Monday, 3 May 2010

Zella Sees Herself by E M Delafield

Delafield's first novel is a bildungsroman that articulates a young girl's response to a world which very rarely seems real to her.  We first meet Zella de Kervoyou at the age of seven, caught out by her cousins telling tall tales, and obtaining relief by confessing to her mother the lesser crime of taking a chocolate from the dining room.  The main action of the novel takes place after Zella's mother has died, when she is fourteen.  Zella's father Louis is half-French, of a Huguenot family but raised by his Catholic stepmother, the Baronne de Kervoyou, an aristocratic matriarch.  Zella's Aunt Marianne, her mother's sister who takes care of her briefly after her mother's death, is fervently anti-Catholic and combines ignorance and piety to an alarming degree.  To Aunt Marianne's horror, Zella is sent to a convent school, and eventually converts to Catholicism there, but her religious fervour dissipates once she leaves school and her aunt's thoughts turn to finding her a suitable husband.

Zella is an amiable enough character, and the novel seeks to criticise an upbringing which encourages her to adapt her responses to her surroundings, ignoring her own true feelings.  The adults around her, with the exception of her affectionate father, feed this adaptability by seeking to manipulate Zella to form their own model of a dutiful young girl.  Aunt Marianne's no-popery stance is carefully undermined by her ridiculousness and stupidity; even Zella at fourteen knows that Tennyson's poem is not called "In Memorial".  Because Zella is such a poseuse, her responses are an unrealiable guide to her real feelings, and it is sometimes hard to tell if the narrative supports her or not; for example, her desire to convert to Catholicism is strongly expressed, but her faith waivers quickly until a crisis draws her back towards it. Her conversion is strongly ironised by a scene in which she confesses her inability to recognise what is true and real to her cousin James while he wears the robes of a cardinal for a fancy-dress party; but the end of the novel suggests that Zella may come, in time, to understand what is real, and that her faith may help her sustain this.

There are some points of high comedy - the showdown over Zella's education between Aunt Marianne and the Baronne, for example, and the self-absorbed confession of Zella's suitor that he has Loved Another - and Zella's own, usually unspoken, criticisms of others are also consistently amusing.  Zella's tendency to cast herself as the heroine of a novel is exploited by several occasions when life fails to live up to the dramatic requirements of fiction.  Much emphasis is placed on Zella's French ancestry and the effect it has had on her character and morals, which reminded me of Claudine in the St Clare's books, who never would acquire the English sense of honour.  There is also an early satire of a modern young woman in the form of Alison St Craye, who has taken to smoking and Theosophy with great, if superficial, enthusiasm.  Some of the characters verge on caricature; there is much more subtlely in Delafield's later characterisation, which relies less on extreme contrast between characters such as that between Zella and her sensible cousin Muriel.

Delafield's later qualities and themes can be discerned, sometimes in embryo form, in this novel;  deployment of irony and anticlimax, the power and control exercised by older women over younger women, the proper education of girls, and the relationship between religious faith and secular life all figure here. You can buy Zella Sees Herself if you have £150 to spare; otherwise, like me, you'll have to make do with a library copy until somebody reprints it. 

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