Thank Heaven Fasting by E M Delafield

Thank Heaven Fasting is one of the books I broke my book ban for, and I’m pleased to report that it was completely worth it! E M Delafield is best known for her Provincial Lady series of witty diaries but her other adult novels are well worth reading, and are quite different from the jovial, light hearted tone of the PL books. Thank Heaven Fasting, much like the Persephone reprint, Consequences, explores the complicated and restrictive social world of Edwardian Britain, which Delafield grew up in and fell foul of herself. It centres around the ‘coming out’ of Monica Ingram, a well to do only child of a socially ambitious mother and wealthy father, who want the best for their little darling and are determined to marry her off well. From a young age, Monica has been made aware of the supreme importance of a good marriage for a woman; a woman who fails to marry is doomed to a life of misery and pity, and will be cut off from the chief joys of life, namely planning a wedding day and bearing children. Therefore, everything Monica’s mother focuses on as soon as Monica turns 17 is grooming her to appear at her best in front of eligible men.

Initially, when Monica first comes out, all goes well. Compared to her unattractive and diffident friends, sisters Frederica and Cecily, Monica is pretty, charming and can easily hold a conversation. Her mother is pleased with her progress, and it’s not long before Monica has an admirer in a young man named Claude, though as her mother says, he is not ‘quite – quite’ and therefore will not ‘do’. Even so, it is, again, as her mother says, a wise thing for Monica to have a man running after her, even if he is not financially viable, as it demonstrates to other men that one is desirable. However, on an outing with Claude and some other young debutantes, Monica falls foul of the charms of a Captain Lane, who holds her hand and kisses her in the bushes. Despite her mother’s warnings of men like this, and the danger of a girl ‘cheapening’ herself and therefore ruining her chances with respectable men, Monica, in her innocence, believes herself to have fallen in love. Claude is quickly forgotten, and Monica forgets all of her mother’s careful training, disgracing herself dreadfully. This love affair, swiftly aborted by her devastated and mortified parents, gets around their social set very quickly, and Monica is forced to leave London for the summer in the hope that when she returns, all will be forgotten.

However, when the Ingrams return to London, Monica is another year older and her looks have already started to fade. She realises, with horror, that she is no longer attractive to men, and so long years of desperate attempts to snare a man open up before her, filled with the anxiety and pain of knowing that marriage is her only way to a life of any fulfilment. Alongside Monica’s life, the lives of Frederica and Cecily are also depicted, harbingers of the fate Monica is terrified of sharing. Horribly immature, cosseted to the point of still having a governess in their early 20’s, and frightened of the real world, the girls, despite being the product of an attractive, wealthy, popular and twice married mother, are a complete failure with men. Their mother tries to pretend that there has been ‘interest’ for Frederica at some point, which was turned down, but everyone knows the girls have never had so much as a sniff, and their mother’s disappointment and disgust at having such useless and unattractive daughters makes the girls increasingly sullen and socially awkward. Monica knows she is more attractive than Cecily and Frederica, but as the years go by, she grows more and more scared that she will end up like them; unwanted, unloved – even by their own mother. Mrs Ingram is not as bad as Cecily and Frederica’s mother, but the feeling of tension and anxiety that fills the Ingram household is clearly from Monica’s mother’s worry over her daughter’s marriage prospects. Monica is encouraged to do things that will throw her into the company of men, and any other outing, such as to the theatre with a female friend, is dismissed as pointless as it won’t ‘lead to anything’. As Monica heads into her late twenties and marriage still seems far away, a new prospect arrives on the scene. However, will he be willing to put a ring on Monica’s finger, and will it be worth it if he does?

I thought this was an absolutely excellent novel, and one of those early twentieth century novels that really demonstrates how far as a society we have come in the treatment of women and their options in life. Monica’s life is ruled by her relations with the opposite sex, and she must do everything she can to make herself attractive to men to be a success. An unmarried woman is a terrible thing, and a girl who manages to get herself engaged during her first ‘season’ is held up as a paragon of perfection. In a world where marriage was the only career option for women, Monica’s life becomes increasingly unbearable and narrow as the years go by. She is infantilised by her mother and never really grows to an understanding of her own heart and soul; brought up to never answer back to mother and to do exactly as she has been told, she has never had to think for herself, and this cycle will continue if she ever gets married, as all decisions will be made for her by her husband.

Monica is incapable of real feeling or emotion, and her life is held up by the strict conventions of the society she lives in. When her father dies, she doesn’t cry or get upset, as any normal adult who has lost their parent would; instead she goes upstairs and puts on mourning clothes, and then goes about her usual day. Everything has a convention, a structure, a ‘correct’ response; Monica doesn’t get to have independent thoughts or actions. Even when she is talking to a man, her words and gestures are controlled by her mother’s voice, admonishing her; ‘a man doesn’t like clever women’, ‘don’t be too keen’, and so on. All she wants is to get married, and to anyone; the most frightening thing about the society she lives amongst is the belief that any marriage is better than no marriage, causing many girls to be forced into wholly unsuitable, unsatisfactory and loveless marriages. The end made me worried for Monica, and made me sad for E M Delafield, who herself struggled to make a success of Edwardian society, ended up in a convent, and then was married in her late twenties to a man she didn’t really love. Thankfully she was able to pursue a writing career, but many of her contemporaries were not so lucky. Trapped in marriages brought about after often barely month long courtships, I wonder how many would have exchanged their married lives for their spinsterhood they were once so desperate to be freed from.

28 comments

  1. Interesting review and discussion! I feel so lucky that times have changed. I was talking about this same topic only recently with my grandmother. She said she was so grateful that her grandchildren have the opportunity to go through this world as individuals and not be judged by their marital status etc.

    1. Thank you, Femke! Me too – I am so pleased that I have so many opportunities open to me these days and that it’s not the end of the world if I remain single. Judging women on their marital status is so limiting and demeaning and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for women like Monica whose whole life was measured out according to whether a man chose them or not.

  2. Your description reminds me of ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton. Have you read it? I read it recently and it was so sad, but it made me really happy to be living in the 21st century! I think Edith Wharton is like that.

    1. Yes I have, Catie! A long time ago, but I remember being blown away by it and pitying Lily so much. Edith Wharton is such a brilliant author to read for an insight into life for women of the middle and upper classes in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Thank you for making such a pertinent comparison – if you loved The House of Mirth then you’d definitely enjoy Thank Heaven Fasting.

  3. Rachel, again a wonderful review. I had never heard of this book before so it was interesting to read about it. I tried E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and I like it but I didnt love it. I preferred the Henrietta books. So while I might not continue with those, this one sounds like it might be more up my street.

    1. Thank you, Simon! Yes The PL books are actually quite a bit different from E M Delafield’s other books – this is the fourth of her novels I’ve read other than the PL books and while there is a fair bit of dry humour, the subject matter and the quality of the writing is a world apart. I’d highly recommend you giving them a go – Persephone’s Consequences is very good and in print, though Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are were both reprinted by Virago and are available used for pennies on amazon!

  4. Such a compelling review, Rachel, and so filled with the passion you have for all women and the road we have travelled for so long. I find this time in history so interesting as well and am so grateful for the time and place in which I live. I think books such as Thank Heaven Fasting are good to read and remind us that life as we now know it was not always so. To have, as you say, one’s life ruled by the opposite sex seems so dismal, so pitiful and I wonder about it all. I am glad you broke your ban and have this thoughtful post now for me to ponder.

    1. Thank you, Penny! All of my reading from this era seems to say something powerful about women and how their lives were restricted and oppressed, and it does make me so grateful that I wasn’t born then. I’m glad this has given you something to ponder, Penny – it’s such a pleasure to write reviews for readers such as you!

  5. This sounds like a really good read. I adored the Provincial Lady but the topic of Thank Heaven is very appealing to me. Did you read “The Bolter” by Frances Osborne? It is about the life of Idina Sackville in Edwardian society, a great little biography.

    1. It is, Willa! Thank Heaven is very different to PL but different in a good way – often people think PL is typical of Delafield but it certainly isn’t in my opinion.

      No I haven’t, but I’ve heard of it. It’s definitely a book I want to read at some point – I love reading about women who flout convention!

  6. I found this book very powerful when I read it last year – it makes me wish more Delafield was easily available. I felt for Monica, a very ordinary girl with very few prospects forced to deal for years with the consequences of an evenings mild indiscretion.

    It brings out the feminist in me, but also a lot of sympathy for the ordinary girl with only very ordinary abilities who wants all thats conventional according to her upbringing.

    1. I can imagine you loved this Hayley – I completely agree – it’s a travesty that so much of Delafield’s work is out of print and I’m surprised that she’s not been taken up more by Persephone or Virago.

      Yes – you do have to remember that there were also a lot of girls who just wanted a simple, comfortable, nice life with a husband and home of their own, and that many didn’t get that or had it but their husbands were unsuited to them makes me sad as well.

  7. This is a must read for me! Hats off to you for managing to write such a splendid review at a time when your thoughts must be running wild with plans for next week, Rachel!

    I absolutely loved Consequences, the ending did have me in a mild state of depression for a few days though. EM Delafield is an author who has yet to disappoint so I’m off to see how difficult it will be to get my hands on this one!

    1. Thanks Darlene! Writing reviews is all part of my packing procrastination – I hate packing!

      Yes Consequences was super depressing – THF is much better in that respect though still a little sad and worrying. It’s quite easy to get penny copies of this from Amazon UK so fingers crossed you get one – Virago reprinted it in the 90’s and it has a nice cover.

  8. I’ve been warned against Consequences, but I think this one sounds remarkable. As someone commented above, there’s definitely some close comparisons to The House of Mirth. I’m going to have to see if my library has this one.

    1. Oh really? I thought Consequences was excellent but quite depressing – THF is not as depressing but has the same tone as Consequences. I know you’d love this, Kate. I hope your library has it, but if not, as I said to Darlene, Amazon UK has penny copies available used.

  9. I read this book recently and was completely gripped, but chilled, by the story. Her life was so restricted and, without wanting to give anything away, I was concerned by the ending.
    Like Simon, I much prefer the ‘Henrietta’ books to ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, as Henrietta’s husband is much nicer, but this one was so good! Glad you enjoyed it, too, but that was a foregone conclusion!🙂

    1. I love how you’ve already read everything, Penny! You’re so well read! I’m glad you enjoyed this too – it’s definitely one to send chills down your spine and remind you of how far women’s lives have come in just one hundred years.

      That’s interesting about Henrietta vs PL – I need to re-read the PL books and come to a conclusion on where I stand. I think the PL books are more uproariously funny but then the Henrietta books have a bit more heart I think…

  10. This sounds like a very well-written book, but one that I’m sure could be depressing if read in the wrong spirit. The question of “what can women do” pops up so often during the late 1800s/early 1900s. Much of both Edith Wharton’s and Henry James’s work was about the terrible plight of “gently-bred” women who were raised for nothing more than finding a suitable husband–and what happened when the pool of available (or acceptable) men started to shrink, and how women must plan and scheme and manipulate in order to marry “successfully.”

    Things have changed for the better, thank goodness; but I think it’s sad that our popular culture still spend tremendous amounts of energy on convincing women that to get married is the most important thing in life–“The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Bridezillas,” etc.

    1. Yes – it can easily become something that makes you want to cry! So you have to read it when you’re in a good mood! I love 1800s and early 1900s fiction and it is surprising how often the fate of unmarried women comes up – the desperate hunt for a man, the shame of being a spinster, etc. It just goes to show how much of an issue it was.

      It is true that we still place a tremendous amount of importance of a woman getting married – it’s sad and makes single women feel very maligned. What also distresses me is that so much importance is placed on the wedding day, rather than marriage itself. I think it’s significant that Jane Austen novels always end on the wedding day – we never see what happens afterwards!

  11. I loved and laughed out loud at The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I have just finished the Henrietta books. I found her abit pathetic I felt she must have been rather depressed!Thank goodness for Mrs B! Maybe it was the times and I never experienced war time.I prefered Henriettas War to the second one.I have also just finished They Knew Mr Knight. Wow I think there are Mr Knight’s about today. Really enjoyed it.

    1. Hi Merilyn, I’m so glad you enjoyed the Provincial Lady! There are four books to enjoy so I hope you have the volume that has them all!

      Yes sometimes Henrietta comes across as a bit dispirited but I can understand how she feels! It’s interesting that you preferred the first Henrietta book as I thought that was too cheery and that the later one was just the right mixture of sad and happy – we obviously like different things!!

      So pleased you loved They Knew Mr Knight as well – we are reading all the same sorts of books!

  12. I find myself saying this more and more but the ideas in ths book scare me so very much. The other day I was saying to someone else that I wish I had a huge time machine that I could fit all the unhappy Victorian ladies in and now I want to go and get all the Edwardian women too. We would come back and get liquored up then go stand at Speakers Corner and read feminist novels loudly at men as they passed!

    Yur review of this book is really gripping. It’s possible to feel just how increasingly desperate Monica must have become as time went on. And to be able to see just what she might become in the faces of two other girls must have been terrifying. It is a lot easier for us to see just how remaining unmarried might have benefitted women (and only might because you had to get lucky with permissive relatives, or there had to be some exceptional cricumstances to make single living freeing for upper class women)but if I’d been around then I think I’d have taken any ring I could get to ease the social pressure. It makes me admire women who never married with the heat of a thousand suns.

    1. Hi Jodie thanks for your brilliant – as usual – comment! I too wish I could rescue these women from their unfair fate – it’s disgusting that women were treated like that for so long. How lucky we are!

      I think you’d really love this book as much as it would outrage you! Though I totally agree – the pressure of society probably would have been too much for me to handle too, and those that stayed unmarried and fought to live fulfilling lives are truly admirable and didn’t get the credit they deserved. I think if more women realised the lives their predecessors lived they’d appreciate the freedoms they have now a lot more. I’m so glad you enjoyed the review and thank you for your as always enlightening comments!

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