Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Mrs Harter by E M Delafield

This is an early EMD from 1924, and one in which she experiments, rather successfully, with her narrative technique.  Narrated in the first person by a man, Sir Miles Flower, the novel gives his account of the love affair between Diamond Harter and Bill Patch, which was the main interest of the village of Cross Loman for some months.  Mrs Harter is the daughter of the late local plumber, who married a colonial solicitor and stepped out of her class; but now she has returned from the East to stay, without her husband, in her original home, and disconcerted the carefully arranged hierarchies of the village.  The universally-liked Bill Patch is a writer, lodging with the young widow Nancy Fazackerly and her cantankerous father.  Diamond and Bill's love affair develops through various village social events - a concert in the Drill Hall, a picnic and some amateur theatricals - and Sir Miles recreates the story through his own memories and the accounts of other characters.  Occasionally, too, he allows himself to imagine the scenes between them that went unwitnessed.

Sir Miles is set up from the start as a potentially unreliable narrator. He is disabled following an accident in the First World War, consequently goes out little in the village, and admits that he hardly ever spoke to Mrs Harter; he is not present at many of the events he describes.  His will be an impressionistic portrait, relying on a retelling of reported conversations and, on two occasions, imaginary conversations constructed between Bill and Diamond.  Because the narrative is made up of hearsay from more and less reliable witnesses, the authenticity of its portrayal of Mrs Harter is always questionable.  This unreliable narrative ironically supports a reading of her character as one that is permanently elusive to her neighbours; in the opening chapter, several of the characters play a paper game in which they select adjectives to describe her, but they cannot agree on the words to choose.  There is also an element of voyeurism in Sir Miles’s scrutiny, and particularly in his imaginings of Bill and Diamond’s (extremely chastely described) courtship, which might be read as a critique of the prurient village gossip about the affair.

Using a male narrator seems to free Delafield to criticise more openly her anti-feminist female characters.  Sir Miles’s wife Claire, a satirical portrait of a self-centred and overly emotional woman, despises the opportunities available to her medical student niece Sallie; “Mumma” Kendall exercises a benign tyranny over her unmarried daughters and deplored the activities of the Suffragettes.  Both these characters are ridiculed in the text and used as the butt of jokes.  Sir Miles seems to look rather more favourably than his wife on Sallie, who is an insufferable know-it-all, but his conservatism expresses itself in his critique of her modernity.

The plot sets up many ironies, particularly through the choice of play for the amateur dramatics, which also draws out and makes explicit Mrs Harter’s exoticism and remoteness from the rest of the characters, and the conclusion of the novel provides a rationale for Sir Miles’s forensic approach to narrative construction.  There is also a good deal of high comedy, most of it provided by the oblivious Kendalls and the spirited Nancy Fazackerly.  Unfortunately, Mrs Harter the novel is as elusive as its protagonist, and currently out of print; there are second-hand copies about, however.

1 comment:

  1. I read Mrs. Harter quite a few years ago, and remember being impressed, but all the characters and plot have disappeared from my mind! Even reading your review, I don't remember them... but thank you for writing about it, it's encouraged me to re-read one day.