Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gay Life by E M Delafield

This 1933 novel is on of EMD's psychological dramas, filled with complexes and neuroses including inferiority feeling, the pain of the ageing beauty, unfulfilled married women, infatuation and a dash of incest. The characters suffering from all these complaints are thrown together in a hotel in the South of France, located inconveniently far from the beach and the town. This semi-isolation ensures that they constantly fall over each other, share taxis and participate in joint entertainments, as well as encountering each other at meals every day. Some of this proximity grates on the participants, while others make the best of this opportunity.

Gay Life must have been quite challenging in its day, despite its muffled curses and firmly closed bedroom doors. The novel acknowledges frankly the twin desires for money and sex and the effects of these desires on human behaviour; it examines explicitly the willingness of the young, handsome and impoverished to sell sex and of the ageing to buy it, within a context of 'decent' bourgeois behaviour that gives a veneer of respectability to all concerned. The narrative is often contingent and episodic, with the plot essentially revolving around wealthy Coral Romayne, separated from her husband and viewing her forties with dismay; her son Patrick, sixteen, jealous and miserable; and his "holiday tutor" Buck, who also fills in as chauffeur and admirer of Mrs Romayne. Surrounding this group are a large number of characters; the Morgans, a Welsh family on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, bringing a little pleasure to Patrick's life; Hilary and Angie Moon, a young and beautiful married couple who make a living selling this and that and sponging off the rich; Mr Bolham, a businessman and his secretary, Denis Waller; Mr Muller, a wealthy American visitor; and Mr Courteney, entertainments manager for the hotel and living there with his daughter Dulcie. Away from the hotel, we have Chrissie Challoner, a young and successful novelist. Surrounding this group are still more minor characters, often carefully delineated. The characters can be divided into those there for leisure, and those who must work, although the second group includes some who might seem at first sight to be on holiday. This division brings up matters of class, with many of the workers drawn from the lower middle classes, and carefully characterised as such.

Having established these two worlds, EMD makes use of doubles to emphasise their division. Olwen, the Morgans' oldest daughter, is doubled with Dulcie, "thin, shrill and blonde". Hilary and Buck are the two gigolos, one ostensibly working for a salary, the other desperate for money. Patrick Romayne is mirrored by Denis Waller, older but more juvenile, as troubled as Patrick but less brave. Angie Moon is Coral Romayne's counterpart, a painful reminder that Mrs Romayne's youth is behind her, while Coral is a warning to Angie about her future. Coral can also be doubled with Mary Morgan, the dutiful wife, while Mary has another counterpart in the form of Chrissie Challoner. Both are "good women", honest and fair, although their approaches to life differ considerably. Both also owe a little to the personality of their creator. Mary Morgan is very similar to the Provincial Lady, and to other loyal, loving mothers in EMD's fiction, while Chrissie Challoner can be read as an extension of the Provincial Lady's freedom-loving side.

It may be that the separation and mirroring of these two characters is a comment on the perpetual difficulty of reconciling the career of writer with that of wife and mother. Certainly all the women in Gay Life are limited and constrained by their circumstances and the way they approach them. Mary's enjoyment of Mr Muller's admiration is as far as she will go to address the unsatisfactory circumstances of her marriage. Coral's one ambition is to retain her sexual attractiveness to men. Even bohemian Chrissie is limited by her own emotions and need for affection. From a feminist perspective, this could be read as a critique of the limited scope of women's lives. However, there is also considerable evidence of the limitations imposed by class. Feeble Denis Waller, terrified that his secret marriage will be exposed, is a lower-middle-class clerk of the Leonard Bast persuasion, undersized and weak in body and mind. Much space is given to analysis of Denis, his background and his lack of self-awareness, his careful presentation of an acceptable self which undermines his integrity. His failure to connect adequately with the briefly infatuated Chrissie both emphasises his weakness and reassures the middle-class reader that no miscegenation will occur. The most constrained and hopeless character in the book is probably Dulcie, described as "horrid" and "shrieking"; she has thin hair and wears a "cheap, pink cotton kimono", thin hair and cheap clothes often being markers of "commonness" in fiction of this period. Dulcie seems to have no future in the same way as her peripatetic life in hotels, on the fringes of others' lives, provides her with no past. To be female is to be constrained; to be female and lower-class is doubly so. However, the narrative is generally harsh to Dulcie rather than sympathetic; if a feminist point is being made here, it is a very subtle one.

A little gay life edges into Gay Life. As well as the homoerotic overtones of the competition between Buck and Hilary, emphasised by their strongly gendered names, Chrissie asserts that she has fallen in love with women; Buck suspects her "of being a Lesbian, as he did all intelligent women to whom his own masculinity obviously made no immediate appeal". In the very last chapter, when we meet the next intake of hotel guests, they include two women, one of whom only has eyes for the other. EMD makes more overt use of homosexuality in this novel, possibly because of the sexually frank atmosphere that is established throughout the book, hotels and holidays being places and times where the norms of sexual good behaviour can be relaxed.

There are too many characters in Gay Life, and too many protracted scenes of high drama that are only really there to move the plot forward. There is also an over-reliance on discursive character analysis, although I started to find the endless back-stories - everyone has one, down to the hotel concierge who barely features in the book - an interesting feature by the end. The episodic, rather happenstance narrative does evoke the casual nature of holidays, their events and significance very well, however, and the book sustains interest. The characters may start as archetypes, but most develop personalities, and the drama of the book's climax is believable and cleverly handled. I would love to read some contemporary reviews to see how EMD's frankness went down with her readership.

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