Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Optimist by E M Delafield

One of EMD's earlier novels, this richly amusing book focuses principally on the generation gap between those who grew up as Victorians, and the modern generation whose values have been shaped by the devastating experience of the first World War.  Appearing for the Victorians is the optimist of the title, Canon Fenwick Morchard.   An elderly clergyman with five grown-up children, he provided a home in the past to Owen Quentillian, whose parents were based in India before the war.  After the war,  Owen returns to stay with the Morchard family at St Gwenllian; he has acquired a house nearby which is being renovated.  Owen has made something of a name for himself as an essayist, and although his principles and ideas are completely opposed to the Canon's, he continues to respect him enough not to argue with him openly.  The Morchard family comprises Lucilla, the eldest, who has been housekeeper and a research assistant to her father since the early death of her mother; Valeria, who has been involved in a fitful romance with a Captain Cuscaden; fey and musical Flora, devoted to her father; and the annoying Adrian, whose war service was only of six months' duration, and is now looking vaguely for a career, having rejected the Church as an option.  David Morchard, the eldest son, has known Owen in the army and is now in India.

The Canon exercises a benign tyrrany over the four children who still live at home, constraining their behaviour with his excessive kindliness and his tendency to interpret any attempt at independence as a personal affront.  The Canon is ghastly, but very funny; his overt emotionalism in a crisis allows Delafield to set up some highly amusing encounters between the Canon and the modern world, as three of the four younger Morchards make tentative attempts to live their own lives.  He is also a frightful hypocrite, expecting far higher standards from other family members (and also Owen) than from Adrian, his youngest and favourite child. 

His tyrrany allows his children to develop some creative ways of expressing their individuality.  Lucilla, who failed to assert her wish to go to college as a younger woman, counsels Valeria against self-sacrifice as a way of life, and goes about her duty calmly, maintaining her love for her father while privately rejecting the majority of his values.  Lucilla's rational self-control and clearsightedness make her the antithesis of her father and explain his continued reliance on her.  Adrian adopts a more direct approach, getting a job on a magazine notorious for its anti-Christian standpoint.  The feeling that 'father would hate it' may check some behaviours but, when his children think it sufficiently important to do so, they defy the Canon openly.  The novel is ambiguous about Flora's eventual decision to enter a convent: the Canon celebrates it, but if it is mainly driven by a need to escape him, he is misguided.  Owen despises it as a rejection of life and a celebration of self-abnegation: but it is Flora's opportunity for self-fulfilment.

The novel can be read as a fairly mild polemic against Victorian parenting values and in favour of children making their own way in life - indeed, this is inevitable in the terms of the novel; the Canon fails to prevent any of his children, except perhaps Lucilla, leading their own lives.  It is also interesting for its depiction of the inevitable clash between the post-war generation and their parents' generation and the transformation of values that has been the effect of the Great War.  All the Canon's daughters feel the need for some sort of work to exploit their skills and energies; Valeria, who undertook war-work away from home, misses it greatly once the war is over, and the novel makes some feminist points about opportunities for women of this class.  The Canon is right up there with Delafield's other, usually female, parental monsters - this novel has much in common with Thank Heaven Fasting in that, and other respects - and the characterisation of the children is well-achieved.  I could have lived without some of the Bright Young Things, but I can see that their mildly scandalous activities were necessary to frighten the Canon into fresh excesses.

There are some facsimile reprints of this novel available as well as second-hand copies in fairly large supply, at least in the UK.  The Great War Fiction blog has also given The Optimist a favourable review - I agree that it deserves a proper reprint.

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