Month: January 2012

Nothing is Safe by E M Delafield

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!

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The more I read of Elizabeth Bowen, the more I fall in love with her writing. She’s an acquired taste, certainly, but I adore the clipped, stark dialogue of her upper class, early 20th century characters. None of them are made particularly likeable, but they are so evocatively brought to life that they can’t help but mesmerise you regardless. Her books are perfect capsules of their period; large town houses, aproned maids, afternoon tea, dressing for dinner, fur coats and felt hats and never a mention of money.  It’s an odd world, filled with secrets and lies, unspoken emotions, empty, echoing houses and enigmatic, shadowy people who are never quite as they seem. Bowen is magnificently insightful, and unflinching in her portrayals of the darker and more vulnerable sides of the human psyche. Her books are difficult because they are uncomfortable; there is no cosiness about her flower filled, neatly furnished drawing rooms; no softness in the starched bosoms of her brooding servants. However, I can’t help but adore each fantastic, hauntingly beautifully written page. To the North is still my favourite of her novels, yet The Death of the Heart is marvellous at portraying the awkwardness and confusion of the teen years, and the devastation of the first experience of betrayal by those we love.

Portia Quayne is 16 when she is sent to live with her much older, emotionally distant half brother Thomas and his cold, glamorous wife Anna in their luxurious house overlooking Regent’s Park. Portia was the result of an affair, and spent her childhood living in Europe with her disgraced parents, shuttling between cheap and seedy hotels in resort towns, never knowing a real home. After her parents die in quick succession, Portia, innocent, wide eyed and rather fanciful, is shipped off to London, much to Thomas and Anna’s dismay. Childless, they have no idea what to do with her. Her awkwardness is unnerving; she has no notion of what is acceptable behaviour in their superficial social circle, no understanding of how to control her emotions, and is totally unfathomable to Thomas and Anna, who make little effort to decipher her, or make her feel loved or wanted.

Portia is actively disliked by Anna, who views her as a sinister presence, always watching from the shadows. Thomas tries to be kind, but Portia is a constant reminder of his father’s disgrace and is driving a wedge between him and Anna, the only person he has room for in his detached heart. Starved of any affection and feeling like an outsider everywhere she goes, Portia falls in love with Eddie, a protegee of Anna’s. He is a feckless, self centred and affected twenty something, who finds it a fun game to play with Portia’s intense teenage emotions. Portia is so innocent that she drinks in everything Eddie says, believing that he is completely perfect and that he loves her as much as she loves him. When Thomas and Anna go off on holiday and send her to the seaside to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccombe, things come to a messy head. Mrs Heccombe’s fast and loose stepchildren, Dick and Daphne, sweep Portia into their bold and brassy ‘set’, where she intrigues and exasperates in equal measure by her innocence and lack of tact. Portia decides to invite Eddie to stay, and when he arrives he shocks Portia by flirting with Daphne. Slowly the scales begin to fall from her eyes, but it is only when she returns to London, and discovers further devastating betrayals by both Eddie and Thomas, does she realise how little she can trust anyone, and how alone she is in the world.

The Death of the Heart is a brilliant portrayal of the struggle the teenage years are, and of how unknowingly cruel adults can be to children, and to one another. Anna and Thomas are self obsessed, and live a life surrounded by vain and meaningless relationships. Their comfortable, tasteful house is empty of any heart, and the only person within it who cares for Portia is the housemaid, Matchett, whose love is somewhat tainted by her jealous possessiveness of Portia’s affections. Eddie is a self obsessed, shallow and deluded wannabe aesthete, who takes advantage of Portia’s innocence and slowly, deliberately and cruelly breaks her heart with no care for the consequences. Bowen’s genius lies in her descriptive ability; not only does she draw living, breathing people, she also perfectly creates the frost bound, echoing, lamp lit streets of a wintry London; the cold, echoing halls of a heartless home; the awkward, uncertain, naive and attention seeking behaviour of adolescent girls. A character I especially loved was Portia’s schoolfriend Lilian, forever on the brink; when Portia asks her what she is doing the next day, Lilian fixes her with a knowing look and says ‘Confidentially, Portia, I don’t know what may happen’, which made me laugh out loud; that sense of melodrama about everyday life is at its height at the age of 16, and Bowen captures it absolutely to the point. Bowen’s worlds are always fantastically heartless; Portia’s surfeit of emotion will not last within it. In a society where no one ever says what they mean, and emotion is kept firmly in check behind a veneer of socially acceptable indifference, Portia must learn to play by the rules. Her innocence is slowly corrupted by those who have been charged with her protection, and sadly, Anna and Thomas realise too late just what damage they have done.

If you’ve never read any Bowen, I urge you to give her a go. She takes some getting used to, and if you’re a fan of plot driven novels, you’ll have to learn to get your kicks from character development rather than action, but the richness of the language and the intensity of the seething emotions rippling under the surface of the page will more than make up for it. She was a genius, and I wish more people would appreciate her talent!

Midnight in Paris

Paris. Just breathe the word and people’s eyes light up, their hands move to their chests, and they exclaim, ‘Oh, Paris!’, usually followed by a story about the time they went, or about how they’ve always wanted to go, or about someone they know who went and got engaged and oh…isn’t it just so romantic?! I don’t actually know why everyone thinks Paris is so romantic, compared to other cities…but in the popular imagination it is a place of beauty and romance and wonder and I have spent years longing to go and see the place I have heard about, read about and seen depicted on the silver screen in such glowing, rose tinted terms.

Despite my naturally cynical nature, I am a bit of an old romantic, and the reason I have never stirred myself to go to Paris as yet is that I have been holding out to be taken for the first time by the love of my life. I imagined scenes of midnight strolls along the Seine, watching the stars twinkle from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and drinking huge bowls of chocolat chaud in cosy cafes along the Champs Elysees, staring into one another’s eyes. As my life is not a chick flick, this obviously hasn’t happened, and frankly, I’m tired of waiting for a boy to show up – I just want to go to bloody Paris, romantic strolls or no. I was saying this to my friend over dinner a couple of weeks ago, and as I was saying it, I saw her eyes light up. She has never been to Paris, either, and the solution dawned on us both at the same time – why not just go together?! Therefore we are packing our bags and heading off on the Eurostar next month for three days of exploring the streets of Montmartre and the Rive Gauche, shopping in flea markets, eating our weight in croissants and watching the world go by from pavement cafes. I absolutely can’t wait!

However, I am completely clueless beyond the obvious sights and could do with your suggestions as to good places to go. I’m particularly interested in restaurant and cafe recommendations, as well as sights that are a bit off the beaten path. We’ll only have three days – I’m hoping to get to Versailles but I’m not sure if we’ll have time – but we’re both pretty intrepid and we want to see as much as is humanly possible. So please, send in your must-dos in Paris! I will be forever indebted to you!

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary

I spend a lot of time talking about under-read and underrated mid century women writers. There is a great deal of injustice in the literary world, and sadly women have borne the brunt of it. The magnificent writing of the likes of Dorothy Whipple, Dorothy Canfield, E M Delafield, Elizabeth Taylor, Enid Bagnold, Winifred Holtby, Elizabeth Bowen, Marghanita Laski and Rosamund Lehmann, just to name a few, has been largely forgotten, despite acclaim and popularity during their lifetimes. Most of them went out of print until the advent of specialist feminist publishers Virago and Persephone, who quite rightly have brought many of their novels back into the light of day. It is easy for those of us who read off the beaten path to assume that these novelists are widely known, but unfortunately the vast majority of average readers would respond with a puzzled look at the mention of their names, and their books are not exactly flying off the shelves.

Only Elizabeth Taylor would probably get a nod of recognition, followed by confusion over just what sort of books Elizabeth Taylor managed to write in between making her films. Nicola Beauman didn’t call her biography of this remarkable, stylish and rather viciously honest portrayer of ordinary humanity The Other Elizabeth Taylor for nothing; sharing a name with someone so stratospherically famous can be rather a curse. I only discovered Elizabeth Taylor through stumbling upon the world of book blogs while googling the title of an old book I had bought; otherwise, I am sure I would never have independently come across her writing and if I’d seen a book by her in the shops I’d have assumed it was by the film star. She was never mentioned in any of my English lessons at school, nor was she in any of the academic texts I read for university. I consider myself to be well and widely read, but the vast swathes of middle class women writers who were producing beautifully wrought works of art during the early to middle years of the 20th century just hadn’t ever crossed my path until I found the book blogging community. So, when I read my first Elizabeth Taylor, Angel, which I found in a charity shop, I was blown away. So much elegance, so much finesse, so much malicious, poisonous rage seething under the surface of such controlled, polished writing. Who was this woman, and why wasn’t she celebrated as the genius she most certainly was?

I’ve since read more of her books, though Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is the only one I’ve read since starting blogging, and each has been as phenomenal as the last. This year would have been her 100th birthday, and to mark the occasion, the Virago Modern Classics group on Librarything are reading all of her books in order of publication over the course of the year. Laura of Laura’s Musings has brought this readalong into the blogosphere by asking bloggers to ‘host’ one of the books, and I am delighted to say that I shall be hosting the reading of Palladian next month. If you’ve never read any Taylor and I’ve managed to pique your interest, please do consider joining in. Palladian is in print and  it’s also available for the Kindle for those of you who have embraced the digital age. I won’t be posting about it until mid to late February so there’s plenty of time to get yourselves ready – no excuses!!

Mansfield Park: Wrap Up

Well, reading Mansfield Park opened quite the can of worms, didn’t it? I knew that Mansfield Park was a hotly debated Austen, and one a lot of die hard fans find difficult to love, but little did I know that there have been out and out “Fanny Wars” (thanks Margaret!) – and I think a mini Fanny War may have broken out in the comments section of this very blog as my dislike of this highly irritating embodiment of all character traits I abhor has increased with every page! However, now I have finished, and can look at the novel holistically, I can approach it with less emotion and more appreciation for what Austen was trying to do. In pitting the religious and morally upstanding Fanny and Edmund against the secular and frivolous Mary and Henry, she is exploring the impact and consequences of a modernising society where traditional values and behaviours were starting to be eroded.

Mary and Henry are city dwellers, into excitement, fashion and frivolity. They don’t see the value in Fanny and Edmund’s strict code of living, which considers the effect of individual decisions on others and looks to be transparent and just. This is the behaviour that is necessary to adopt when living in a small, rural community where everyone is far more reliant on one another, but it is largely unnecessary in a large city where no one knows their neighbours and feels no obligation to those living around them. Tom, Maria and Julia Bertram possess the more city-minded character traits of Henry and Mary because they have been brought up to know that there is a world outside of Mansfield that they will get to take advantage of in future. Edmund, as the second son, has always known that he must take on the clergyman’s living, and so he has grown up to be fundamentally different from his siblings. They long to be amongst fashionable society, and have no interest in serving their local community and being good examples to others, whereas Edmund has had to develop a character suitable for forming the hearts and minds of the local villagers. As Fanny’s closest ally, Edmund has naturally become her mentor and guide, forming her mind along the same lines as his. Like Edmund, Fanny cannot look forward to a life spent amongst fashionable people; she is a poor relation and will be lucky if she marries at all. Therefore, she holds on to the strongly religious, community minded values Edmund has instilled in her, hating all frivolity, as it belongs to a world she will never be enabled to join.

In the early 1800s, the world was a rapidly changing place. Industrialisation and urbanisation were swinging into action, wars were raging all over Europe, and the terror of the French Revolution had seeped fear into the hearts of the aristocracy. Information about the goings on outside of the local community was becoming much more widely available, and the decadence and frivolity of life in the upper echelons of society was starting to filter down to the lower classes. Traditional 18th century values of piety and reserve were not being adopted by a new generation, whose behaviour reflected a more uncertain world that would no longer necessarily see them tied to the same communities as their ancestors. Fanny and Edmund’s faith in these 18th century values is mocked by the more 19th century habits of their friends and relations, who seek to put themselves and their enjoyment first.

Edmund loves Mary Crawford despite what he views as being her ‘many flaws’ – namely her frivolity and lack of Christian values – and genuinely believes that he can change her and show her the error of her ways. Fanny never believes that Mary can change, and has an intense dislike of both Mary and Henry from the start of their acquaintance, considering them to be lacking in character and conscience and totally unworthy of her or Edmund’s friendship. Mary and Henry are destructive to Fanny’s peace and comfort; Mary almost steals the man she loves, Henry tries to make Fanny marry him against her will, and Mary and Henry’s frivolous, light hearted take on life consistently clashes with Fanny’s values and makes her uncomfortable and distressed. Fanny is very certain of what is right and what is wrong, and her only show of any character or independence is when these morals are challenged. At other times, her passivity is infuriating to a more modern audience; she is the sort of girl who cries at every slight and refuses to stand up for herself, though this delicacy of character is explained away by Austen as being a consequence of her subordinate position in a household where she has not quite got the status of a family member, and is treated more as an indulged servant. Unsure of herself and conscious of having to please others at all times, she has naturally developed a rather nervous disposition, and this would be forgiveable if Fanny were not such a prig.

For – and bring it on, Fanny fans, if you want to try and disagree with me! – Fanny IS a prig, and no matter of difficult home circumstances or delicate dispositions can make me sympathise with her because of it. I was beginning to warm to her until she behaved so unnecessarily nastily to Henry Crawford (who I quite fancy, actually – I love a bad boy), who genuinely loves her and was doing his best to change his ways in order to become the man he knew Fanny deserved. After her cold rudeness to him, and dismissal of his behaviour as being false without making any effort to get to know him beyond the superficial knowledge she had from watching him during the play, she was dead to me. What I so intensely dislike about Fanny’s character is that she has no time for anyone who goes against her narrow view of what is the right way to behave. She is intolerant and unaccepting of difference; she cannot see any good in Mary and Henry, despite there being plenty, because their ways of behaving are not to her taste. Fanny cannot appreciate or understand their points of view, their difference in upbringing, their take on the world, and she doesn’t try to. It is this judgemental attitude that makes Fanny so infuriating, and an heroine that it is virtually impossible to love.

This is a fascinating, complex novel that feels very different from Austen’s other novels and presents the reader with a great deal of autonomy in the interpretation of its characters. Even in Austen’s day, readers were torn over Fanny; some loved her and appreciated her moral strength; others praised Mary Crawford’s vivacity and couldn’t stand Fanny’s priggishness. There is just enough information about Fanny and her background to make us sympathise with her, but there is also plenty of rope provided to hang her on. Edmund and Fanny’s staunch belief in their own rectitude and resistance of the more open minded, fun loving attitude to life that Mary, Henry and the Bertram siblings share, brings them happiness in the end, as they marry one another and enjoy wedded bliss in the Rectory in the quiet surroundings of Mansfield. Only Maria is really punished by Austen, as she is the one who has truly sinned; banished to a cottage with only Mrs Norris for company for the rest of her days, this is an exceptionally cruel end. Tom is nearly killed off for being naughty, but he is allowed to recover and mend his ways. Julia runs off with Mr Yates but is happy regardless. Finally, Mary and Henry’s fates remain vague, their futures open-ended. While Fanny and Edmund have technically won the ‘happy ever after’ prize, their rather dull life doesn’t feel particularly triumphant. Austen seems to be saying that staunch traditionalism is not something to be rewarded, and yet neither is complete flouting of social convention, a la Maria Rushworth.

So, what does she intend for us to take away from Mansfield Park? Perhaps that a happy medium of frivolity with the heart in the right place will bring about no bad end? Mary doesn’t get an immediate happy ever after, but there’s no reason why she won’t in future. I couldn’t help but get the impression that Austen liked Mary Crawford more than any other character, and that while she makes errors of judgement, she most certainly never comes across as a truly bad person. Misguided and selfish on occasion, yes, but malicious and unkind, no, certainly not. Mary is a modern woman, and Fanny is a throwback to a former age that is no longer in existence and will never be again. Her narrowmindedness will do her no good in a rapidly changing world, and perhaps this is why her and Edmund’s marriage does not feel like an especially happy ending; two people so stuck in their ways cannot bring much benefit or joy to society. Mary, Henry and the Bertrams (perhaps except Maria) are more pliable and willing to adapt; they learn from their mistakes and have an ability to embrace, enjoy and be a part of a changing world. Fanny’s inability to understand or like people who differ from her is no way to live in 1814, and so ultimately I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Austen did not mean us to esteem Fanny, but instead to view her as a naive and misguided hanger on to a world that had already started to pass away. Mansfield Park is a ‘modern’ house, after all; its inhabitants must learn to be so too, if they are to prosper in a new century.

I look forward to hearing your opinions! My reading of Austen will continue, probably in about a month or so; I plan on tackling Sense and Sensibility next, so if you fancy joining me, watch this space!