Saturday, 28 March 2009

Challenge to Clarissa by E M Delafield

In this slight, but amusing, 1931 novel, Delafield creates another monstrous, controlling mother, facing the consequences when her family move beyond her control. The novel opens with Clarissa's pursuit of, and eventual marriage to, the impoverished, limp and dissipated Reggie Fitzmaurice. Clarissa has been widowed during the first World War, and has inherited her husband's property and her father's money. Fitzmaurice is already married, to the daughter of the Princess de Candi-Laquerrière, adulterous Aldegonde, but is not seriously inclined to divorce her until Clarissa forces his hand. We get an early taste of Clarissa's belief that all obstacles can be removed with a liberal application of cash when she offers to settle £5,000 on Aldegonde once the divorce is completed, an offer that is gently turned down by the Princesse. Fitzmaurice makes one condition before agreeing to the divorce: to keep in his care his daughter Sophie.

The narrative jumps ten years. Sophie is newly grown up and being circulated vigorously by Clarissa on the marriage market. Clarissa's son by her first husband, Lucien, is a year or two older than Sophie, and has been brought up to view her as his sister. During a summer house party at Mardale, their country home, Clarissa engineers a visit from a rich young lord, the hilariously named Bat Clutterthorpe, who proposes to Sophie; she obediently accepts. However, the Princesse and her retinue have arrrived in the area and meet Sophie and Lucien. Lucien quarrels with his mother, rushes from the house and immediately encounters the Princesse, who correctly diagnoses his problem: he is in love with Sophie. With his true feelings brought to light, Lucien proposes to Sophie, who accepts and immediately breaks off her engagement to Bat, who is decidedly unbothered. They announce to Clarissa that they intend to marry. Her response is to throw an impressive tantrum; refusing to countenance the marriage, she sets about arranging to send Lucien abroad and to ensure that Sophie becomes re-engaged to Bat. The Princesse, realising that Clarissa's only vulnerability is her abiding love for Fitzmaurice, bribes him to intervene. Unable to refuse the temptation of £300 a year of his own, Fitzmaurice threatens to leave Clarissa unless the marriage goes ahead. Clarissa is outraged, but defeated, and soon she is managing Lucien and Sophie's wedding plans as if it had been her idea in the first place.

The novel is based around doubles and opposites. Clarissa, the vulgar, materialist autocrat, is balanced against the Princesse, aristocratic and sensitive. Lucien's genuine love for Sophie is doubled by Bat's need for a suitable wife. The rakish and fairly useless Fitzmaurice is doubled by Cliffe Montgomery, part of the Princesse's circle, her fixer and organiser with a robust moral core. The doubles are not necessarily opposites, however; the Princesse is as controlling as Clarissa, in her way, but uses love and charm to manage her friends and family, and is not above using money to achieve her ends. The miserable household at Mardale is set opposite the happy home of Clarissa's agent, Mr King; his two children have been given the names Orlando and Rosalind, another couple eventually united after many trials and oppositions. These two minor characters echo Lucien and Sophie and point towards the happy ending.

Delafield works in a great number of minor characters, some more successfully than others. As well as the Kings, there are Olivia King (the agent's sister) and Elinor Fish, who share a house in the village; Miss Silver, who appears briefly to let her house to the Princesse and charm Cliffe Montgomery; Catiche, the Princesse's old governess who still looks after her; Alberta, the Princesse's younger daughter; and Radow, the dead Aldegonde's second husband, a violinist. Elinor Fish is a kinder satire of the Oxford-educated middle-aged feminist than is Miss Pankerton in the Diary, but of the same type. Alberta exists mainly as a warning to Sophie of how she might turn out. Radow is a distracting interruption who serves only to rouse Clarissa to greater heights of autocracy. While the characterisation of several of these is excellent, and they also allow some good jokes, a little pruning would have harmed neither the plot nor the satire.

The affectionate satire that Delafield employs for most of the characters contrasts strongly with her handling of Clarissa. We are told again and again how vulgar and domineering Clarissa is; she uses "ugly words", is over-made-up, has hard lines around her mouth and eyes. Delafield's ironic mockery is replaced by direct criticism. Social climbing seems to be the only motivation for Clarissa's behaviour, coupled with an innate taste for domination, but sometimes I wondered why she was bothering to control a family she considers stupid and useless: "I have to do everything for you, think of everything for you" is the constant refrain. Clarissa is certainly bad enough to join the ranks of Delafield's monstrous mothers, but she is something of a cardboard villain, in the end quite easily defeated.

The oversupply of minor characters, and the awkward switches between irony and excoriation, limit the effectiveness of the book, but it is still an entertaining read with well-drawn and amusing characters.

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