Posts Tagged ‘Mrs. Harter’

Mrs. Harter by E.M. Delafield ~ 1924. This edition: Hutchinson, 1924. Hardcover. 253 pages.

It has taken me several false starts to get past the rather subfusc beginning of this sardonic novel, but once hooked it become so compelling that I stayed up well after midnight last night finishing it off, and quite some time after that lying awake and mulling over my response to it.

Narrated in the first person by Sir Miles Flower, confined to a wheelchair by his injuries during the Great War, Mrs. Harter seems at first a slightly brittle village comedy of the classes, with the arrival in the village of Cross Loman of Diamond Harter from Egypt, who sets eyes flashing and tongues clacking.

Mrs. Harter has come without her husband, and has gone into rather shabby lodgings, and no one (including herself) quite seems to know why she is back home. For Diamond is the daughter of the late village plumber, and the general consensus is that she has boosted herself up a social notch or two by her marriage.

The women in general (with one or two exceptions) greatly resent her arrival, the more so since all of the men seem to find her rather fascinating, and make all sorts of excuses for her, and in a few cases actively seek her out.

Mrs. Harter herself is a stoic character, showing little emotion, being brusque almost to rudeness at all approaches. How odd then that another new arrival, eligible bachelor Captain William (Bill) Patch, seems drawn to Mrs. Harter’s side like a moth to a flame, and it soon becomes apparent that she is in her turn silently infatuated with him.

Sir Miles speculates upon their private lives, going so far as to invent their most private conversations and to indulge in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis, depending on others for most of his information, as he doesn’t actually go out much.

Sir Miles has a complicated relationship of his own with his appalling wife Claire, an overly emotional and deeply egotistical poser of a woman, who turns every conversation to herself, and is capable of nourishing strong resentments towards anyone whom she sees as a competitor for the attention of her social circle, which means just about everyone, and in particular the ex-plumber’s daughter. Claire is decidedly affronted.

Things really get brewing during the production of an amateur theatrical piece; Mrs. Harter proves to have an unexpectedly good singing voice so is dragged into attendance by the universally popular Bill Patch. Open snubs by the snobs are constantly being averted by Sir Miles’ cousin Mary, who is pretty well the only character not to reveal herself to have unpleasant character traits. (Our narrator included.)

There is a lot of dry comedy here, in the character portraits of the villagers – one is reminded of the same sort of thing in the Delafield’s later Provincial Lady novels – but tragedy is never far away.

Mr. Harter shows up unexpectedly, and, being nothing like what anyone expected, his presence sends the simmering situation to a disastrous boil.

E.M. Delafield seems to have had an agenda of sorts in this ironically constructed novel, which seems to be that no one of us can tell what really goes on in the mind of others, and that preconceived notions and even direct observations may often be absolutely wrong. Her narrator has something of an unplanned agenda of his own, the increasing apparent revelation of his deeply buried hatred for his wife, and the disaster that is his own emotional life, brought out into the light during the destruction of the possibility of happiness for Mrs. Harter and Captain Patch.

Not a happy novel, then, but an increasingly fascinating one, well up to the standard we expect from this accomplished writer of the mid-wars period.

My rating: 8/10

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