Last week, after my French class, I wasn’t in any particular rush to get home, so I swung by my favourite Charing Cross Road book shop on my way to the tube station. I was pleased to see that the stock had been recently refreshed, and I spent a happy time browsing the shelves with no interruption from other customers. I was just on my way out when I spotted a grubby hardback with a spine so worn I couldn’t make out the author or title. On a whim, I slipped it off the shelf, and what a joy! It was none other than an out of print title – Nothing is Safe – by E M Delafield, one of my favourite early 20th century authors, and very difficult to find these days. I opened it up – the price was right – the story looked wonderful – so I skipped off to buy it and then headed to the tube, where I began reading immediately, despite being in medias res with The Death of the Heart. In the 8 minutes it took for my tube to arrive, I was already hooked. Largely through dialogue, Delafield brings the world of two children torn between divorcing parents in 1920s London perfectly to life, and I could hardly tear my eyes away from the page throughout.
Terry and Julia have always lived in London with their parents Daphne and Alick and their dog, Chang. They have a comfortable home in Hampstead, go to boarding schools, and spend their holidays with their wealthy, aristocratic grandparents in the countryside. They take for granted the security of their world, until one day ‘Mummie’ sits them down and explains that Daddy has left and isn’t coming back, and they are going through a divorce. Julia’s primary concern is for their dog, Chang – who will take care of him? – but it soon transpires that there will be much more to worry about than that.
Coming home for their first school holidays after the divorce, it’s clear that Julia and Terry are no longer a priority for either of their parents. Alick is living with a twenty two year old bohemian called Petah in a tiny flat in London, and there is no space for both Julia and Terry to sleep. As such, Julia is farmed out to Petah’s odious mother across the street, where she is treated as an irritating inconvenience. There is never any dinner for the children and they are left almost entirely to their own devices during the day. After a few days, Alick has had enough, and Julia and Terry are shipped off to Daphne’s house in Wimbledon, where she lives with her new husband, the Captain. The Captain, a ridiculous, pompous idiot with a head too small for his body, doesn’t like children. He warms to Julia because she has spirit, but Terry’s shy and timid manner rubs him up the wrong way and he bullies him mercilessly for not being masculine enough. Daphne fails to stop the Captain from abusing her son and answers to his every beck and call, leaving the children to fend for themselves while she is off gallivanting with her new husband. Julia and Terry become more and more miserable as their holidays continue, and Julia takes it upon herself to try and protect Terry as things only get worse…
This book made me furious and heart broken in equal measure. The selfishness of Alick and Daphne in putting themselves first was unbelievable – they both tell the children that it is ‘very difficult’ for them too and that they are not the only ones suffering. The cheek! They put the needs and wishes of their new partners before their children and don’t seem to care less about how they are affected by being shuttled from pillar to post. Terry suffers the worst; delicate and sensitive, no attempt is made to understand him or talk to him about what he wants or how he feels. As he is not a typical boy, interested in typical masculine pursuits or following typical masculine behaviours as perceived by all the adults in his life, he is considered to be defective and in need of constant correction, rather than allowed to just be himself. His pain at being bullied and criticised constantly is largely ignored, and though he is taken to see a psychologist, it’s clear that all he really needs is love, encouragement and stability. I wanted to knock Alick and Daphne’s heads together by the end – they were both totally unworthy of the terms Mummie and Daddy and had done an excellent job of making their children feel unwanted and unloved in a cruelly nonchalant fashion.
E M Delafield’s strength as a writer is in her characterisation, and she really excels at this in Nothing is Safe. Flighty, preoccupied, self obsessed Mummie is brought effortlessly to life, as is the pompous, bullying Captain, laid back, glamorous Petah and incompetent, indifferent Daddy. The social history infused into every line is fascinating; in a world where children were packed off to boarding school and there were Nannies and frightfully rich grandparents to take the strain off during the holidays, it’s no real surprise that Daphne and Alick find the task of parenting an inconvenience to their self centred lives. Their divorce has been scandalous, and much disapproved; their priority is not their children, therefore, but ensuring the acceptance of their new marriages. The children are desperate to spend time with their parents, but they just view them as an incumbrance. To be told by your parents that there is no room for you, no time for you, and that they care more for their partner’s good opinion than your happiness must be devastating, and Delafield’s careful teasing out of Julia and Terry’s reactions and emotions through using Julia’s perfectly pitched, innocent narratorial voice is wonderfully skilful at showing the damage adults can inflict on children. Children can so easily misunderstand and misconstrue, resulting in them carrying burdens of needless worry that could be simply cured if adults take the time to listen, to explain, and to reassure. Daphne and Alick do none of this, and so Julia and Terry must sink or swim in the tide of the devastation to their safe and comfortable lives caused by their parents’ divorce. Julia is strong enough to withstand it, but Terry isn’t, and as I closed the pages, I dreaded to think what the future held for the poor things, with no stability and no one to rely upon as they grew into their teenage years.
Delafield isn’t afraid of tackling difficult subjects, or of exposing the cruelty inflicted on people by those who supposedly love them. She also does this excellently in Consequences, which Persephone publishes, and these two novels are excellent examples of how diverse Delafield’s writing is. The Provincial Lady series of diaries are witty, hilarious and so well observed; the observation is spot on again in Nothing is Safe, but the undercurrent of sadness is much greater. Delafield reminds us that novels don’t have to have rollicking plots or outlandish characters to contain drama and interest; with a tiny cast of characters, she creates a world on a knife edge, and it is totally absorbing stuff. There is so much rippling beneath the surface; the conflict between generational values, attitudes to marriage, to parenthood, to childhood, to masculinity, and to acceptable behaviour. In what appears to be a simple novel she discusses a range of complex societal issues and I found the historical perspective on these fascinating. If you can get hold of a copy, you won’t be disappointed!