Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Chip and the Block by E M Delafield

Delafield's 1925 novel is part Bildungsroman, part family drama, combined with some ironic contemplation of the lot of the writer.  The Bildungsroman element concerns Paul Ellery, the oldest child of Mary Ellery and her husband Chas, a novelist.  Paul is around ten at the opening of the novel, and we follow him through family trauma, school and university until he attains the adult pleasures of work and sex.  Paul, like his creator, is very interested in people and their psychology; he analyses those around him, searching after their motivations.  The family drama concerns the eponymous chip and block.  Chas Ellery, the block, is a determined egotist and intolerably pretentious; his youngest son Victor, very like his father in many ways, constitutes a perpetual challenge to Chas's authority and status.  Victor remorselessly exposes his father's pettinesses and stupidities, until a final confrontation and literal battle of wills allows Victor to demonstrate the significance of his forename.

The Provincial Lady, during her wartime adventures, comments that "writers are too egotistical to make ideal husbands for anybody", and Chas Ellery bears this out.  His ceaseless attention-seeking - when one of his children is ill, he invariably takes to his bed - and self-dramatisation are, it is implied, behind the early death of his kind and attentive first wife Mary; they nearly finish off her successor, the calm and rational Caroline.  As a writer, Chas is initially committed to the principles of realism; this commitment does not make him rich.  But the approach and content of his work change, and he begins to gain recognition and status.   Chas seeks constantly to maintain his position as the artist of the family, the representative of high culture; he defends this position against the predations of low culture arising from his children's reading material and the praise of servants for his work.  The public needs to buy his books to ensure his success, but when they do he dismisses them as mere sheep, following a literary trend.

Covering the period from the mid-1890s to 1913, this novel does not engage with the First World War; as with many of Delafield's Edwardian-set novels, the presence of the war hangs over the future of Victor, Paul and their sister Jeannie at the close of the book, when they have reached adulthood and found ways of living that suit them.  An unusual aspect of this novel is its frankness about sexual matters.  Jeannie professes a chaste sort of sexual freedom, declaring that kissing young men to whom one is attracted is only natural; after she makes an advantageous marriage to a rich, older man, it is strongly suggested that she continues an affair with her first love.  Paul has been "shown life" in Paris and London, a reference to "soiled pink ribbons" equating "life" with visits to brothels; later, he will enjoy a lighthearted sexual relationship with his widowed landlady, Mrs Foss, who shares and develops Jeannie's views.  The Times Literary Supplement suggests that the "episode with Mrs Foss is discreetly handled", which is true, although the straightforward way in which their relationship is presented, with none of Delafield's customary ironies, seems to me uncharacteristic.

For the novel to work,  the reader needs to agree that Victor is more likeable, and Chas more tiresome.  Delafield achieves this through Paul's narrative viewpoint; his affection for Victor is clear-sighted but genuine, but his love for his father is very muted.  Victor does not crave attention in the way Chas does, but rather shuns intimacy and dependency, and is committed to his ideals and principles, which Chas discards as soon as their glamour is worn off.  Paul himself is a likeable and interesting character, and the interactions between Victor, Chas and old Mrs Ellery, Chas's mother, provide considerable humour.  Paul's story is interesting enough to merit its place in the spotlight, but it has to be balanced with the war of attrition between Chas and Victor, of which sometimes there is more than enough.   The novel also has to move easily between sad and serious events, such as the death of Mary Ellery, and high comedy, and sometimes you can hear the gears changing.  Delafield handled this aspect better in Mrs Harter, although perhaps she had the advantage there of a retrospective narrative in which the first-person narrator already knows what will happen and can draw more heavily on irony to adjust the tone. 

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