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.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Well I’m a bit early for Cornflower’s book group, which is discussing this next week, but this is too interesting to wait to blog about until then.

I was rather surprised by this book. I’ve read lots of very favourable reviews and I was expecting a wronged lady gets her own back and everything ending happily ever after with a nice helping of just desserts for the evil perpetrator story that was witty and well observed and entertaining. But this book is far more subtle and intricate and harder to define than that. It turned all of my expectations on their heads and left me shocked but also surprisingly satisfied considering the way things actually work out. In short, The Tortoise and the Hare is a superb read. I say superb rather than wonderful because it is not particularly uplifting or whimsical; instead it is finely crafted and the characters are brilliantly, acutely, perceptively drawn. I felt a part of their world, and I cared (or didn’t) deeply for the people within it. It has been a while since I have read something that both absorbed and unsettled me in a manner that was filled with a quiet suspense and foreboding, like a black cloud on the horizon of an otherwise perfect sky.

The basic plot is as follows: Imogen Gresham is a beautiful and elegant woman in early middle age; the mother of a young son, Gavin, and the wife of a highly successful, wealthy, distinguished and handsome fifty something barrister, Evelyn. They live very comfortably in a large house in the country, and the action is set after the war, in the late 40s. Imogen is placid and kind, brought up to please others and do not much else. She is endearingly hopeless with all household tasks and her son has no respect for her. Evelyn is the model of succesful and efficient masculinity and his exasperation with, yet indulgence of Imogen’s uselessness makes Imogen feel constantly unsure of herself. She means well in all situations, but she is also passive to a fault, and her failure to assert herself or to try to develop the skills she lacks means she is destined to remain ineffectual and a ball of nerves around her son and husband.

Despite all of this, life runs along nicely for the Greshams; Imogen and Evelyn are affectionate to each other, and Imogen adores Evelyn. However, the storm starts to brew when their neighbour, a stout, wealthy spinster of middle age named Blanche Silcox, begins to take an unhealthy interest in Evelyn. Imogen initially thinks nothing of this; she sees nothing in Blanche that could attract a man. However, when Evelyn begins to spend more and more time at Blanche’s house, and even begins doing things for Gavin, the penny drops and Imogen is left floundering, her self confidence shattered, and completely at a loss of what to do. Incapable of forcing a climax, she struggles on, trying to hold things together and reclaim Evelyn’s affection, but the storm must break and when it does, the after effects are far more surprising than the reader could have imagined.

There are plenty of wonderfully drawn supporting characters too; there is the delightful, neglected son of a neighbouring family, Tim, who is Gavin’s playmate, but whose real reason for coming to the Gresham’s is to see Imogen, who he adores. There are also Imogen’s great friends, Paul and Cecil, who are well rounded, touchingly portrayed and thoroughly wonderful.

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I also found it frustrating and rather complex. At times I didn’t know who to sympathise with. Imogen was the wronged woman, and so naturally I felt my sympathies should have been with her, but her passivity and inability to fight back did irritate me to the point where I understood why Evelyn might have wanted to seek the company of a more competent and independent woman. Even Blanche at times was sympathetic; her loneliness and need for affection, as well as her genuine attempts to make people feel comfortable, made me feel sorry for her, and her love of Evelyn and desire to make him happy made me understand why she didn’t think it was wrong to take Imogen’s husband from her. It is a book that plays with your emotions, that questions your prejudices and your sense of what is right and wrong, and shows the blurred lines of morals that govern so many of our lifestyle choices. It was subtle and unnerving and touching and involving and I encourage you all to read it and judge it from your own points of view; as Carmen Callil says in her afterword, the great charm of this book is that each reader can take something different from it. It is certainly far more than a formulaic man has affair – woman finds out – crisis – all ends happily and neatly novel. Conversely, it is very daring in its answers to the issues it raises, exceptionally so considering the time at which it was written, and I think it has become my absolute favourite Virago.

In other news, it is officially Autumn as of today. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness and all of that Keatsian evocativeness. I am looking forward to cold, crisp days and crunching through piles of golden leaves that have fallen onto the pavements, to the smell of wood smoke in the air, to wearing scarves and gloves and having rosy cheeks, to eating fruit crumbles with vanilla custard and drinking lots of spiced chai tea. Delightful.

The Third Miss Symons by F M Mayor

After having spent almost two weeks reading The Lost Traveller, I was in the mood for a shorter novel. The Third Miss Symons is incredibly short; it must have taken me no longer than an hour and a half to read it. This would probably make it more of a novella than a novel, I suppose, but I’ll say novel anyway, because it didn’t feel short while I was reading it.

I have read an F M Mayor before, The Squire’s Daughter, which I wrote about here, and I greatly enjoyed it. The Third Miss Symons shares a common theme of women and their place in the world, but while in The Squire’s Daughter there is a happy ending and a likeable heroine, in The Third Miss Symons there is the portrayal of a woman who is both pitiable and contemptable, and it is really quite difficult to feel for her, even though there are plenty of reasons why you should.

The central character is Henrietta ‘Etta’ Symons, a plain, uninteresting member of a large family with a nasty temper yet a great capacity for love. However, due to her temper and diffident character, she is considered difficult and unloveable by others, and so her attempts at friendship and generosity are frequently rejected and people simply cannot be bothered to try with her. Etta has a chance at marriage, but this is thwarted by her older sister, who marries not long afterwards, and Etta becomes very bitter about this. As the years go by and her sisters get married and become mothers, she is left bored, roleless and increasingly bad tempered. The sadness of her life is that she is not useful or necessary to anyone; her presence is merely tolerated by others with all the gifts of a full life involving husbands and children and friends, and while she understands that it is her temperament that makes her unlikeable, and she tries to change, she finds herself unable to become the woman she would like to be, loving and loved.

Etta is the odd one out, the ‘difficult’ person we avoid talking to because it’s awkward or uncomfortable. I have met many people like her; people who seem to not have been born with the innate social grace most of us take for granted; the ability to have easy conversations, to enjoy the company of others, to say the right things, to listen, to sympathise, to have a good laugh, to share life’s joys and sorrows with honesty and love and compassion. While Etta longs to be able to do those things, she just doesn’t have the capacity to. And as she grows older, she loses the desire to be agreeable and just accepts that is who she is. Unlike many of the ‘surplus’ women written about in late 19th and early 20th century fiction, Etta doesn’t pine for marriage or children; she doesn’t particularly want it for love or companionship, she just wanted the status it would have brought her, and she seeks that status by being irritable, controlling and throwing money around where it is not wanted. She has the incredible misfortune of being a woman desperate to be loved and important to others, and somehow never grasping how that is achieved.

Mayor sums up perfectlythe lack of status unmarried women had in Etta’s father’s attitude towards her. As a man hasn’t chosen to marry her, her father thinks she cannot be worth much, as a man’s opinion of a woman is how he judges women. As no man thinks Etta is worthwhile, no one thinks she is worth much, and she is left to drift aimlessly through life, unwanted, unloved, and with no real purpose. Of course Etta has brought most of this upon herself, but still, it is a sad state of affairs that made me feel an intense sorrow for the many women who must have lived lives like this; unmarried, unwanted, a burden on their families and with no place and no role, brought up solely for marriage and so when left alone they have no ability or capacity to do anything apart from ‘good works’ amongst the poor. What a narrow life they were condemned to.

I went through a phase of reading ‘single surplus woman’ type books a while ago; Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Rachel Ferguson’s Alas Poor Lady, Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Singled Out, E M Delafield’s Consequences…but this was by far the most depressing of them all. Other women have found a use, a hope, in their singleness, but Etta, well, she was content to do nothing with her life. She lived with no hope in anyone or anything, because no one and nothing had any hope in her. This is a quietly tragic and profound novel, and I look forward to reading the final F M Mayor published by Virago, The Rector’s Daughter. As a single woman herself, Mayor certainly understood the women she wrote about, and I have heard The Rector’s Daughter is her best.

The Lost Traveller by Antonia White

This time my post is about a traveller with two l’s. And they’re not travelling in time, they’re just lost. Metaphorically. This is because I just read Antonia White’s sequel to Frost in May, which I wrote about here, entitled The Lost Traveller, about the heroine of Frost in May’s journey into young adulthood. Confusingly her name is changed from Nanda to Clara…because White felt like it, apparently, but once you’re past that it is easy to tell that Nanda and Clara are one and the same. I haven’t read White’s autobiography yet but I gather that Nanda/Clara are supposed to be her at their age, and so I assume much of what happens to Clara in this book also happened to White, which makes me feel very sorry for her and anxious to read her autobiography, which I saw in a bookshop for a cheap price the other day, so I may just head back and pick it up.

But anyway, I digress. This is a lengthy yet marvellous book. It has taken me over a week to read it, which is a long time for me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s journey from being an innocent, fervent, naive and confused convent school girl to a more sexually awakened, ambitious, intelligent and questioning teenager. Her experiences as she grows from youth to burgeoning adulthood leave her wondering about religion, and love, and what her calling in life is, and why she doesn’t feel as deeply about things as she should, and also struggling with her guilty feelings towards the parents she desires to please but is secretly afraid she doesn’t really love.

This heady, passionate, confusing and often painful time that is being a teenager is perfectly described by White. The often stiflingly close friendships that are ever changing, the hatred of everything our parents hold dear, the dreams and ambitions and attachments and feelings that all come together to cause moments of joy interspersed with grief and self doubt and despair…it’s all there, and it’s so close to the bone that it took me right back to being a 17 year old again, lost and self conscious and eternally worrying over what my future would hold.

It tells of Clara leaving the convent school and going on to sixth form at a London girl’s school, where she makes close friends and dreams of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ and going to Cambridge, but then the war breaks out and she heads off to become a governess, before returning back to London and embarking on a course of events that will turn out to be a terrible mistake, which is the cliffhanger the book ends on. Clara doesn’t do an awful lot, but it’s her emotional life that is the real story here, and the inner turmoil she seems to be permanently in is so vividly described that it made me feel almost like I knew her.

Clara’s story also touches on that of her parents and their mistakes and shortcomings, showing the increasing awareness we have as teenagers and adults that our parents are not perfect and that they have desires and dreams and disappointments too. I found these strands of the story very powerful, and touching. It must have been painful for White to write about her parents, if Isabel and Claude, Clara’s parents, are, as I suspect, a depiction of her own. I felt through the way she describes Clara’s relationship with her mother and father that there was a real sense of regret in the way she had viewed and treated her parents as a teenager. I wonder whether this book helped her come to terms with that.

This is a wonderful coming of age novel, a story not just of one girl, but of every girl, I think. I highly recommend it and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next phase of Clara’s life, depicted in The Sugar House.

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

A few summer months spent along the glorious, sunny coast of Italy/Croatia/Eastern European countries that no longer exist in the company of an attractive and talented young man sounds like bliss to me. And it is to Lady Grace Kilmichael too, who heads to the Dalmation Coast with her paintbrushes and a copy of The Stones of Venice to escape her rapidly disintegrating home life. Her husband, a celebrated economist, is having an affair (though it appears to be more of an intellectual than a sexual one) with a woman whose intellectual prowess is far beyond Grace’s; their marriage has become lifeless and Grace feels stupid and useless in her husband’s presence. Her only daughter, Linnet, a beautiful 19 year old, is dismissive of her mother and while she loves her, resents her neediness. Grace realises a radical overhaul of her life is needed, and so she heads off alone to discover who she really is and why her life hasn’t turned out as she had expected.

While in Italy Grace meets a young (22 year old) man named Nicholas, who is also escaping an unsatisfactory home life. He longs to paint but has been forced into architecture by his parents, who only want one artist in the family, and that position is taken by Nicholas’s talentless sister. Grace happens to be a famous painter, but she doesn’t tell Nicholas this when she offers to coach him. As the days go by they develop a cosy intimacy, and as they move on along the coast, they reveal more of themselves to each other and gradually work out who they really are and who they want to be. Grace discovers that she is far more intelligent than she thinks, and that she is loved more than she realised. Nicholas is encouraged in his painting by Grace and gathers the strength to fight for his right to live the life he wants rather than what his parents want. And through all of this a friendship, love and affection grows that gives both Nicholas and Grace a peace and contentment that allows their true natures to blossom, unencumbered by the expectations of those that already know them.

There are more characters than this, and all of them are wonderful, but the real star of the book is the backdrop; Ann Bridge was a diplomat’s wife and was widely travelled, and this shows in her terrifically vivid descriptions of the natural and man made environment along the coast of the Dalmatian region. I am now definitely determined to take a trip to Split (referred to by its Italian name, Spalato, in the book), which sounds like a jewel of a coastal city in Croatia, as well as many of the other towns and villages Bridge mentions.