November 19, 2015. I have just re-read these two of E.M. Delafield’s books, Humbug (1922) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) and was curious to see what I had written about them the first time around, back in March of last year. I was interested to find that I would say much the same after the second reading, so am re-posting a very slightly tweaked version of what I said 18 months ago.
This summer I also read an omnibus collection of of the Provincial Lady stories published between 1930 and 1940, The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America, and the PL in Wartime. The tone throughout these was much lighter than Humbug and Thank Heaven Fasting; at times I struggled to reconcile the two vastly different voices.
The humour in the “straight” novels (versus the diary-type formatted ones) was certainly there, but was much more restrained and bitter. The Provincial Lady books are chiefly amusing, the others disturbingly thought provoking. Delafield is very much on my radar as an author to quietly pursue, though most of her back list is long out of print.
The Provinicial Lady quartet has been republished in various formats and editions and is easy to find; Virago republished both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are in 1988; Persephone republished Consequences in 2000. One can only hope that some others of Delafield’s long-neglected novels will catch the attention of either of these two pillars of the feminist press, or of one of the other republishers now so intent on mining the rich literary field of the early to mid 20th century. Preservation and distribution is the starting point of so much more, and it’s always a good thing to hear from those who walked before us, in their own words. Plus a lot of these old books are darned good reading, adding to the appeal for those of us not so much scholarly as merely seeking of interesting things to divert our minds with.
From March 7, 2014: Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield only through her understated and slyly humourous Provincial Lady stories may be in for a bit of a surprise when delving deeper into her more than respectable greater body of work. According to Delafield’s succinct but comprehensive Wikipedia entry – someone has taken the time to briefly summarize each of her titles – she authored something like forty novels, as well as a number of film and radio play scripts.
Delafield’s novels are frequently described as semi-autobiographical. In the two I read recently the sentiments are certainly sincere enough to bear that out, and quietly tragic enough to make me feel a deep chord of sympathy to the young woman Delafield may possibly have been. Though she eventually slipped off the shackles of a strictly conventional upper-class girlhood and young womanhood, she appears from these two novels to be carrying a fair bit on angst-laden baggage from her youthful days. Delafield prefaces Humbug with a disclaimer as to the autobiographical nature of these tale, but if she did not live something similar she certainly observed it at close quarters is my own impression.
My rating: 8.5/10
Good women know by instinct that the younger generation, more especially when nearly related to themselves, should be equipped to encounter life by the careful and systemic misrepresentation of the more vital aspects of life.
The mother of Lily and Yvonne Stellenthorpe was a good woman, and had all a good woman’s capacity for the falsification of moral values…
Pretty little Lily, a child of seven as the story opens, is deeply and quietly perceptive, especially when it comes to her older sister Yvonne, who is quite obviously brain-damaged and “sub-normal”, though her parents vehemently deny it. Lily’s passionate defense of Yvonne, and her intuitive realization of Yvonne’s stoically endured pain are brushed off by the adults in her life as “naughtiness and impertinent interference.” Yvonne eventually perishes of a brain tumour, parents in denial to the bitter end. Lily grieves for her beloved sister but also rejoices that “Vonnie” is now pain-free in Heaven. Lily’s outwardly serene acceptance of the loss of her sister – she goes to great trouble to hide her tears from her parents in order to refrain from distressing them – is seen as juvenile callousness, and this crucial misunderstanding is representative of Lily’s parents’ lack of perceptiveness and their persistent misreading of their daughter’s true nature – that of a bright, loving and imaginative child.
A new baby brother appears, to Lily’s deep bemusement – she has been informed of the mystery about to unfold only by an ambiguous instruction towards the end of her mother’s pregnancy that she may pray for a baby brother – and once Kenneth appears Lily is suddenly packed away to convent school. Three months later, her mother dies, and Lily returns home, where she, baby Kenneth and the bereaved family patriarch settle into a muted existence of whispers and extended mourning.
The years go by, with Lily continually coming up against her father’s shocked disappointment in the things she innocently yearns for – storybooks, candy, the company of other children – until at last Lily, honestly thinking that her presence in the household is completely unnecessary, begs to be allowed to go to school. Her father reels in offended horror, clinging to the idea of the tightly-knit family while rejecting Lily’s right to having needs and desires of her own.
Her continual request to be sent to school distressed him profoundly. At one and the same time, he saw Lily convicted of disloyalty in wishing to alter the routine of life instituted for her by her mother, and as heartlessly desirous of abandoning her lonely father and little brother in their changed and saddened home.
At last he said to her:
“I can stand this no longer. Go, Lily, but remember that God Himself will condemn those who blaspheme against the sacred love of mother and father. You can go. I will keep no child at home against its will.”
Lily is, quite naturally, deeply distressed by this heaping on of parentally fabricated guilt, but she perseveres and off she goes to boarding school, where she comes under the thumb of her hearty headmistress, who seeks to mould Lily to yet another standard of acceptable girlhood. Lily does her best, as she always has, to outwardly conform to the expectations of her elders, but inside she is seething with confusion and deep shame. Her intentions are always good, but frequently misunderstood; Lily is the subject of many a lecture on how best to “improve” herself, which she takes to heart, causing further inner conflict as she tries her best to please everyone while still retaining some shred of self.
The years go by, and when Lily is well into her teens an opportunity arises for her to travel to Italy to visit her flamboyant Aunt Clo. Thrown into a very different society, Lily experiences a mild self-aware awakening. She also meets the man who will become her husband, the much older, exceedingly staid and dull Nicolas Aubray. Once she is married, Lily at last has the opportunity to indulge in a certain degree of introspection, and her conclusions about herself, the way she has been manipulated throughout her life, and the way she will raise own small child bring this rather heart-rending treatise on how not to bring up children to a gently low-key but optimistic conclusion.
A quietly horrifying book in its description of Lily’s psychological and emotional abuse by those who love her too selfishly to be truly kind. Full of keen social commentary, with moments of sly humour. The subtitle, A Study in Education, points the authorial finger directly at the misguided attempts of everyone in Lily’s life – mother, father, nuns at convent school, headmistress and teachers at boarding school, her aunt and finally her husband – to form Lily into something that they think she should be, all the while stifling the natural intelligence and creativity which Lily was born with, and which is almost snuffed out by her extended “education” at the hands of others.
Ten years later, Thank Heaven Fasting examines the inner life of the similarly repressed Monica Ingram, another victim of smothering and misguided parental love and pervasive societal hypocrisy.
My rating: 8/10
Monica Ingram is on the cusp of young womanhood: she is about to be launched into society and, more importantly, the marriage market. Sweetly pretty, fresh and hopeful, Monica breathlessly awaits the man who will prove to be her socially acceptable mate; his physical attractiveness and intellectual fitness are secondary considerations compared to financial and social standing.
Monica attracts a few approving masculine glances, but bobbles badly in her first season, becoming infatuated with a charming womanizer. Putting herself beyond the pale with an evening of stolen kisses, Monica’s small world condemns her behaviour, and, to her parents’ deep despair, Monica appears unable to recover lost ground. The available men turn their gaze to the newest crop of debutantes, and Monica sits on the shelf, becoming more and more stale with each passing year.
This novel is a bitter indictment of the lack of opportunities for young upper-class women, as well as a stab at traditional Victorian and Edwardian parenting. Educated in a more than sketchy fashion, trained for no occupation or career, having nothing to offer a prospective spouse but their own not particularly rare charms, crowds of daughters jockey for position, politely jostling each other at dinners and balls, and peeping over their shoulders with frightened eyes at last year’s crop of wallflowers who were unable to “get off” successfully.
Monica and her peers are creatures raised by their parents for one purpose only, to make good – or at least good enough – marriages. If they fail to succeed at this, the murmurings about unwed daughters being family liabilities louden to a discontented roar, with previously loving and nurturing parents becoming more and more exasperated and resentful as each year passes.
Both Lily of Humbug and Monica of Thank Heaven Fasting have been severely let down by their families and their society. Their eventual compromises are disappointingly the best they can do. For both of these gentle protaganists, their flounderings to stay afloat after not being taught to properly swim in the unforgiving ocean of the outside world and their gasping gratitude for the few good things that come their way are truly tragic in their absolute banality.
What appropriate reading for International Women’s Day, come to think of it. Flawed as some aspects of contemporary life are, we have indeed (by and large) come a long way, baby!
Both of these books are very readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, more than a little depressing. The heroines show glimmerings of self-actualization, glints of ambition, and a very reasonable resentment against their positions in the societal hierarchy, but ultimately both settle for something less than what they have been groomed to expect. Lily differs from Monica in that she manages to rise above her dismal upbringing – her “education” – and make herself some semblance of a happy life. Monica – well – Monica’s story ends before we can see too far into her future, but we suspect that she has lowered her expectations so greatly that her meek nature will at last find a place of compromised peace, and no aspiration to anything more.