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.