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, 4 September 2010

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson's book surveys the development of university education for women in England, from its earliest origins in the 18th century until the start of World War II.  Robinson focuses mainly on the period from the late 19th century onwards, and includes an account of development of formal school education for girls, which led in turn to a demand for the opportunity to study at a higher level.  She goes on to describe the founding of the Oxbridge colleges for women, the opening of provincial universities with no gender bar, and the gradual infiltration of women into institutions that were not always ready or willing to receive them.  All of this is illuminated by personal accounts, memoirs and diaries of the women who studied and taught in these institutions; these are usually inspiring, sometimes rather tragic, and often extremely funny.  I particularly liked the nervous sixth-former, arriving at at St Hilda's expecting a rigorous interview, only to find herself making shadow-puppets in the firelight with the English tutor.  Clearly she was good at it, as St Hilda's offered her a place.

Robinson is very good on the arcane rules of institutions, getting under the skin of what can seem like gratuitous regulation so that the reader understands the rationale, and gives a wonderful sense of what daily life could be like for the female undergraduate in the first half of the twentieth century.  The resistance to women students from institutions (particularly Cambridge) and families (one enterprising father offered his daughter a pony if only she would give up her idea of going to college) is also well-described, including the wider establishment's antipathy to the female scholar, who, it was thought, would damage her chances of producing healthy stock by keeping her nose in a book.  I was also interested to find how socially mixed interwar university students could be, with scholarships, contributions from schoolteachers, and occasional quiet waiving of fees all helping to get girls from poorer backgrounds into higher education.

Now women outnumber men in higher education in England and Wales, at least on undergraduate programmes, and there is no need to struggle to be taken seriously as an applicant because of your gender, except perhaps in some subject areas. Parents are much more likely to expect their daughters to go to university than to oppose such a plan.  It's good to remember the pioneers who bucked convention on our behalf, so that university education for women became a norm, not an exception, and Jane Robinson's book celebrates them in great style.