Sunday, 1 August 2010

Jill by E M Delafield

The eponymous Jill (or Jacqueline; Jill is a nickname and the character is referred to by both names throughout the novel) is the nineteen-year-old daughter of Pansy Morrell, a demi-mondaine who has made a career of living off various gentlemen friends in America, France and England.  Jill comes into the lives of two married couples: stockbroker Oliver Galbraith and his highbrow, fastidious wife Cathie; and Oliver's second cousin Jack Galbraith and his fashionable wife Doreen.  Oliver and Cathie earn enough to pay super-tax, live in comfortable circumstances in Chelsea Park Gardens, even though the super-tax means they have to choose between a car and a lady's maid for Cathie.  Jack Galbraith served in the Great War but is effectively unemployed, living on his name and his status.  He and Doreen live at a Kensington hotel where they are supposed to lend tone and attract the right sort of guests in return for free accommodation; their daily post invariably comprises unpayable bills.  Jack attempts to interest Oliver in a scheme for extracting oil from shale beds in Cornwall; the trip to Cornwall, although it fails to secure a business deal, allows them both to meet Jill.

Delafield uses her familiar technique of doubling and mirroring characters in this book.  Oliver and Jack are two sides of the same coin, one successful, the other struggling; both, at the start of the novel, are cut off to some extent from their own emotional responses.  Cathie, serious and fastidious, is set against Doreen, who is not above extracting money from her admirers; prostitution is strongly implied if not explicitly stated.  Both women are unsatisfied with the condition of their marriages.  Jill moves between these two couples and in both cases is a cause of reflection and reconsideration of their relationships.  Jill herself is a free spirit; an unconventional upbringing has left her strangely naive in some respects and highly sophisticated in others.  Her candour and free emotional responses are liberating for some of those she encounters; others find them tiresome or dangerous.  Most of the characters project onto Jill; either their own emotions, or their own ideas of how she should behave; she is adaptable but retains, always, her own point of view.  Her outward mutability is perhaps a reason for the narrative's random use of her two names.  Jill/Jacqueline does not mind what she is called; her identity is secure enough to allow her to bear any number of names.

Delafield valued the observational quality of her writing and its strengths and weaknesses are reflected in this book.  Readers of The Way Things Are will recognise the accurate representation of a mildly unsuccessful upper-middle-class marriage in the portraits of Oliver and Cathie; her attempts to depict the seedy world inhabited by Jack and Doreen, however, suggest that she had observed this only from a considerable distance.  When the novel takes an odd turn towards the thriller genre in its later stages, Delafield seems even more unsure of her material.  However, there is much to enjoy here.  The characterisation of Oliver, in particular, goes further than many of Delafield's novels in its exploration of the reasons for a husband's lack of demonstrativeness; Cathie is, at times, an enjoyable satire of the serious committee member.  The book also contains one of the few depictions of pregnancy that I've come across in Delafield's work, and we hear several characters' views on motherhood and family planning.  The plot of the novel also has some interesting, and perhaps inadvertent, things to say on the value of paid work for women.

Jill is hard to find (three copies on AbeBooks at the moment) and rather expensive. My library copy has been helpfully annotated with blue pencil by an earlier reader, who points out when EMD has used the same word rather too many times on the same page, and inaccurately corrects her grammar on page 106.

1 comment:

  1. Reading a review of Jill by L P Hartley, I came across this marvellous description of the eponymous heroine:

    "A Constant Nymph among constant nymphomaniacs".

    I bet he was really pleased with that.