Turn Back the Leaves does not start well. Its first sentence runs like this: "In an era when hansom-cabs still jingled their way through the streets of London, and to the rollicking air of 'The Man Who Broke the Bank' and the rock-swing-crash of 'Ta-ra-ra Boom de Ay!' Edmunda Floyd and Charles Craddock fell in love with one another". Not at all enticing, but thankfully things improve very quickly. I'm going to discuss the outcomes of the plot in this post, so look away now if you don't want to know what happens.
The story of Edmunda's seduction by Charles is the prologue to the main part of the story. Edmunda is the much younger wife of the fervently Catholic Sir Joseph Floyd, owner of Yardley who always wished to be a monk, but has been persuaded by his confessor that his duty is to marry and produce little Floyds who will inherit his estate and continue the Catholic family line. This same tactic persuades him to take back Edmunda even after she has given birth to Charles Craddock's daughter; Edmunda bears four more children in as many years and dies after producing the much-desired son and heir. Sir Joseph, after a decent interval, marries Edmunda's older friend, Teresa Delancey, mainly to provide a good Catholic stepmother for his children.
The novel then proceeds episodically, with the narrative point of view shifting between central and peripheral female characters. We meet the ten-year-old Stella, living an odd life with a nanny, a housemaid and a governess in a London flat, through Chloë Bourdillon, a New(ish) Woman still hoping for matrimony at 28; when Teresa succeeds in persuading Sir Joseph to accept Stella at Yardley, we see the house and meet the children through Stella's eyes. Later chapters will pass the point of view to Cassie Floyd, the youngest daughter. The novel has no real protagonist: Stella's story fades out of sight as other family dramas take precedence, and minor characters move in and out of the novel in a realistically contingent way. Delafield handles the changes of point of view skillfully, never allowing her younger characters to understand more than is likely; the shifting point of view, and the long timespan of the book from 1890 to 1923, allow layers of meaning to be built up both for the reader and for the Floyd children.
The main theme of this book is the disastrous effect of Sir Joseph Floyd's extreme form of the Catholic faith. He is ascetic, convinced that everyone s eating too much; obsessed with an idea of sex as sinful; terrified that his children's innocence may be corrupted in some way. The young Floyds are condemned to wear exceptionally modest clothing and forbidden to make friends with non-Catholics. As the Catholics in their immediate area are thin on the ground, their social lives are necessarily limited, and their chances of marriage very slim. When Sir Joseph's piety tips over into religious mania, this is explained in part by the marriage choices of previous generations: he is the son and grandson of first cousins, clearly desperate to find a Catholic spouse. Delafield provides a preface to the novel, stressing that it is not intended as a criticism of the Catholic faith, but certainly it can be read as a criticism of the practice of Catholicism in upper-class English society at that time.
Doing your Catholic duty has particularly negative implications for the women of the family. Edmunda is killed by repeated childbearing; Teresa Floyd attempts occasionally to rationalise with her husband, but when that is beyond use she must dedicate herself to caring for him; Cassie, who hoped to escape Yardley into some sort of work, and managed this for a while during the war, is trapped there when Helen, her only unmarried sister, becomes a nun. Their other sisters are estranged from their parents after their marriages: Veronica marries a Protestant who will not promise to bring up their children as Catholics, and Stella marries a divorced man. However, Catholic duty certainly does not favour Joey, the youngest and only boy. Unspecified trouble at school (possibly an episode of homosexual behaviour) causes great difficulty between Joey and his parents; before leaving for the Western Front, he tells Cassie that he hopes a bullet will solve all his problems. There are relatively few male characters in the novel, but those from outside the family, particularly Tom and Peter Neville, represent and articulate the views of worldly rationalism to the Floyds, opening the eyes of some of the children to alternative points of view. The novel is fair-handed, however, and characters such as Cassie and Veronica give a sense of the value of their faith without being unreasonably pious.
There is an underlying strand in the novel that suggests that frustration of sexual instincts is unhealthly. Both Sir Joseph and Helen fear sexuality and its expression and will go to immense extremes to avoid it. The Yardley standards of modesty extend to social behaviour, with fairly innocent acts being characterised as "fast" or "disgusting". Chloë Bourdillon ages into a plump and pop-eyed spinster, still yearning for male attention and sublimating this desire into sentimental friendships with much younger women. The characterisation of Chloë is harsh and unattractive, and conveys no sympathy for the plight of the surplus woman.
Turn Back the Leaves is unusual among Delafield's novels set in the Edwardian period in that it includes the First World War in the narrative; most of these novels end without engaging with the war, leaving a sense that the books are unfinished in some way, that the triumphant marriage or exciting new career is about to be cut short by world events. Including the war helps Delafield emphasise the fossilised nature of Yardley and Sir Joseph, both of them unable to adjust to a rapidly changing modern world, as well as dramatise more intensely plot strands like the estrangement of Veronica. It is also a war event that pitches Sir Joseph into insanity; the loss of Joey in combat is more than his fragile psyche is able to bear.
The novel has obvious parallels with Brideshead Revisited, which - in elegiac rather than critical terms - also seeks to show us upper-class Catholicism. Sir Joseph is an extreme version of Bridey, who wanted to be a monk but, as eldest son, could not; Joey has echoes of Sebastian Flyte; and elements of Julia Flyte's struggle between love and duty can be seen in the stories of all the Floyd daughters. I wonder if Evelyn Waugh ever read the novel.