Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bazalgettes by E M Delafield

The Bazalgettes is something of an oddity. Published anonymously in 1935, Delafield's work is a spoof Victorian novel, set in the 1870s, but dealing with a theme, as the preface says, that might have been chosen by "the most modern of present-day novelists". Twenty-year-old Margaret Mardon, a cheerful product of an unhappy marriage, has agreed to marry local widower Charles Bazalgette, considerably her senior at sixty-four. As his bride, she will take on his large house, Castle Hill, its long-established staff, and his five children. Despite the misgivings of her unmarried Aunt Mardon, the marriage takes place, and Margaret sets out to make the best of things with reasonable success.

Margaret is very likeable, and if she is disappointed in the lack of companionship she finds with her spouse, whose preference is to spend as much time alone as possible, she does not let it bother her. She deals sensibly with the less amiable of her stepchildren, and with those servants who prove somewhat difficult; she is not much taken aback when she discovers that she is, in fact, the third Mrs Bazalgette, and that she has an unexpected stepson a few years older than herself. She is only seriously disturbed when she she comes to know Charlie, this stepson, and realises what sacrifices her light-hearted marriage of convenience actually entails. Alongside Margaret's story runs her sister Julia's sub-plot, in which she falls for, and eventually marries, a rather limp poet who favours the Chaucerian style.

Mr Bazalgette is a slightly Bluebeard-like character, although this is undermined rather by Margaret's lack of fear of him, and his perpetual worry about draughts; Bluebeard combined with Mr Woodhouse, perhaps. In his failure to provide his wife with companionship and entertainment he is an archetypal EMD husband. Margaret is not the archetypal EMD mother, however, perhaps because she is a stepmother; she admits to favourites among the children, but is also genuinely interested in all of them and willing to spend time playing and caring for her instant family. She, in her turn, is more effectively mothered by her aunt than her own mother, brow-beaten by her perpetually raging father. The Mardon parents, mostly off-stage, are played for comedy; the novel makes use of Victorian linguistic convention to heighten the comedy and establish its credentials as a genuine Victorian artefact. Mr Blunden, the Chaucerian poet, is an early example of the young aesthete, and all the lesser characters are well (and humorously) delineated. Even where stereotypes are used - the cringing governess, the stern nanny - EMD adds enough detail and colour to lift these characters out of cliché; the governess's violent enthusiasm for Margaret being one such detail. Aunt Mardon, witty and acerbic but also kind, is also well-established despite seeing very little of the action.

The book is highly entertaining, with EMD's ironic tone well-deployed, if fairly slight, and there are some awkward moments - Margaret's sudden invocation of Christian faith when she must break with Charlie, for example, sits uncomfortably with her previous light-hearted attitudes to church and religion. I haven't been able to establish why the publication was anonymous; it is partly due to the fact that EMD was under contract with Macmillan when Hamish Hamilton issued The Bazalgettes, but had Macmillan turned it down? Was it a little joke at the expense of the critics, to see if they could spot her handiwork? It seems unlikely that it was a real attempt to fake a Victorian novel; the publisher's preface certainly undermines this.

My copy was a present, and I feel very lucky to have received it - it's very rare and quite often very expensive too. I haven't found the book online, although there is a copy in the British Library for very determined EMD fans.


  1. For the record, there are currently two copies listed on
    including what looks like a nice copy for £125 and an ex-library copy for £48 (plus shipping as both are in the USA). I just mentioned this in the unlikely event that you haven't come across AbeBooks.
    Well done to you for having had a copy as a present.

  2. Thanks Pierre, I hope the person who gave it to me didn't spend £125 on it!

  3. What a wonderful present, you made me want to read this so much, I can only hope it gets a reprint some day.