Showing posts with label E.M. Delafield. Show all posts
Showing posts with label E.M. Delafield. Show all posts

Monday, 2 December 2013

E.M. Delafield

It is 70 years ago today that E.M. Delafield died, much too young, at her home in Devon.  She had been ill for some time, enduring the rather primitive treatments for cancer that were available in the 1940s, but had kept up her cheerful spirits almost until the end - Kate O'Brien remembers her climbing a fig tree in the garden in September 1943, and according to Maurice McCullen she was giving a lecture in Oxford just days before her death.  I had the great privilege of visiting the Delafield archive at the University of British Columbia earlier this year, and of reading the opening chapter of the novel she never finished, an appetising combination of marital disharmony and intergenerational conflict spiced with wartime tensions.  It was impossible not to imagine the witty and moving book this could have made, and the picture of wartime Britain that it would have left us, and then all the other novels that EMD might have written.  By the late 1930s she was really in her stride as a writer; where would her work have gone next?

EMD has been the topic of my PhD thesis and I've spent the last four years reading her novels, short stories, journalism and plays.  When I started the thesis I was slightly nervous of focusing it on her work, wondering if I would get sick of it after several years' intimate acquaintance.  Thankfully, I haven't at all; sometimes I find her work frustrating, sometimes challenging, but always and endlessly interesting.  Middlebrow fiction is supposed to be slight and amusing, but Delafield's work repays re-reading with a careful eye; there can be an awful lot going on in her most frivolous works.  One of the things that is usually going on, of course, is humour, and her jokes also stand up to repeated scrutiny.  The more I read, the more I find to admire, and the more of her journalism I read the more I am amazed by her work ethic.  How on earth did she find the time to write all that?

One of the reasons that I love EMD and the women writers of her generation is that really, they weren't supposed to be there.  A whole generation of women - Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, the list goes on and on  - who were brought up in the vague expectation that they would probably marry, who scraped up what education they could get, often against the wishes of their parents, and who somehow transformed themselves into writers, critics and campaigners.  Instead of disappearing from view into respectable matrimony, they left us their books. Anyone who has suffered from impostor syndrome (probably nearly everyone) can take heart from their lives.

There is a particular significance to the seventieth anniversary of a writer's death; in the UK at least, their works come out of copyright in the following year.  I expect we'll see a lot more new editions of Delafield next year, which is good news for her fans.  But I really wish she'd made it to her eighties, and written the novels she probably had planned.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?

Delafield fans will remember the Provincial Lady asking herself this odd question, and I came across another reference to it yesterday in Winifred Holtby's Women and a Changing Civilisation and was finally inspired to look it up.  "Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?" turns out to be the title of a comic song that was popular in the 1920s.  Here are the Two Gilberts (neither, apparently, actually called Gilbert) singing it, from 1924:

As you'll hear, the answer to the question is an emphatic "Yes, they do".

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Love Has No Resurrection by E.M. Delafield

This 1939 anthology was Delafield's last collection of short stories and comprises a varied selection - some short, funny squibs, some longer pieces both comic and tragic,  and a rare Delafield outing into crime fiction.  Like a lot of writers, Delafield extended her range in short fiction, so as well as her familiar territory of matrimony and domesticity, these stories cover boarding-houses, beaches and even a film set; in "O.K. for Story" a writer, employed by a film studio, successfully manages to repackage The Merchant of Venice as an outline for the studio's next production.  The employees of the studio are of course too lowbrow to spot the reference.

"My Son Had Nothing on his Mind" is Delafield at her humorous best, describing young Gilbert Catto's escape both from his overbearing mother and his intended bride two days before the wedding.  Mrs Catto is a triumphantly awful Delafield matriarch and Rhoda, Gilbert's fiancée, a perfectly ghastly "very feminine, very old-fashioned girl".  Gilbert is rescued by Shirley, a rather hard young medical student, who is decidedly not old-fashioned and sports a perm and plucked eyebrows.  Unusually for rather hard young women in fiction, Shirley is the heroine of the piece, telling Gilbert frankly that he ought to run away and get a job if he dreads the marriage so much.  Equally unusually, there is no romantic conclusion, since Shirley finds Gilbert's passivity rather insufferable.  As well as confounding reader expectations in terms of plot, this short story also sees Delafield experimenting with narrative time, cutting back and forth between past and present.

The story "Opportunity", conversely, is as sad a depiction of an unhappy marriage as you might hope to find.  Fan Hancock - not a euphonious name - has been enduring marriage to dull, pernickety Harry for some years.  Her sister Millie, visiting from America, seizes the opportunity to tell Harry that he is perpetually "nagging and grumbling and petty bullying" and that he could make Fan's life much better by helping her and praising her occasionally.  For a moment, it looks as if Harry will take the opportunity offered, but by the last paragraph he is back in full tedious, self-centred flow.  There is no hope for Fan, who is too trapped by her love for her children and years of accreted loyalty to her husband to assert herself.

The final story, "They Don't Wear Labels", is set in a boarding-house and concerning charming, helpful Mr Peverelli and his neurotic wife.  They are recent arrivals, and Mr Peverelli dotes on his wife with apparent uxoriousness, but it emerges that she is in fact terrified of him and convinced that he is trying to poison her.  The story is narrated by the boarding-house keeper who initially accepts Mr Peverelli at face value, but who comes to doubt his motives.   Rather like Hitchcock's Suspicion, the story sets up possibilities and undermines them, creating an atmosphere of sinister uncertainty among banal domestic activities.  The story concludes at Christmas, and would make a good spooky fireside winter treat.

Unfortunately, if you fancy that treat for yourself you'll either need to be extravagant or patient, as there are very few copies of this book about.  Perhaps we will see it reprinted when Delafield comes out of copyright in 2014. 

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Three Marriages by E M Delafield

This book comprises three long short stories with a common theme.  Each story, set in a different period, considers the consequences of meeting the love of your life after your affections are promised elsewhere.  Firstly, we have The Wedding of Rose Barlow, set in the 1850s.  Rose is a young girl of sixteen, and her mother Rosabel contrives to have her marry one of her own old flames, their cousin Gilbert Harrington.  Rose is compliant and happy enough to marry Gilbert, who is wealthy and likely to be away in India with his regiment much of the time, but her placid content is disrupted when she falls in love with Pierre, a young music tutor descended from exiled French aristocrats.  The young lovers renounce each other and Rose goes to join her husband in India.  There, she will be caught up in an uprising, involved in a siege, and make a dramatic escape attempt by river.  The second story, Girl-Of-The-Period, is set in 1897 and deals with the rather priggish Violet Cumberledge, a modern young woman who is determined to embark on a rational marriage; it is her fiancé Harvey who will first lose his heart to another.  However, Violet, having judged Harvey soundly, will soon find that physical attraction gets the better of her, too.  In the final story, We Meant to be Happy, Cathleen Christmas is living in a small town and married to a bank manager some years her senior; their marriage is happy, if lacking in passion, until Cathleen meets the newly arrived Irish doctor, Maurice Kavanagh.  The rest of this post contains spoilers, so please don't read on unless you want to hear what happens.

Each of Delafield's protagonists is caught out by their inexperience of love and passion; Rose because she is young and naive, Violet because she considers herself above emotionality, and Cathleen because she considers falling in love an unlikely possibility.  The consequences of this allow Delafield, in two of the stories at least, to explore some uncharacteristically sombre subjects, particularly in her handling of Rosabel Barlow's enduring love for the man she encourages to become her son-in-law, and Cathleen's shameful realisation that it would be a relief if her husband were to die.  Rose, who is characterised as brave, dutiful and virtuous, gets her due reward.  Violet's story is the most humorous, contrasting Violet's affected modernity with the genuine liberation of Peggy, the art student that Harvey eventually marries; the farcical end to the story, in which Violet literally wrestles with a rival for the attentions of a cad, sees her hoist so thoroughly by her own petard, and made so ridiculous, that a comical reading is the only possible one.  Cathleen, the narrative suggests, should have known better, and she is punished by being trapped in her marriage with her sickly husband and her disapproving sister-in-law as a permanent house guest.  Delafield's characterisation of the sarcastic, hypochondriac Blanche is a particularly egregious example of the demonised spinster in interwar fiction, and made me wince.

The setting of part of The Marriage of Rose Barlow in India is interesting, and very unusual in Delafield's fiction, which is usually confined to England.  For the modern reader, fiction set in the Victorian colonies can be difficult reading, and while there are some characters whose views of the Indians are unreconstructed, the narrative itself is fairly even-handed, with Indians cast as both persecutors and rescuers.  This representation seems to be historically accurate; the Siege of Cawnpore described in the novel is a real event. According to Wikipedia, some men did escape by swimming down the Ganges, as Calcott, Lefanu and Marshall do in Delafield's story.  There was a rumour that two young Englishwomen had also survived, which may have inspired Delafield. Rose's endurance of the Siege, the subsequent attack on the banks of the Ganges, and the journey downriver, is extraordinary, and can be read as a test of her love for Pierre; against all odds, she returns to England and the possibility of marriage to a man she genuinely loves.  It can also be read as an unremitting punishment for her foolishness in marrying a man she does not love, however, and that reading gives it more in common with the final story, which hands out a life sentence to its hapless protagonist.  "Girl-of-the-Period" borrows its title from Eliza Lynn Linton's series of essays of the same name. Linton published these essays in the 1860s as part of an antifeminist campaign against the New Woman and her challenge to notions of womanliness.  Violet, thoroughly satisfied with her own modernity, has some aspects in common with Linton's New Woman, but her failure to recognise that she is, in fact, rather old-fashioned is given a satirical twist by Delafield's reference to a work that predates Violet's story by thirty years.  Delafield, like many other writers, seems to have used the short story as an opportunity to go further than she often did in her novels, as her excursions into the exotic, the farcical, and the relentlessly punitive in this book indicate.

Three Marriages is a worthwhile, absorbing read, and there are secondhand copies out there, albeit at a price.  The first two stories are available in a US version published as When Women Love. I'm not sure why the third story is omitted; perhaps it was too English in tone and setting to appeal to the American publisher.

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.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Reversion to Type by E M Delafield

This novel, another one of Delafield's Edwardian period pieces, deals mainly with issues of social class and with parenting, with a couple of perhaps unwise excursions into genetics.  The Aviolets have lived at Squires for many years; they are dyed-in-the-wool rural gentry, related to half the families in the county, utterly traditional in attitude and utterly repetitive and predictable in behaviour.  Their equilibrium is disturbed by Rose, the widow of their younger son Jim, and her child Cecil.  Jim is a dissolute character who is packed off to Ceylon after an incident with a housemaid about five years before the novel begins.  On the boat he meets Rose, tall, pretty, and working-class; she has grown up in her uncle's pawnbroking business in London.  They marry after their shipboard romance. Cecil spends his early years in Ceylon, cared for by an ayah while Rose attempts to manage Jim's drinking; she fails, and after he dies she returns to England where her in-laws have offered her a home.  The plot of the novel revolves around the differing opinions of the Aviolets and Rose over Cecil's upbringing, and Cecil's tendency to weave elaborate and fantastic stories, or 'lies' as the Aviolets see them.  Rose is determined that Cecil should not go to a boarding school, fearing that it will make his tendencies worse, and this brings her into constant conflict with the Aviolets, particularly Ford, the eldest son.  All the Aviolets despise intimacies and personal remarks, and these comprise most of Rose's conversation; they cannot abide scenes, and Rose's temper will create more than one during the novel.  Rose eventually allows herself to be persuaded to try a prep school for Cecil, and this is the beginning of more serious problems for the boy.

Delafield makes use of the family doctor, Maurice Lucian, as a more neutral observer of this family drama; he is also called upon to explain the family dynamic both in terms of psychology and in terms of heredity; there is a long speech towards the end of the book about the doubtful genetic heritage of the Aviolets that sits rather awkwardly and suggests to me that EMD was winging it rather.  Lucian also provides the romantic element in the novel, which is a little superfluous in my view but was probably necessary to make it sell; it also makes it slightly reminiscent of The Little Stranger.  The book stands or falls by the character of Rose, and Delafield has created an engaging, entertaining portrait of a woman determined to do her best for her son and to make her way in the world with integrity.  Rose is, at first, bored witless by life at Squires and its unchanging routines, and then comes to despise the lassitude and superficiality she finds there.  Her desires to raise her child herself, and to find meaningful work, are contrasted with the vacant Lady Aviolet, interested only in her neighbour's intermarriages, and then with Ford's wife Diana, unable to have children of her own, who regrets that she lacks Rose's energy and spirit, as well as Rose's friendship. 

Delafield has a certain amount of fun at Lady Aviolet's expense: "No Amberley [her maiden name] has ever been clever that I know of.  In fact, Sir Thomas and I have often wondered how Ford turned out clever, because the Aviolets have none of them ever been in the least odd either".  There is also some comedy to be extracted from Rose's Uncle Alfred, a devoutly religious man, and his assistant Felix Menebees, a fan of novels featuring "Frank Bellomont, the Gentleman Crook", who is utterly devoted to Rose and yearns to travel.  However, this Edwardian novel does not stop short of the First World War, and the sombre tone that overtakes Cecil's story will affect the other characters as well.

This is an early Delafield, and you can trace the development of her ironic voice and thematic interests, but later works show more subtle characterisation and greater structure to the narrative.  Aviolet can be added to the long line of unpronounceable surnames EMD bestows on her characters - was she afraid of being sued, I wonder, if names were at all likely? - and in fact she enjoys a joke about its difficulty in the novel itself.  The most interesting aspect of the novel is its use of a working-class woman as protagonist; I think the only other EMD that does this is the very different Messalina of the Suburbs.


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. 

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Turn Back the Leaves by E M Delafield

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.

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.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Pelicans by E M Delafield

The Pelicans gets its title from the legend of the pelican mother feeding its chicks on its own blood, and there is certainly an abundance of mothers in the novel.  Sisters Rosamund and Frances Grantham have lost their own mother at the start of the novel; orphaned, they are taken in by their only relative, cousin Bertha Tregaskis, who prefers to be called Bertie. The sisters acquire other substitute mothers over the course of the novel: pretentious Nina Severing, a composer who once enjoyed brief success and whose star has long since faded, takes a shine to Frances; the vague Lady Argent provides help and shelter to both girls; and Frances, eventually entering a convent, acquires new mother-figures in the shape of Mrs Mulholland, doyenne of the convent's lady-boarders, and Mère Pauline, her Mother Superior. There is only one father in the novel; Frederick Tregaskis is taciturn and misanthropic, but occasionally understanding. Bertie Tregaskis is a ridiculous character at the start of the novel, energetic, fond of fresh air and indefatigable in conversation.  She considers herself as altruistic as the pelican of the title, but is in fact an early incarnation of a monstrous Delafield egotist, controlling, self-absorbed and unable to recognise that her daughters have the right to live their own lives, as Rosamund shrewdly observes.  I found Bertie's characterisation satirical rather than humorous, although the scene in which she encounters the even more self-important and voluble Mrs Mulholland, and feels as if "she were listening to a caricature of herself", is one of high comedy.  The novel requires us to recognise Bertie's true values, as Rosamund does, and this is a little hard to reconcile with the Bertie of the opening chapters.

There is a lot of humour in the other characters, however; Morris and Nina Severing's ongoing battle of wills, and Lady Argent's naivety and charm, both generate a good deal of fun. These characters, ranged around Frances and Rosamund, contrast with the highly serious and eventually tragic events that will overtake them. Sometimes the changes of mood are too abrupt, showing Delafield's inexperience as a novelist; the overall change of tone, as the impact of Frances's decision to become a nun shows its effects, feels rather as if two books had been joined together. Delafield's characterisation of Mrs Mulholland exemplifies this shift in tone: initially highly ridiculous and pompous, Mrs Mulholland eventually has serious things to say about faith and religion, and serious emotions to feel, but the reader needs to be able to reconcile her ridiculousness with the kindness and generosity perceived by some of the other characters.

The Pelicans was written during 1916 and 1917, and Great War Fiction's review suggests that the change in tone might have been due to Delafield's wartime experiences and the darkening mood of the country at that time, although the setting of the novel is Edwardian.  It has much in common with Zella Sees Herself, particularly the themes of motherhood and conversion to Catholicism; Delafield also begins to consider what will be a rich subject for her novels, that of unhealthy sibling relationships.  There is a facsimile reprint of the novel available, although the quality isn't that great, and a secondhand copy is probably best for those tempted by this rather intriguing early Delafield.

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. 

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Mrs Harter by E M Delafield

This is an early EMD from 1924, and one in which she experiments, rather successfully, with her narrative technique.  Narrated in the first person by a man, Sir Miles Flower, the novel gives his account of the love affair between Diamond Harter and Bill Patch, which was the main interest of the village of Cross Loman for some months.  Mrs Harter is the daughter of the late local plumber, who married a colonial solicitor and stepped out of her class; but now she has returned from the East to stay, without her husband, in her original home, and disconcerted the carefully arranged hierarchies of the village.  The universally-liked Bill Patch is a writer, lodging with the young widow Nancy Fazackerly and her cantankerous father.  Diamond and Bill's love affair develops through various village social events - a concert in the Drill Hall, a picnic and some amateur theatricals - and Sir Miles recreates the story through his own memories and the accounts of other characters.  Occasionally, too, he allows himself to imagine the scenes between them that went unwitnessed.

Sir Miles is set up from the start as a potentially unreliable narrator. He is disabled following an accident in the First World War, consequently goes out little in the village, and admits that he hardly ever spoke to Mrs Harter; he is not present at many of the events he describes.  His will be an impressionistic portrait, relying on a retelling of reported conversations and, on two occasions, imaginary conversations constructed between Bill and Diamond.  Because the narrative is made up of hearsay from more and less reliable witnesses, the authenticity of its portrayal of Mrs Harter is always questionable.  This unreliable narrative ironically supports a reading of her character as one that is permanently elusive to her neighbours; in the opening chapter, several of the characters play a paper game in which they select adjectives to describe her, but they cannot agree on the words to choose.  There is also an element of voyeurism in Sir Miles’s scrutiny, and particularly in his imaginings of Bill and Diamond’s (extremely chastely described) courtship, which might be read as a critique of the prurient village gossip about the affair.

Using a male narrator seems to free Delafield to criticise more openly her anti-feminist female characters.  Sir Miles’s wife Claire, a satirical portrait of a self-centred and overly emotional woman, despises the opportunities available to her medical student niece Sallie; “Mumma” Kendall exercises a benign tyranny over her unmarried daughters and deplored the activities of the Suffragettes.  Both these characters are ridiculed in the text and used as the butt of jokes.  Sir Miles seems to look rather more favourably than his wife on Sallie, who is an insufferable know-it-all, but his conservatism expresses itself in his critique of her modernity.

The plot sets up many ironies, particularly through the choice of play for the amateur dramatics, which also draws out and makes explicit Mrs Harter’s exoticism and remoteness from the rest of the characters, and the conclusion of the novel provides a rationale for Sir Miles’s forensic approach to narrative construction.  There is also a good deal of high comedy, most of it provided by the oblivious Kendalls and the spirited Nancy Fazackerly.  Unfortunately, Mrs Harter the novel is as elusive as its protagonist, and currently out of print; there are second-hand copies about, however.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Optimist by E M Delafield

One of EMD's earlier novels, this richly amusing book focuses principally on the generation gap between those who grew up as Victorians, and the modern generation whose values have been shaped by the devastating experience of the first World War.  Appearing for the Victorians is the optimist of the title, Canon Fenwick Morchard.   An elderly clergyman with five grown-up children, he provided a home in the past to Owen Quentillian, whose parents were based in India before the war.  After the war,  Owen returns to stay with the Morchard family at St Gwenllian; he has acquired a house nearby which is being renovated.  Owen has made something of a name for himself as an essayist, and although his principles and ideas are completely opposed to the Canon's, he continues to respect him enough not to argue with him openly.  The Morchard family comprises Lucilla, the eldest, who has been housekeeper and a research assistant to her father since the early death of her mother; Valeria, who has been involved in a fitful romance with a Captain Cuscaden; fey and musical Flora, devoted to her father; and the annoying Adrian, whose war service was only of six months' duration, and is now looking vaguely for a career, having rejected the Church as an option.  David Morchard, the eldest son, has known Owen in the army and is now in India.

The Canon exercises a benign tyrrany over the four children who still live at home, constraining their behaviour with his excessive kindliness and his tendency to interpret any attempt at independence as a personal affront.  The Canon is ghastly, but very funny; his overt emotionalism in a crisis allows Delafield to set up some highly amusing encounters between the Canon and the modern world, as three of the four younger Morchards make tentative attempts to live their own lives.  He is also a frightful hypocrite, expecting far higher standards from other family members (and also Owen) than from Adrian, his youngest and favourite child. 

His tyrrany allows his children to develop some creative ways of expressing their individuality.  Lucilla, who failed to assert her wish to go to college as a younger woman, counsels Valeria against self-sacrifice as a way of life, and goes about her duty calmly, maintaining her love for her father while privately rejecting the majority of his values.  Lucilla's rational self-control and clearsightedness make her the antithesis of her father and explain his continued reliance on her.  Adrian adopts a more direct approach, getting a job on a magazine notorious for its anti-Christian standpoint.  The feeling that 'father would hate it' may check some behaviours but, when his children think it sufficiently important to do so, they defy the Canon openly.  The novel is ambiguous about Flora's eventual decision to enter a convent: the Canon celebrates it, but if it is mainly driven by a need to escape him, he is misguided.  Owen despises it as a rejection of life and a celebration of self-abnegation: but it is Flora's opportunity for self-fulfilment.

The novel can be read as a fairly mild polemic against Victorian parenting values and in favour of children making their own way in life - indeed, this is inevitable in the terms of the novel; the Canon fails to prevent any of his children, except perhaps Lucilla, leading their own lives.  It is also interesting for its depiction of the inevitable clash between the post-war generation and their parents' generation and the transformation of values that has been the effect of the Great War.  All the Canon's daughters feel the need for some sort of work to exploit their skills and energies; Valeria, who undertook war-work away from home, misses it greatly once the war is over, and the novel makes some feminist points about opportunities for women of this class.  The Canon is right up there with Delafield's other, usually female, parental monsters - this novel has much in common with Thank Heaven Fasting in that, and other respects - and the characterisation of the children is well-achieved.  I could have lived without some of the Bright Young Things, but I can see that their mildly scandalous activities were necessary to frighten the Canon into fresh excesses.

There are some facsimile reprints of this novel available as well as second-hand copies in fairly large supply, at least in the UK.  The Great War Fiction blog has also given The Optimist a favourable review - I agree that it deserves a proper reprint.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Women Are Like That by E M Delafield

This collection of short stories, first published in 1929, deals mainly with episodes from the lives of a variety of women - as you might expect - and a couple of men. Many of the stories focus on romance: proposals, affairs, temptations and partings often provide the dramatic pivot. Middle-aged women, often suburban, are exposed to romance directly and indirectly; apparently forty-three is a dangerous age for a woman. Thankfully, I shall be forty-four in a couple of months.

Two of the stories feature characters who appear elsewhere in Delafield's novels. "The Sprat" acquaints us with Raoul Radow, the sulky Roumanian violinist from Challenge to Clarissa. "Oil Painting, circa 1890" is a version of the later lives of the sisters Frederica and Cicely Marlowe from Thank Heaven Fasting; this story, entirely serious and rather tragic, shows the effects of a "morbid", introspective love between sisters that forbids either of them a life of her own. Delafield suspends her ironic voice again for "The Whole Duty of Woman", a story alluding clearly to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". Elinor Ambrey, recuperating in a nursing home after a breakdown, considers interior design choices:

"How clever of them not to have wall-paper with a pattern.  Looking at that plain, unbroken, cream-coloured surface was very restful - one wasn't obliged to trace, with weary eyes and resentful brain, the repeated convolutions of twisting, impossible, floral combinations, to count and recount the spirals and horseshoes, and crescents, fomred by their distorted leaves and stems." (227)

This, of course, is exactly what the unfortunate heroine of "The Yellow Wallpaper" does spend her time doing, with tragic consequences.  But even a plain cream-coloured surface cannot save Mrs Ambrey from nervous collapse at the thought of resuming married life.  Delafield's story also has in common with Gilman's the medical control and regulation of women: Mrs Ambrey would prefer to sleep alone, but her doctor reminds her that the whole duty of woman resides in thinking of her husband and providing him with opportunities for procreation.

The majority of the stories, however, deploy Delafield's usual amusing ironic approach to love.  Middle-aged women pursuing romance are sympathetically ridiculed.  Modern girls, approaching love-affairs with scientific detachment and a grounding in Havelock Ellis, find that they care rather more than they expected.  Several stories contrast the morality of the late Victorian and Edwardian period with that of the 1920s, usually to the advantage of the modern age; a couple ironise the way in which mothers, unhappily married to minor domestic tyrants, ensure their daughters exploit to the full their own opportunities for unhappiness.

This is an entertaining collection, reminiscent at times of Dorothy Whipple, especially in those stories focusing on suburban middle-age; the final story, in which bad weather changes the lives of its two protagonists, reminded me, with its irony, bathos and slight cynicism, of Sylvia Townsend Warner.  There is enough variety in approach, narrative voice and subject matter to sustain the reader's interest and enjoyment.  My copy is a facsimile reprint by PFD and is pretty clear, although some pages have had the ends of the lines cut off by the scanner, requiring a little extra input from the reader.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

What is Love? by E M Delafield

Delafield answers her own question by telling us of the complicated interactions of naive, beautiful Ellie Carey; her kind and handsome brother Lionel; her attractive, modern cousin Victoria; and the sophisticated Simon Lawless, laden with sex appeal and addicted to flirtation. In the margins of their story are Ellie and Lionel's scandalously divorced parents, George Carey and Fay Dallinger; Eglantine de la Riviere, daughter of the agent's widow at Milton Waters, the Carey country house; and Robin Alistair, a colonial planter back in England seeking a wife. It is impossible to write much more about this book without giving away the plot, so if you don't want to know what happens, look away now.

Ellie is an old-fashioned innocent, a contrast to the monocle-sporting Victoria whose attitudes to life and love are relentlessly pragmatic. Inevitably, Ellie falls for the magnetic Simon Lawless, who is charmed by her beauty but soon disappointed by her hopeless dancing, her lack of interest in clothes and social life; there is one particularly choice episode where he criticises her flower arranging in a way we would now see as thoroughly metrosexual. Everyone she knows is against the match, including the amoral Lady Dallinger, who counsels Ellie not to marry her first love; and in the end, Simon's overt attention to other girls causes Ellie to break off their rather tentative engagement.

Victoria and Simon have flirted with each other for years, knowing how much they resemble each other; when the main action of the novel takes place, Victoria is twenty-nine and believes she must marry soon if she is to marry at all, but Simon is a bad financial prospect. Lionel is in love with Victoria, and has proposed many times, but she eventually rejects him in favour of Simon when her mother's death leaves her better off than she expected, and Simon has made a killing on the stock exchange; she has also recognised that the similarity between them will make a successful match. Lionel takes Ellie back to Madrid where he works as a diplomat, but not before Ellie and Victoria have made their peace with each other.

Robin, originally infatuated with Victoria, is refused by her in explicit terms, and eventually recognises a kindred spirit in Eglantine. Both are cowed by domineering mothers, and seeking escape; Eglantine admires Robin and he likes her. As with Simon and Victoria, however, the match is presented as a practical alliance of equals rather than a grand romance. Robin and Eglantine are an exaggerated, hopefully satirised, version of Robert and Elizabeth Dashwood's courtship; Eglantine de la Riviere is an exaggerated version of EMD's awkward maiden name, Edmée de la Pasture. Robert Dashwood was apparently anxious to read this book when it came out; I wonder what he made of it.

Love, then, in this book, has little to do with marriage, bearing out Fay Dallinger's advice to Ellie. It is possible to read Victoria's acceptance of Simon as an act of rescue to keep him permanently away from Ellie, whom Victoria loves and knows that he can only hurt. Ellie's recognition that Simon and Victoria simply cannot help themselves, and her forgiveness of Victoria, suggest a stronger, more enduring love between the cousins than that supporting any of the marriages contracted during the novel.

The early parts of the novel rely quite heavily on the language and devices of romantic fiction - Ellie's "fiery bliss" under Simon's touch is my favourite bit of Mills and Boon-ese - but towards the end the plot and characters develop in rather unexpected ways, undermining any tendency towards love story. There is a tendency towards stereotype - Robin's sister Maud is a stock eccentric spinster, still schoolgirlish and awkward, rather like Olive in The Heel of Achilles; George Carey is a gruff but genuine English gentleman, with hints of Uncle Matthew about him. Victoria and Ellie are given enough depth of character, however, to rise above their particular roles, and Victoria's thoughtful, calmly affectionate nature belies the hardness of some of the agressively modern characteristics attributed to her.

You can now buy a facsimile reprint of What is Love?, as well as several other Delafield titles, as PFD who manage her literary estate have started a print-on-demand service for a number of authors. Good news for Delafield fans - although at £12 each it is often cheaper to get a secondhand copy of an original edition.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Faster! Faster! by E M Delafield

Taking its title from Alice's experience through the looking-glass, running ever faster only to stay in the same place, Faster! Faster! looks, like The War-Workers, at women who work outside the home, albeit with a less caustic and more considered approach. The novel centres around Claudia Winsloe, who runs a Universal Aunts type of business, coupled with a literary agency and transcription service, and her family: Copper, her husband, who has been unemployed for some years; Sylvia, her eldest daughter at 19, intended for a job in publishing but secretly longing to stay at home and arrange the flowers; Taffy, 17, who longs to escape to Bryn Mawr; and Maurice, about 12, who admires his mother greatly. [Please note that the next paragraph contains plot spoilers].

Claudia assumes the role of family breadwinner and perfect modern mother, allowing her children to make their own choices in life and being totally frank and open about herself. The novel opens with a long section taking place over a bank holiday weekend in August. While her family and guests enjoy themselves, Claudia remains a martyr to her work; when they begin to assert themselves against her, and her self-conception as Atlas holding up the family world is challenged, she is shaken but resolute in her self-control. In the second section of the novel, set in October of the same year, Copper is offered a job. Claudia is sufficiently disturbed to attempt to thwart his chance of employment, causing her sister Anna to condemn her perpetual martyrdom and lack of self-knowledge: Claudia enjoys the role, the pose, and all her efforts go to support that, not her family. In the final section, after Claudia is killed in a car accident, we see her family getting on, pursuing their own interests and dreams, and surviving very well without her.

The novel is one of EMD's romans psychologiques, and by the time this novel was written she was probably at the height of her powers in this mode. Her ironic tone, which wavers through the similar Gay Life, is firmly in place here, and she plays off characters and generations against each other to generate humour. The characterisation is detailed and less reliant on stereotyping than in earlier novels; Claudia is a much more rounded character than the similarly autocratic, self-sacrificing Char Vivian in The War-Workers, although quite as deluded as to her own motives. Copper is, to a certain extent, a typical Delafield grumpy husband, but he shows depth of character when he catches his eldest daughter pursuing an unsuitable potential lover in her pyjamas, and in his enthusiasm about his new job. I also like the minor characters who form Claudia's office staff; the office girls could easily be middlebrow stereotypes, and at first it seems that they are, with their fascination with slimming and clothes, but they have real wit and a generosity that opens out their characters and makes them memorable. My only complaint is that there is too much of Mrs Peel, Claudia's mother; a peevish woman given to repetition moves quickly through humour and into dullness.

This novel, Mrs Peel's views aside, is much less conventional on the topic of working women than Delafield's earlier fiction. It is taken for granted that girls will need a career, that women need interesting work to support themselves, and that women can work well and efficiently, providing a professional service; only Claudia among her staff is tempted to martyrdom and overwork. Her office manager, Mrs Ingatestone, combines work with caring for a daughter, albeit one at boarding school. Claudia's friend Frances, whose return to England and reacquaintance with Claudia frames the novel, naturally turns to work as a young widow, not only from financial reasons but also to gain the satisfaction of work well done. Claudia's problems are nothing to do with work in itself, but stem only from her inability to understand herself or to relinquish control.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this with its dust-jacket intact. The spine shows a slim woman, the world balanced on her shoulders, admiring herself in a pool of water. This image of Claudia as Atlas recurs throughout the novel, and was suggested by EMD herself for the spine. It's rather ironic that the spine of the book (which is holding it all together) should use this image of a woman whose attempts to hold it all together will go so disastrously wrong, for her and for her family.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bazalgettes by E M Delafield

The Bazalgettes is something of an oddity. Published anonymously in 1935, Delafield's work is a spoof Victorian novel, set in the 1870s, but dealing with a theme, as the preface says, that might have been chosen by "the most modern of present-day novelists". Twenty-year-old Margaret Mardon, a cheerful product of an unhappy marriage, has agreed to marry local widower Charles Bazalgette, considerably her senior at sixty-four. As his bride, she will take on his large house, Castle Hill, its long-established staff, and his five children. Despite the misgivings of her unmarried Aunt Mardon, the marriage takes place, and Margaret sets out to make the best of things with reasonable success.

Margaret is very likeable, and if she is disappointed in the lack of companionship she finds with her spouse, whose preference is to spend as much time alone as possible, she does not let it bother her. She deals sensibly with the less amiable of her stepchildren, and with those servants who prove somewhat difficult; she is not much taken aback when she discovers that she is, in fact, the third Mrs Bazalgette, and that she has an unexpected stepson a few years older than herself. She is only seriously disturbed when she she comes to know Charlie, this stepson, and realises what sacrifices her light-hearted marriage of convenience actually entails. Alongside Margaret's story runs her sister Julia's sub-plot, in which she falls for, and eventually marries, a rather limp poet who favours the Chaucerian style.

Mr Bazalgette is a slightly Bluebeard-like character, although this is undermined rather by Margaret's lack of fear of him, and his perpetual worry about draughts; Bluebeard combined with Mr Woodhouse, perhaps. In his failure to provide his wife with companionship and entertainment he is an archetypal EMD husband. Margaret is not the archetypal EMD mother, however, perhaps because she is a stepmother; she admits to favourites among the children, but is also genuinely interested in all of them and willing to spend time playing and caring for her instant family. She, in her turn, is more effectively mothered by her aunt than her own mother, brow-beaten by her perpetually raging father. The Mardon parents, mostly off-stage, are played for comedy; the novel makes use of Victorian linguistic convention to heighten the comedy and establish its credentials as a genuine Victorian artefact. Mr Blunden, the Chaucerian poet, is an early example of the young aesthete, and all the lesser characters are well (and humorously) delineated. Even where stereotypes are used - the cringing governess, the stern nanny - EMD adds enough detail and colour to lift these characters out of cliché; the governess's violent enthusiasm for Margaret being one such detail. Aunt Mardon, witty and acerbic but also kind, is also well-established despite seeing very little of the action.

The book is highly entertaining, with EMD's ironic tone well-deployed, if fairly slight, and there are some awkward moments - Margaret's sudden invocation of Christian faith when she must break with Charlie, for example, sits uncomfortably with her previous light-hearted attitudes to church and religion. I haven't been able to establish why the publication was anonymous; it is partly due to the fact that EMD was under contract with Macmillan when Hamish Hamilton issued The Bazalgettes, but had Macmillan turned it down? Was it a little joke at the expense of the critics, to see if they could spot her handiwork? It seems unlikely that it was a real attempt to fake a Victorian novel; the publisher's preface certainly undermines this.

My copy was a present, and I feel very lucky to have received it - it's very rare and quite often very expensive too. I haven't found the book online, although there is a copy in the British Library for very determined EMD fans.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The War-Workers by E M Delafield

EMD's second novel, published in 1918, concerns the Midland Supply Depôt (EMD always uses the circumflex), a war support effort managed by its Director, Charmian Vivian. The daughter of the local squire, Charmian runs the operation (and, apparently, other operations that may not be her concern) with a combination of ruthless autocracy and cult of personality; her manifest self-sacrifice in working long hours and missing meals excites the admiration of the women who work for her. These women, mostly young and middle-class, live near the Depôt in a rather uncomfortable hostel, sharing bedrooms and providing each other with early morning tea. Charmian is joined by a new secretary, Grace Jones, who turns out to be the daughter of a Welsh Dean and of Charmian's own class. Grace is good at her job, and popular with the other hostel-dwellers, but does not participate in the mass admiration of martyred Miss Vivian. When Charmian's father is gravely ill after a stroke, she is beset by the conflicting duties of home and war-work; Grace, in the mean time, grows closer to Char's charismatic mother, Lady Joanna, and her cousin John Trevellyan, recovering from a war injury.

The book is a fascinating portrayal of women working and living together. It discounts the clichés of squabbling and bitching among women forced into close proximity; the war-workers of the hostel are mutually supportive and kind-hearted, covering work duty for sick colleagues, for example, sharing treats, and entertaining each other with music and chat. The rather different Grace Jones, possessor of a blunt frankness as well as an upper-class background, is accepted by the group and her characteristics accounted for by the term "originality". There are sometimes High Words. Miss Delmege, Charmian's other secretary, more than once attempts to assert her status and greater gentility and gives offence; and occasionally the workers simply get on each others' nerves, but on the whole this is an endearing picture of women working together and enjoying it. Charmian, for all she is admired by her staff at the start of the novel, is no feminist heroine, however. We are told that it is "part of Char's policy to always disparage her own sex. It threw into greater relief the contrast which she knew to exist between herself and the majority of women-workers" (141). The narrative is faintly admiring of her powers of stamina, direction and organisation, but the plot and other characters are critical of her motives: Char loves the limelight more than the cause. Char's mother, in a lesser way, also creates a cult of personality around herself, although this is presented as a benign and positive influence on those who admire her.

EMD uses an objective third-person narrative throughout the text, and the multiplicity of characters, and the use of their views and opinions to construct plot and character, approach modernist effect. There is no single protagonist: key plot developments revolve equally around Char, Lady Vivian and Grace, and the minor characters are well-described and characterised, although these characterisations are occasionally repetitive. EMD was a Voluntary Aid Detachment worker in Exeter, and it seems likely that she drew on this experience - perhaps her first encounter with girls not from her class - to inform the work. Char Vivian is said to be a rather unflattering portrait of Dame Georgina Buller, the only woman appointed to the post of Administrator of a military hospital in World War 1; there is more about this in Violet Powell's biography of EMD.

Kessinger Books publish a facsimile edition of The War-Workers. If you succumb to a copy, be warned that pages 284 and 285 are missing, presumably in a scanning error - Kessinger do warn of this possibility in the front of the book, to be fair. You can fill in the gaps, or read the whole thing, at

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Tension by E M Delafield

At the “Commercial and Technical College for South-West England”, a new Lady Superintendent has been appointed. Pauline Marchrose is the successful candidate, a woman claiming to be 28 but probably in her early thirties. Lady Edna Rossiter, wife of Sir Julian, one of the College directors, remembers that a woman of that name jilted her cousin Clarence after he was thought to be paralysed by a hunting accident. Edna is an inveterate meddler in College affairs, attending Board meetings and attempting to shape the characters of the staff by inviting them to her graceful home and taking them on nature-study outings. Sir Julian's agent Mark Easter also does some work at the College; Mark's wife is confined to a home for inebriates. Miss Marchrose (she is never called Pauline) and Mark are attracted to each other, and this attraction is fostered by Mark's sister Iris, lately engaged herself. Edna discovers that Miss Marchrose is indeed the woman who was engaged to her cousin. Although Miss Marchrose is very capable, and excellent at her job, Edna manages to cast doubt on her suitability, and an atmosphere of suspicion develops around her. Sir Julian admires Miss Marchrose's abilities, and becomes her confidant, but his support is no match for Edna's whispering campaign, and Miss Marchrose resigns, admitting to Sir Julian that she loves Mark, and would have become his mistress were he not too afraid. Immediately after her resignation, she agrees to marry Mr Fuller, the College Supervisor, another admirer of her work.

Tension opposes, rather interestingly, the roles of women in public life. Lady Rossiter typifies feminine influence, rather than power. Her social position gives her an entrée into the governance of the College, and she feels herself fully entitled to interfere where she desires; her position and her gender also allow her to manipulate the less intelligent and the more credulous when she cannot achieve her ends by more formal means. Miss Marchrose stands for the professional woman, well-qualified, diligent and successful at her job, whose evident attributes cannot withstand the effects of gossip and intrigue. The novel is harshly satirical about Lady Rossiter, with a wit that moves well past EMD's usual irony into sharp waspishness. Edna presents all her activities as motivated by love of her fellow human beings, but the third person narrative makes it quite clear that she does not always believe in this motivation. She is made to look ridiculous and patronising, inviting the College staff to Sunday tea; her frequently professed religious faith is shown to be shallow, and her husband's negative view of her is the most commonly heard narrative voice.

However, Miss Marchrose is not a straightforward exemplar of the professional woman, able to make her contribution to society through work rather than influence. Her relationship with Clarence, as explained to Sir Julian, shows her as less harsh than the bare facts appear; believing himself to be permanently paralysed, Clarence offers to release her from her engagement. Knowing that their relationship is based on Clarence's infatuation, which will not last, she agrees, but only after much soul-searching, and she continues to view her actions as shameful and to be concealed if possible. From a professional middle-class background, the death of her architect father forced her to seek paid work, and she describes her loathing of this way of life to Sir Julian; hostel life, with girls not of her class, left her lonely and unsatisfied, and she feared becoming like the older women around her, "pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren't two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to look forward to - knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world." (154). Her fears of this life pushed her into her engagement with Clarence. She enjoys her work at the College, and takes on more and more of it as well as helping Mark Easter with his estate work, but eventually escapes this to marry Fairfax Fuller. It is hinted that they will set up a branch of the College abroad, but will Miss Marchrose's professional skills be used, now that she has wifely influence at her disposal?

The historical setting of the book is not precisely given, but it appears to be before the first world war, as no reference is made to the war as a current or recent thing - and presumably the several men running the College would simply not have been there during the war. I wonder if Miss Marchrose's rejection of Clarence, to the post-war reader, would have been more shocking; many women must have had to make similar decisions and there would have been even more pressure to stand by your man, now a war hero, under those circumstances.

There is a tendency for the characters to assume that dull, repetitive work and food, and uncomfortable lodgings, are acceptable to those lower down the class scale, and the novel does relatively little to challenge this, although there is one humorous moment when Lady Rossiter encourages her Sunday visitors to enjoy her sea view, for "a draught of blue distance" (43), only to discover that one of them has taken rooms with a sea view and can look at it whenever she pleases. Lady Rossiter's ambitions to extend the cultural interests of the lower-middle-class College staff are presented as laughable, but then the only member of that group who is interested in personal improvement and long walks, Mr Cooper, is equally laughable. This ambiguity means that the book can take no position on class issues any more than it can on gender.

There is no feminist polemic here and in fact the rounded nature of the characters probably makes any sort of polemic impossible. Edna Rossiter's recollections of the circumstances in which she accepted Sir Julian's proposal of marriage show her as closer to Miss Marchrose than she cares to admit: she agreed to a marriage of convenience, for companionship rather than love, and to escape the fate of the old maid. Miss Marchrose has had, at least, the option and the ability to earn her living. Sir Julian's admiration for Miss Marchrose is rooted in his perception of her self-knowledge and integrity; he is not shocked by her love for Mark and her avowal that she would have defied convention to be his mistress if Mark had matched her courage. But her courage does not enable her simply to find another job at the end of the book; she too escapes into what must be in part a marriage of convenience to a man she may esteem but does not love. The regular use of Sir Julian's point of view in the narrative frames any challenge to established class and gender orders in a deeply conservative way; his mocking attitude to Iris and her fiancé Douglas, a rather shallow couple with more than a whiff of Bloomsbury about them, emphasises an enduring conservatism in relation to marriage and culture that is upheld even by the younger and more modern characters.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Nothing is Safe by E M Delafield

Nothing is Safe, published in 1937, recounts the effects of divorce and remarriage on a family from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl. The third-person narrative is always from precocious Julia’s point of view, always clear that, even if the reader has grasped what is going on, Julia has not. Julia’s parents separate at the start of the novel, and she and her brother Terry, older, vague and clumsy, return to their boarding schools not knowing where or how they will spend the next holidays. Julia is fiercely protective of Terry, who comes in for a good deal of adult criticism, and attempts to manipulate situations so that he is not exposed to difficulty or fear. Unfortunately her ability to do this is entirely compromised when both parents make new marriages: her father Alick to the much younger, bohemian Petah, and her mother Daphne to Captain Prettyman. The vigorously masculine Captain is unimpressed with Terry, and the novel follows the children about as they are shuffled between parents, grandparents and impromptu babysitters. Terry experiences a series of nervous crises which culminate in his treatment by a child psychologist, and the end of the novel sees Julia finally realising that she is to be separated from her brother.

The narrative voice of the novel is well-sustained, making effective use of internal monologue – thankfully for the reader, Julia is a bright child with a good vocabulary – and cleverly managing to convey meaning that Julia cannot grasp from her perspective. Delafield deploys a very careful, delicate tone here, ensuring that Julia does not tell us things that she could not possibly know or understand, and making effective use of dialogue that the reader can interpret without Julia’s intervention. The tone also allows the use of light irony which relieves some of the emotional tension of the book. I’m not sure if the paragraph which implies that the Captain is making excessive sexual demands on Daphne is intentional, but there are similar, if less controversial, effects elsewhere in the novel. Julia’s concern about the regularity and quality of her meals, the simplicity of her interpretations of events, and her ability to live in the moment, help to reinforce her childishness and prevent her being unbelievably precocious. Her narrative role also makes the novel rather timeless, since she is not much interested in current affairs.

This is the only Delafield novel I’ve read so far that is much interested in masculinity. Terry’s vagueness and sensitivity, his perceived childishness, his clumsiness and lack of interest in machines or sport, as well as his dependence on Julia, all contribute to a view among the novel’s adults that he is insufficiently masculine and that this must be corrected. The difference in the generational view of girls and boys is also brought out through Daphne’s relationship with her parents, who have stricter ideas of gender roles and appropriate behaviour. However, it is Captain Prettyman who causes most of the crises in this respect, criticising Terry’s lack of dexterity and his unwillingness to take physical risks. All the adults fear that Terry will not be tolerated by men when he grows up, and will be unable to endure public school, an inevitable rite of passage for him; Julia’s influence is seen as feminising him, making him unacceptable to other men. This is ironic, given her position in the family as a bossy, articulate tomboy, more comfortable in shorts than the dresses her grandmother prefers. The siblings represent a challenge to established gender norms. While the challenge is played out mainly in intergenerational terms, affronting the senior family members but not their parents, this is acceptable. But Terry’s problems, and his expression of them (high-pitched screaming, vomiting and fainting) are eventually portrayed as illness rather than rebellion. Once his parents are convinced of his problems, an imposition of greater gender norms is made: Terry will be treated at a small school for sensitive boys; Julia will go to a much stricter boarding school which will inculcate feminine behaviour.

This analysis of the development of masculinity, expressed through the thoughts and words of a small girl, could be read as an ironic critique. The novel is certainly critical of a model of masculinity that cannot accommodate Terry’s talents and demerits; Captain Prettyman, its adult manifestation, is a fairly ridiculous character, with a surname that carries overtones of effeminacy and a head that is too small for his body. Feminist voices in the novel, which might challenge models of masculinity, are limited to Peggy, a friend of Daphne’s who is willing to challenge the Captain’s view of Terry and theories of childrearing, and possibly to the capable Julia herself; she can be read as challenge incarnate to gendered behaviour, combining tomboyish robustness with a strong urge to nurture. But the end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain whether the critique of conservative gender roles is sustained. Julia’s “management” of Terry is sometimes over-bearing. Terry’s voice is heard little in the novel, because he seldom speaks; however, in the final pages, it becomes clear that he has been told earlier of the plan to separate them, and has not confided in her. This hints at a desire for independence from Julia, which is achieved, but the plot cannot reasonably conclude with a sustained challenge by the children to the roles they are required to take up – they do not have the power or agency to undertake this.

It is also interesting that the novel is not particularly critical of divorce itself – the children appear to acclimatise fairly quickly to this – but the effects of remarriage and the lack of a settled home are presented as much more serious, as is the failure of either parent, caught up in new relationships, to prioritise the needs of their children. There are no good mothers in Nothing is Safe: Daphne cannot manage her children and her new husband, and chooses him; her own mother disagrees with her violently about her approach to parenting, and is strict and disapproving; the brief appearance by Petah’s mother, pressed into giving Julia a bed, and quite incapable of dealing with her painful earache, completes the trinity of ineffectual mothers. Petah herself treats the children as tiny adults, feeding them cocktail snacks and ignoring conventions such as bedtime. These are types of mothers typical of their class and generation, controlling (a favourite EMD type), loving but ineffectual, distant or uninterested. There are two caring mother figures: Peggy, who only has to do this from time to time, and Annie, the housemaid who comforts Julia when she is ill. Their openness and warmth with the children can be read as a moderate critique of conventions of motherhood, both good and bad.

This is a rather complex novel, the simplicity of its narrative deceptive, and its judgements and values ambiguous. The development of Delafield’s technique is easily discerned, and the subtleties of her tone are probably only equalled in the Diary of a Provincial Lady. Recommended, if you can track down a copy or if Persephone resurrect it.