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!

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.

Women Who Love by E M Delafield

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?

Holiday Reading

I’ve just finished The Enchanted April which was, as the title promised, simply enchanting. A review will be forthcoming at some point in the near future, but for now I am going to review the books I read on my recent Greek island holiday, as The Enchanted April reminded me of the pleasure I had on my holiday, which again reminded me that I hadn’t reviewed all of the books I read on said holiday. So here they are – a Virago haul gathered from one of my favourite book shopping haunts – www.oxfam.co.uk – many a bargain to be had and it all goes to a good cause, so it’s guilt free shopping.

The first book I read was E M Delafield’s The Way Things Are, which is sadly out of print but used copies are fairly easy to get hold of. I was very much looking forward to reading this, as I love the Provincial Lady books and I also really enjoyed Persephone’s reprint of Consequences, so I was expecting great things. Nicola Beauman of Persephone wrote the Introduction that’s not really an Introduction and should actually be a Conclusion because it spoils the story if you read it first (I never learn) and in it she states this is her favourite Delafield, so once I read that I was practically giddy with excitement expecting a masterpiece to surpass even Provincial Lady proportions. But, to be perfectly honest, I was just the littlest bit disappointed. Oh, it was witty and it was touching and so true in the way only Delafield can be; she perfectly describes the frustrations and boredoms of looking after a house and children and how futile it can all seem, but rather than lifting all of this with humour like she does in the Provincial Lady, in The Way Things Are, it all stays rather flat and sad, and I was left feeling rather sorry for Laura, the leading lady, whose humdrum life with her monosyballic husband Alfred will never give her what she needs. She’s a rather colourless heroine though, who is a bit too passive for my liking; she seems incapable of coping with life in general, and it is her sister, Christine, who defies social convention to live the life she wants that actually ended up being the focus and the delight of the book for me. It was good, and it was funny in places, but this is the sort of book that needs to make its mind up whether it should be funny or sad because it can’t be both, and in trying to be both, it just ends up being not really much of either.

Next up was F M Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, which describes the slow decline and break up of an Edwardian family as it enters the post war era. It is mainly about the beautiful Ron, who can have any man she wants, but can’t find one she actually does want, and the way she is torn between her life of frivolity and fun and the duty she owes to her declining father, trying to keep his ancestral home while he is drowning in debt. This book seems to be about bright young things and a girl’s search for a husband, but it is also very much about parents and children and family and the mixture of guilt, love and duty that binds them all together. I loved it; I fell in love with the characters, I cried just a little bit, and I got swept away by the gentle, all pervading sadness of it all…of how regrets and mistakes can shape lives and take us down paths we never wanted to go, and how, too late, we realise that we’ve gone too far to ever turn back. It is wonderful and I long to read more of F M Mayor’s work.

Last but not least came Ann Veronica by H G Wells. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, as I’ve read a lot of books on women’s history, single women, spinsters and such like over the past few months, perhaps reflecting my fear that I will become one, eaten to death by my cats once I have scared all my friends away through my bitterness, and Ann Veronica kept cropping up as an example of the ‘New Woman’. So I thought I’d see what H G Wells had to say about this phenomenon. It is supposed to be based on Amber Reeves, Maud Pember Reeves’ (of Round About a Pound a Week’s fame) daughter, who had an affair, and a child, by Wells (who didn’t?), and is about the intelligent, beautiful and headstrong Ann Veronica, who longs to be educated and self sufficient and have adventures, free from the confines of marriage and childbearing. She runs away from home to live in London and go to college, and there many men fall at her feet, she gets involved with the woman’s rights movements of the day etc etc etc until she finds true love outside of her social class and gives that all up, which was interesting as it raised the question of whether women really wanted their independence, and gives the impression that Wells thought women’s true happiness comes within marriage, and they just need to accept it. It’s good and very interesting from a historical perspective, and also fascinating to have a man’s perspective on the woman’s question, but I did get a bit annoyed with the Ann Veronica worship by every man whom she meets..she never says anything particularly profound as far as I’m concerned and if she looked anything like Virago’s chosen portrait on the front cover, I’d be running away, not towards her! And Wells’ treatment of Ann Veronica was a little patronising, showing her at her happiest when she is married and pregnant and being the Victorian ideal of woman…so I’m not really sure what this was book was trying to say…perhaps that the ideal of the New Woman could never work in real life, as women want to be wives and mothers anyway? It’s open to interpretation, of course.

And here is a picture of where I was staying while reading these novels; Molyvos, in Lesbos. Absolutely stunning, and the perfect place to get away from it all, relax, and read. I’ll be back again soon, I hope.