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!

41 comments

    1. PS They have it the NYS Library. Lucky me! A lovely Persephone arrived yesterday. I will email u tomorrow when I am actually awake, xo

  1. First off, what a lucky find. You know how I love those moments when a book leaps off the shelf at an unexpected time. Hearing of your favorite book shop on Charing Cross Road, of course, has me drooling with envy.

    What a wonderful review you have here, Rachel. The story, though of the ’20s, seems in many ways as if it could be about some families today. Gone are the governesses and stigma that divorce once wrought, but, the issues of putting one’s children’s needs last is a current one, isn’t it?

    While these books don’t often appear at my local haunts, sometimes they do. I’ll keep my eyes open. I did giggle as you described the book’s spine. Those are exactly the type of spines that grab my attention.

    Well done!

    1. I know, it was so fortunate – I so almost didn’t spot it at all! I hope one day you can come and explore in Charing Cross Road yourself!

      Thanks Penny – you’re exactly right.It felt quite frighteningly modern in many ways and it makes me sad that children have been neglected by parents consistently throughout history.

      Keep your eyes open – you really do never know what will turn up in the most unlikely places!

  2. This author’s name lurks somewhere in my past, but I will look it up soon. I have just discovered another forgotten author from the turn of the century, Elizabeth von Arnim. Thankfully, most of her books are being reprinted. Try her as you will enjoy her books.

  3. Darn you, Book Snob, now I have read Delafield.🙂. Actually, they have been on my wish list…. So many great authors! I scored a couple first edition Hulls, got some other stuff to read first, but will be getting to them soon. Happy reading, Ruby

  4. Some of Delafield’s novels are now available again via Bloomsbury Reader. Have you noticed this new collection of ‘forgotten’ books? Quite a lot of those in my wish list…

  5. I love Any Amount of Books! It’s such a magical place. In my Western state, second hand bookstores just don’t have the quality material you can find in England. ‘Old’ books are from the 1950s.

    I’m looking forward to becoming acquainted with Delafield. The Provincial Lady series sounds right up my alley!

    1. Me too! I am always just ‘popping’ in and it’s rare for me to not find something to take home. I pity people without such treasure troves on their doorsteps!

      Oh the Provincial Lady books are marvellous – get stuck in as soon as you can!

  6. It must be amazing to be able to casually pop into such an awesome book shop while making your way home!🙂

    This sounds like an excellent read full of character insight. I think the best way to approach such societal issues is through human stories that give us something to connect with.

    I hope you’re enjoying those French lessons, ooh la la!

    1. It is, Lucy! I suppose I take it rather for granted actually, though it does make it dangerously easy for me to accumulate more and more books!

      This is such a wonderful book – you should read it! Bowen is excellent at getting under the skin of people – it’s quite unnerving!

      I am indeed – it’s so much fun!

  7. The thrill of the hunt…you can’t beat that feeling of finding a treasure. You must have hugged that book to your chest when you realized what it was, you lucky so-and-so! Everything I know about publishing practices would fit on a postage stamp but why isn’t one of our favourite publishers picking this one up for publication? Your review would have had me whipping over to TBD for a copy! Roman is flying over next week so I’m adding this title to a list of books to look for if he can keep away from his research of public houses long enough. Now off to finish the last few pages of my Bowen!

    1. I know Darlene! I grabbed that book and was off to the till like a shot – no one was getting that beauty out of my hands!! I know this should be republished really…maybe Persephone will in future!! Oh fantastic for Roman – get him into the basement of Any Amount – there are a few hardback Von Arnims in there I’ve been keeping my eye on that could be yours for a song!

  8. It’s strange that her other works aren’t as famous as the Diary series (and as you say, so hard to find). Maybe after it’s public domain Delafield will make a come-back?

    1. Yes I’m not sure why that is really…I know her books are very of their period but that shouldn’t be a bad thing…maybe publishers think she just wouldn’t sell these days.Virago did republish a couple of her books in the 90s but they’re out of print now too. I think she is in the public domain now as Bloomsbury have published a lot of her books for e readers recently but unfortunately Nothing is Safe isn’t one of them!

    1. Hehehehe…well it’s not really very romantic when you’re there…the proximity to Leicester Square does it a disservice really…it’s always thronging with tourists which drives me mad!

  9. I’m glad I got a copy before this wonderful review was printed, as I bet every copy off the internet has gone now! And what a lovely way to find it – I always look more closely at unreadable spines, just in case, but never seem to have this luck.

    EMD is so good at miscommunication and lack of self-awareness – and how the vices of parents affect their children. In the PL books this is all done in a fey and witty manner, and you know the children won’t suffer that much, but in Nothing Is Safe she really does unleash the worst parents, doesn’t she? And, what’s worse, parents who would be considered entirely respectable and decent by themselves and their neighbours.

    1. Thanks Simon! I know, I was very lucky – I nearly didn’t see it at all!

      Yes she is, you have hit the nail on the head, Simon! Those parents are awful because their behaviour is considered quite acceptable, as if dumping your kids for your new partner is to be expected. I really did feel quite disturbed by it all. Those poor children! I’m glad you’ve had the chance to read it.

  10. Hi I’ve just found your blog… actually a French blog recommended your post on “Mansfield Park” (a book I’m currently reading… Fanny’s ball is about to start) and I must say I’ve found one of my favourite blogs ever ! What a nice time I’m having, actually we share the same tastes and interests and I just love the way you speak about you in that Charring Cross bookstore (which one ? is it your favourite bookstore in London ?). Thanks for sharing all this with us, I’m really enjoying myself here… makes me feel like I’m in England🙂

    1. Hi Lou, thank you so much for your lovely comment! I’m so glad you found me and have enjoyed what you’ve read! I like to make people feel transported to the streets of London!🙂 I look forward to getting to know you!

  11. Great review and what a lucky find. I think Delafield’s creation of Julia, and construction of the novel entirely from her point of view, is one of her real triumphs. The Captain is also memorably frightful and I mainly wanted to slap Daphne.

    EMD comes out of copyright in 2014 in the UK, so this book may be more accessible in a couple of years. The Bloomsbury e-books are the same texts that were republished in print-on-demand paperback by PFD a year or two ago, so were presumably part of the same deal with the copyright holder.

    1. Thanks Tanya – yes exactly, she nails the childlike point of view perfectly. Interesting – thanks for letting me know. I’m sure that 2014 will be a bumper year for Delafield fans then – but I hope there are nicer editions than those awful yellow POD paperbacks!

  12. Great review! I wonder if Delafield was in any way influenced by Henry James’s WHAT MAISIE KNEW, another book about irresponsible, divorcing parents who have no time for their child.

    1. I’ve never read What Maisie Knew, Deb – I’ll have to read it now and compare. I’m sure it’s a book Delafield would have known – she seems to have been widely read.

  13. dear bookssnob – we are currently dipping into a few pages of Diary Of…..(did you see Persephone did a special re-issue for Valentine’s Day? glorious) and relishing Ms. Delafield’s prose – might try this one next.

    lovely blog. we MUST visit you more often, you have the best bookshop choices. and the notion of Reading on Tube Platforms make us a tiny bit homesick.

    *wavingfromlosangeles*

    _tg x

    1. Glad to hear you’re enjoying Diary! Her other books are not so light hearted but very good nonetheless. I particularly enjoy Thank Heaven Fasting.

      Thank you very much!🙂

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