This is a brilliant book of three stories by the ever wonderful and versatile E M Delafield, of Provincial Lady fame. I was contacted a while ago by the lovely and glamorous Marie from Prometheus Bound Books, who has collected all of E M Delafield’s books, and wondered whether I’d like to borrow a couple of the hard to find titles she owns in exchange for her borrowing my copy of Dorothy Whipple’s scarce first novel, Young Anne. Of course I agreed, and we met briefly to swap books. I came away with Women who Love (the American title of Three Marriages), and a collection of short stories, Love has no Resurrection, which I am yet to read.
From previous experience of Delafield, and knowing how widely differing her style can be (for example, Consequences is practically unrecognisable as a Delafield when compared to The Diary of a Provincial Lady), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but from the title and subject matter, I did presume that the three stories would be fairly witty and light hearted in tone. How wrong I was! Delafield’s ability to write across so many genres and swing from jovial social commentary to harrowing war correspondent within a matter of pages is awe inspiring and the first of the three stories, ‘The Wedding of Rose Barlow’, was particularly absorbing and powerfully written.
‘The Wedding of Rose Barlow’ is about a naïve, lovely sixteen year old girl whose mother, Lady Rosabel, asks her old friend, cousin, and true love Gilbert to marry her daughter so that she can be protected from the horror of an abusive marriage, like Rosabel has been subjected to. Rose, a romantic, inexperienced child who still plays with her dolls, marries Gilbert, presuming what she feels for him is love, and is then left to run his country home while Gilbert is sent to India with the army. Unexpectedly, the nephew of an eccentric house guest arrives shortly after Gilbert’s departure, and the young Rose realises what a colossal mistake she has made in marrying without understanding the true nature of love. She finds her soul mate in the handsome and sensitive Pierre, but they cannot be together, and Rose is left devastated at losing the opportunity to love truly and deeply with all of her heart. She is then summoned to join Gilbert in India, and on arrival the true extent of what she has done becomes apparent. She feels nothing but a fond affection for Gilbert, pines for Pierre, and feels hopelessly sad that she cannot muster the passionate devotion the other officer’s wives around her have for their husbands. It all looks set to be a tale of thwarted love, and an acceptance of a mediocre marriage, but then the story turns into a nightmare description of how Gilbert’s regiment and all of the women and children attached to it get caught up in an Indian mutiny against the British army. Forced to endure terrible hardships and witness the most awful atrocities, Rose returns to England a changed woman, unwilling to settle for a life of lovelorn frustration like her mother Lady Rosabel.
It’s a remarkable, powerful, compelling story that is much about the horrors of war as it is about the horror of marrying someone you don’t love, and Rose’s experiences of the Indian mutiny and her journey of personal growth haunted me for several days after finishing the stories. The other two stories are also very good, but they didn’t quite capture my imagination like the first. The second, ‘Girl-of-the-Period’, is about Violet Cumberledge and her modern and practical attitude towards love and marriage (or so she thinks), and her eventual understanding that marriage is not the unemotional, sensible legal contract between two well disposed people she has always considered it to be. In this story Delafield is at her witty best, describing Violet and her self righteous, naive beliefs in such a witty, ironic tone that I laughed out loud in several places! It’s a very well done dig at young people and their misguided conviction that they are infinitely wiser than their parents and can do everything far better than the previous generation, and Delafield sets Violet up for a spectacular fall through demonstrating that the power of love is timeless, and it can never be reduced to two signatures on a piece of paper.
The final story, ‘We Meant to Be Happy’, is about the lovely Cathleen, a gentle soul who takes much joy in her life as the wife of a nice but dull man significantly older than her and the mother of three adored children, living in a nice house in a pleasant suburb. She is incredibly grateful for what she has, having grown up as an orphan and spent her twenties working hard with no serious prospects of marriage, and desires nothing more. That is, until she unintentionally falls passionately in love, and realises that she has missed the true meaning and joy of life by marrying someone she has never truly loved. What can she do, in an age where divorce meant a severance from society and a woman losing her children? Can she survive being forced to live within a passionless marriage, now she knows what true love is?
All of the stories feature women who stumble into marriage without understanding the true nature of love and what it really feels like when you are genuinely with the right person, and it did make me wonder about E M Delafield’s own marriage and romantic experiences. The protagonists of each story do eventually work it all out, and fall in true love, but the rather idealistic message that a life lived without finding your one, true, passionate soulmate is one of unfulfilled potential and unchannelled depths of joy caused me to question whether Delafield felt she had missed out on something within her own marriage. I am anxious to read a biography of E M Delafield and understand a little more about her life after reading these stories; does anyone know of any in existence? Did Delafield write her own?