Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield

E M Delafield wrote The Suburban Young Man in seven weeks, and ten years or so after its publication suggested she should "never have perpetrated" the novel.  It gets a footnote to itself in Q D Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public, as an example of the use of the 'surburban idiom' which QDL deplores for its lack of seriousness.  These are inauspicious omens.  However, the book isn't as bad as all that, and its theme is interesting: Antoinette, daughter of the aristocracy driven by post-Great War poverty to work in an insurance office, falls in love with the married brother of her employer.  Peter, the object of her affection, is a fiction writer doing mainly serial work but hoping to improve the quality of his output.  He lives in Richford, a generic London suburb, with his Scottish wife Hope and their twin sons.  The resolution of the affair between Antoinette and Peter will engage with issues such as inter-class love and marriage, the significance of divorce, and the relationship between the suburb and the city.

Peter is slightly anomalous in the suburb; he does not leave for the City every day like his neighbours, and is involved instead a world of creativity and fiction.  In Antoinette's world, he blends in reasonably well on the surface, while always aware of the differences between them.  Antoinette's working life is seen by her family as a caprice, although her widowed mother cannot afford to support her daughters; the family relies on a wealthy uncle.  Antoinette's different attitudes to work and class set her apart from her family; even her sister Sheila, who does not have the excuse of belonging to an older generation, is shocked by Antoinette's willingness to consider a marriage outside of her own class.  Peter is contrasted with his brother Sydney and sister-in-law Norah, who epitomise the vulgar stereotype of the suburbanite.  Peter, Antoinette and, surprisingly, Hope, however, all find that real people live either side of the social and geographical barriers that usually separate them.

Unfortunately, the effect of the speed of writing of this novel is rather evident.  Characters are broad and undeveloped, making them nearer to caricature.  This is particularly true of the frightful Norah, depicted as a vulgar, greedy and amoral slattern, and also to some extent of Lord Halberton, a family friend of Antoinette who appears to be a stuffed shirt entirely devoid of personality.  The description of suburbia relies on stereotypical devices which are snobbish in effect and undermine Antoinette's frequent assertion that good things can come from the suburbs. The plot developments are often awkwardly achieved and there is far too much of Antoinette's musings on whether it would be right to pursue a relationship with Peter.  Several times in the novel Antoinette determines to "have it out" which then leads to three pages discussing how this should be achieved before any actual conversation takes place. Dramatic events are deferred for days by illness or bad weather, stretching any suspense very thinly.  Peter and Antoinette themselves are often less interesting than the supporting cast, which made it hard to care that much about the outcome of their story.

On the positive side, Antoinette's mother Lady Rochester is an amusing creation; attractive, high-handed and also vague, the fond relationship between mother and daughters is an unusual one.  Hope is also interesting in the way she approaches the problem of Peter's love for Antoinette, although the token Scottishisms in her vocabulary grated on me after a while.  On the whole, while it's not without merits, seeking out this book may only be for Delafield completists or those working their way through all the books Q D Leavis couldn't stand.

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