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.