Monday, 15 March 2010

Women Are Like That by E M Delafield

This collection of short stories, first published in 1929, deals mainly with episodes from the lives of a variety of women - as you might expect - and a couple of men. Many of the stories focus on romance: proposals, affairs, temptations and partings often provide the dramatic pivot. Middle-aged women, often suburban, are exposed to romance directly and indirectly; apparently forty-three is a dangerous age for a woman. Thankfully, I shall be forty-four in a couple of months.

Two of the stories feature characters who appear elsewhere in Delafield's novels. "The Sprat" acquaints us with Raoul Radow, the sulky Roumanian violinist from Challenge to Clarissa. "Oil Painting, circa 1890" is a version of the later lives of the sisters Frederica and Cicely Marlowe from Thank Heaven Fasting; this story, entirely serious and rather tragic, shows the effects of a "morbid", introspective love between sisters that forbids either of them a life of her own. Delafield suspends her ironic voice again for "The Whole Duty of Woman", a story alluding clearly to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". Elinor Ambrey, recuperating in a nursing home after a breakdown, considers interior design choices:

"How clever of them not to have wall-paper with a pattern.  Looking at that plain, unbroken, cream-coloured surface was very restful - one wasn't obliged to trace, with weary eyes and resentful brain, the repeated convolutions of twisting, impossible, floral combinations, to count and recount the spirals and horseshoes, and crescents, fomred by their distorted leaves and stems." (227)

This, of course, is exactly what the unfortunate heroine of "The Yellow Wallpaper" does spend her time doing, with tragic consequences.  But even a plain cream-coloured surface cannot save Mrs Ambrey from nervous collapse at the thought of resuming married life.  Delafield's story also has in common with Gilman's the medical control and regulation of women: Mrs Ambrey would prefer to sleep alone, but her doctor reminds her that the whole duty of woman resides in thinking of her husband and providing him with opportunities for procreation.

The majority of the stories, however, deploy Delafield's usual amusing ironic approach to love.  Middle-aged women pursuing romance are sympathetically ridiculed.  Modern girls, approaching love-affairs with scientific detachment and a grounding in Havelock Ellis, find that they care rather more than they expected.  Several stories contrast the morality of the late Victorian and Edwardian period with that of the 1920s, usually to the advantage of the modern age; a couple ironise the way in which mothers, unhappily married to minor domestic tyrants, ensure their daughters exploit to the full their own opportunities for unhappiness.

This is an entertaining collection, reminiscent at times of Dorothy Whipple, especially in those stories focusing on suburban middle-age; the final story, in which bad weather changes the lives of its two protagonists, reminded me, with its irony, bathos and slight cynicism, of Sylvia Townsend Warner.  There is enough variety in approach, narrative voice and subject matter to sustain the reader's interest and enjoyment.  My copy is a facsimile reprint by PFD and is pretty clear, although some pages have had the ends of the lines cut off by the scanner, requiring a little extra input from the reader.