Delafield answers her own question by telling us of the complicated interactions of naive, beautiful Ellie Carey; her kind and handsome brother Lionel; her attractive, modern cousin Victoria; and the sophisticated Simon Lawless, laden with sex appeal and addicted to flirtation. In the margins of their story are Ellie and Lionel's scandalously divorced parents, George Carey and Fay Dallinger; Eglantine de la Riviere, daughter of the agent's widow at Milton Waters, the Carey country house; and Robin Alistair, a colonial planter back in England seeking a wife. It is impossible to write much more about this book without giving away the plot, so if you don't want to know what happens, look away now.
Ellie is an old-fashioned innocent, a contrast to the monocle-sporting Victoria whose attitudes to life and love are relentlessly pragmatic. Inevitably, Ellie falls for the magnetic Simon Lawless, who is charmed by her beauty but soon disappointed by her hopeless dancing, her lack of interest in clothes and social life; there is one particularly choice episode where he criticises her flower arranging in a way we would now see as thoroughly metrosexual. Everyone she knows is against the match, including the amoral Lady Dallinger, who counsels Ellie not to marry her first love; and in the end, Simon's overt attention to other girls causes Ellie to break off their rather tentative engagement.
Victoria and Simon have flirted with each other for years, knowing how much they resemble each other; when the main action of the novel takes place, Victoria is twenty-nine and believes she must marry soon if she is to marry at all, but Simon is a bad financial prospect. Lionel is in love with Victoria, and has proposed many times, but she eventually rejects him in favour of Simon when her mother's death leaves her better off than she expected, and Simon has made a killing on the stock exchange; she has also recognised that the similarity between them will make a successful match. Lionel takes Ellie back to Madrid where he works as a diplomat, but not before Ellie and Victoria have made their peace with each other.
Robin, originally infatuated with Victoria, is refused by her in explicit terms, and eventually recognises a kindred spirit in Eglantine. Both are cowed by domineering mothers, and seeking escape; Eglantine admires Robin and he likes her. As with Simon and Victoria, however, the match is presented as a practical alliance of equals rather than a grand romance. Robin and Eglantine are an exaggerated, hopefully satirised, version of Robert and Elizabeth Dashwood's courtship; Eglantine de la Riviere is an exaggerated version of EMD's awkward maiden name, Edmée de la Pasture. Robert Dashwood was apparently anxious to read this book when it came out; I wonder what he made of it.
Love, then, in this book, has little to do with marriage, bearing out Fay Dallinger's advice to Ellie. It is possible to read Victoria's acceptance of Simon as an act of rescue to keep him permanently away from Ellie, whom Victoria loves and knows that he can only hurt. Ellie's recognition that Simon and Victoria simply cannot help themselves, and her forgiveness of Victoria, suggest a stronger, more enduring love between the cousins than that supporting any of the marriages contracted during the novel.
The early parts of the novel rely quite heavily on the language and devices of romantic fiction - Ellie's "fiery bliss" under Simon's touch is my favourite bit of Mills and Boon-ese - but towards the end the plot and characters develop in rather unexpected ways, undermining any tendency towards love story. There is a tendency towards stereotype - Robin's sister Maud is a stock eccentric spinster, still schoolgirlish and awkward, rather like Olive in The Heel of Achilles; George Carey is a gruff but genuine English gentleman, with hints of Uncle Matthew about him. Victoria and Ellie are given enough depth of character, however, to rise above their particular roles, and Victoria's thoughtful, calmly affectionate nature belies the hardness of some of the agressively modern characteristics attributed to her.
You can now buy a facsimile reprint of What is Love?, as well as several other Delafield titles, as PFD who manage her literary estate have started a print-on-demand service for a number of authors. Good news for Delafield fans - although at £12 each it is often cheaper to get a secondhand copy of an original edition.