Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Faster! Faster! by E M Delafield

Taking its title from Alice's experience through the looking-glass, running ever faster only to stay in the same place, Faster! Faster! looks, like The War-Workers, at women who work outside the home, albeit with a less caustic and more considered approach. The novel centres around Claudia Winsloe, who runs a Universal Aunts type of business, coupled with a literary agency and transcription service, and her family: Copper, her husband, who has been unemployed for some years; Sylvia, her eldest daughter at 19, intended for a job in publishing but secretly longing to stay at home and arrange the flowers; Taffy, 17, who longs to escape to Bryn Mawr; and Maurice, about 12, who admires his mother greatly. [Please note that the next paragraph contains plot spoilers].

Claudia assumes the role of family breadwinner and perfect modern mother, allowing her children to make their own choices in life and being totally frank and open about herself. The novel opens with a long section taking place over a bank holiday weekend in August. While her family and guests enjoy themselves, Claudia remains a martyr to her work; when they begin to assert themselves against her, and her self-conception as Atlas holding up the family world is challenged, she is shaken but resolute in her self-control. In the second section of the novel, set in October of the same year, Copper is offered a job. Claudia is sufficiently disturbed to attempt to thwart his chance of employment, causing her sister Anna to condemn her perpetual martyrdom and lack of self-knowledge: Claudia enjoys the role, the pose, and all her efforts go to support that, not her family. In the final section, after Claudia is killed in a car accident, we see her family getting on, pursuing their own interests and dreams, and surviving very well without her.

The novel is one of EMD's romans psychologiques, and by the time this novel was written she was probably at the height of her powers in this mode. Her ironic tone, which wavers through the similar Gay Life, is firmly in place here, and she plays off characters and generations against each other to generate humour. The characterisation is detailed and less reliant on stereotyping than in earlier novels; Claudia is a much more rounded character than the similarly autocratic, self-sacrificing Char Vivian in The War-Workers, although quite as deluded as to her own motives. Copper is, to a certain extent, a typical Delafield grumpy husband, but he shows depth of character when he catches his eldest daughter pursuing an unsuitable potential lover in her pyjamas, and in his enthusiasm about his new job. I also like the minor characters who form Claudia's office staff; the office girls could easily be middlebrow stereotypes, and at first it seems that they are, with their fascination with slimming and clothes, but they have real wit and a generosity that opens out their characters and makes them memorable. My only complaint is that there is too much of Mrs Peel, Claudia's mother; a peevish woman given to repetition moves quickly through humour and into dullness.

This novel, Mrs Peel's views aside, is much less conventional on the topic of working women than Delafield's earlier fiction. It is taken for granted that girls will need a career, that women need interesting work to support themselves, and that women can work well and efficiently, providing a professional service; only Claudia among her staff is tempted to martyrdom and overwork. Her office manager, Mrs Ingatestone, combines work with caring for a daughter, albeit one at boarding school. Claudia's friend Frances, whose return to England and reacquaintance with Claudia frames the novel, naturally turns to work as a young widow, not only from financial reasons but also to gain the satisfaction of work well done. Claudia's problems are nothing to do with work in itself, but stem only from her inability to understand herself or to relinquish control.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this with its dust-jacket intact. The spine shows a slim woman, the world balanced on her shoulders, admiring herself in a pool of water. This image of Claudia as Atlas recurs throughout the novel, and was suggested by EMD herself for the spine. It's rather ironic that the spine of the book (which is holding it all together) should use this image of a woman whose attempts to hold it all together will go so disastrously wrong, for her and for her family.


  1. I actually felt a lot for Claudia in this book. Poor woman was trying so hard! And there are times when I think Delafield is too hard on women who have careers. I can see how they got all pretentious - they were self-conscious about stepping out of the house at a time when it was still an odd thing to do unless you needed the money. I see that even nowadays when women still try to "have it all".

    That was the thing about Claudia: she was trying hard. She wasn't a jerk about things, just doing her best and if that came off all wrong at times, it was because she was trying so hard. And I don't think she should be condemned for that.

  2. No need to read the book now, as I know how the book ends. Spoilers???

  3. Sorry your prospective reading pleasure was spoiled. I've added a warning in the first paragraph.