Friday, 31 July 2009

Nothing is Safe by E M Delafield

Nothing is Safe, published in 1937, recounts the effects of divorce and remarriage on a family from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl. The third-person narrative is always from precocious Julia’s point of view, always clear that, even if the reader has grasped what is going on, Julia has not. Julia’s parents separate at the start of the novel, and she and her brother Terry, older, vague and clumsy, return to their boarding schools not knowing where or how they will spend the next holidays. Julia is fiercely protective of Terry, who comes in for a good deal of adult criticism, and attempts to manipulate situations so that he is not exposed to difficulty or fear. Unfortunately her ability to do this is entirely compromised when both parents make new marriages: her father Alick to the much younger, bohemian Petah, and her mother Daphne to Captain Prettyman. The vigorously masculine Captain is unimpressed with Terry, and the novel follows the children about as they are shuffled between parents, grandparents and impromptu babysitters. Terry experiences a series of nervous crises which culminate in his treatment by a child psychologist, and the end of the novel sees Julia finally realising that she is to be separated from her brother.

The narrative voice of the novel is well-sustained, making effective use of internal monologue – thankfully for the reader, Julia is a bright child with a good vocabulary – and cleverly managing to convey meaning that Julia cannot grasp from her perspective. Delafield deploys a very careful, delicate tone here, ensuring that Julia does not tell us things that she could not possibly know or understand, and making effective use of dialogue that the reader can interpret without Julia’s intervention. The tone also allows the use of light irony which relieves some of the emotional tension of the book. I’m not sure if the paragraph which implies that the Captain is making excessive sexual demands on Daphne is intentional, but there are similar, if less controversial, effects elsewhere in the novel. Julia’s concern about the regularity and quality of her meals, the simplicity of her interpretations of events, and her ability to live in the moment, help to reinforce her childishness and prevent her being unbelievably precocious. Her narrative role also makes the novel rather timeless, since she is not much interested in current affairs.

This is the only Delafield novel I’ve read so far that is much interested in masculinity. Terry’s vagueness and sensitivity, his perceived childishness, his clumsiness and lack of interest in machines or sport, as well as his dependence on Julia, all contribute to a view among the novel’s adults that he is insufficiently masculine and that this must be corrected. The difference in the generational view of girls and boys is also brought out through Daphne’s relationship with her parents, who have stricter ideas of gender roles and appropriate behaviour. However, it is Captain Prettyman who causes most of the crises in this respect, criticising Terry’s lack of dexterity and his unwillingness to take physical risks. All the adults fear that Terry will not be tolerated by men when he grows up, and will be unable to endure public school, an inevitable rite of passage for him; Julia’s influence is seen as feminising him, making him unacceptable to other men. This is ironic, given her position in the family as a bossy, articulate tomboy, more comfortable in shorts than the dresses her grandmother prefers. The siblings represent a challenge to established gender norms. While the challenge is played out mainly in intergenerational terms, affronting the senior family members but not their parents, this is acceptable. But Terry’s problems, and his expression of them (high-pitched screaming, vomiting and fainting) are eventually portrayed as illness rather than rebellion. Once his parents are convinced of his problems, an imposition of greater gender norms is made: Terry will be treated at a small school for sensitive boys; Julia will go to a much stricter boarding school which will inculcate feminine behaviour.

This analysis of the development of masculinity, expressed through the thoughts and words of a small girl, could be read as an ironic critique. The novel is certainly critical of a model of masculinity that cannot accommodate Terry’s talents and demerits; Captain Prettyman, its adult manifestation, is a fairly ridiculous character, with a surname that carries overtones of effeminacy and a head that is too small for his body. Feminist voices in the novel, which might challenge models of masculinity, are limited to Peggy, a friend of Daphne’s who is willing to challenge the Captain’s view of Terry and theories of childrearing, and possibly to the capable Julia herself; she can be read as challenge incarnate to gendered behaviour, combining tomboyish robustness with a strong urge to nurture. But the end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain whether the critique of conservative gender roles is sustained. Julia’s “management” of Terry is sometimes over-bearing. Terry’s voice is heard little in the novel, because he seldom speaks; however, in the final pages, it becomes clear that he has been told earlier of the plan to separate them, and has not confided in her. This hints at a desire for independence from Julia, which is achieved, but the plot cannot reasonably conclude with a sustained challenge by the children to the roles they are required to take up – they do not have the power or agency to undertake this.

It is also interesting that the novel is not particularly critical of divorce itself – the children appear to acclimatise fairly quickly to this – but the effects of remarriage and the lack of a settled home are presented as much more serious, as is the failure of either parent, caught up in new relationships, to prioritise the needs of their children. There are no good mothers in Nothing is Safe: Daphne cannot manage her children and her new husband, and chooses him; her own mother disagrees with her violently about her approach to parenting, and is strict and disapproving; the brief appearance by Petah’s mother, pressed into giving Julia a bed, and quite incapable of dealing with her painful earache, completes the trinity of ineffectual mothers. Petah herself treats the children as tiny adults, feeding them cocktail snacks and ignoring conventions such as bedtime. These are types of mothers typical of their class and generation, controlling (a favourite EMD type), loving but ineffectual, distant or uninterested. There are two caring mother figures: Peggy, who only has to do this from time to time, and Annie, the housemaid who comforts Julia when she is ill. Their openness and warmth with the children can be read as a moderate critique of conventions of motherhood, both good and bad.

This is a rather complex novel, the simplicity of its narrative deceptive, and its judgements and values ambiguous. The development of Delafield’s technique is easily discerned, and the subtleties of her tone are probably only equalled in the Diary of a Provincial Lady. Recommended, if you can track down a copy or if Persephone resurrect it.

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