, if she wishes to discourage further experiments on my part, this observation could scarcely be improved upon.”

Included in this new Persephone edition are some lovely original 1930’s illustrations by Arthur Watts, which I think are a brilliant addition to what is already a beautiful product. I suspect that this Persephone book (number 105) is likely to be one of those books that is often bought as a gift, a lovely thing to receive for anyone I would think.EMDelafield

 

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