Rachel and I did a recent podcast episode on Messalina of the Suburbs (1924) by E.M. Delafield and A Pin To See the Peepshow (1934) by F. Tennyson Jesse – both based on the same real life murder – but I know that plenty of people don’t listen to podcasts, so I’ll review ’em both too. First up: the E.M. Delafield (which I actually read second of the pair).
Believe it or not, this it the 23rd book I’ve read by EMD, and I still have plenty of others on my shelf left to read. Thank Heaven, fasting, for a prolific favourite author! It’s not super easy to find in book-form, but the ebook is very cheaply available – and, while it’s not one of her absolute best, I certainly found it a really good novel.
As far as I know, this was her only novel written about real life events – and written very shortly after them; the Thompson/Bywaters trial had only recently finished while she was writing the novel. You’ll find plenty of detail about all of that on Wikipedia, but essentially a woman was in a love triangle with her husband and her lover – the lover killed the husband in a sudden attack, but the woman was also tried for the crime of complicity. Whether or not she was complicit is something by Delafield and Jesse consider – I shan’t say the outcome of the trial for now.
Delafield’s novel seems pretty faithful to the set up (though, like Jesse, she makes the husband much older than he actually was). And we start off seeing the early life of the woman she calls Elsie – the tone being set by the opening words “Elsie, I’ve told you before, I won’t have you going with boys”. (Indeed, it was set before you open the novel if you happen to know who Messalina was – which I did not. Another one for Wikipedia, if you’re interested.)
The woman speaking is Elsie’s mother, and Delafield paints a world of respectable poverty for Elsie and her sister and mother. Lots of “She’s a good gurl, my Elsie” style dialogue – which was very entertaining to read, for the most part (Delafield can’t help being funny, even in a serious novel) though I have no real idea how much people ever did talk in this way. Certainly the working-class characters talk in a mix of salt-of-the-earth cliches, but people do speak in cliches, don’t they? Is it patronising, or is more patronising to put eloquence into the mouths of characters who probably never had it? Hard to say.
After a brief stint as a sort of housekeeper, during which Elsie gets entangled with the father of the family and is ousted, she marries a pushy man called Horace. He becomes rather an ogre as soon as she has a ring on her finger – alienating her from her family, demanding that she does as she’s told, and so forth. It’s a little cartoonish, but the whole novel is a little heightened, even stagey, so it more or less works. It does, however, mean the reader isn’t terribly heartbroken when Elsie starts an affair with good-looking Leslie – or (skipping forward, because I’ve already spoiled the crisis) when a drunk and angry Leslie kills Horace…
Delafield often treads a path between romance novel and her usual sardonic eye. Those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but it’s still a careful tightrope to walk – because her wit might undercut how seriously we might be meant to take the relationship between Elsie and Leslie. But she makes it work, because she’s fabs.
The love-affair of Elsie Williams and Leslie Morrison swept on its course, and in the early days of their madness neither of them paused for an instant to count its possible cost.
It seemed indeed, as though Fate were deliberately simplifying their way.
Horace Williams appeared unable to give his attention to anything beyond his newly-discovered digestive trouble, and remained constantly indoors through the hottest and finest of the summer days, experimenting upon himself with drugs, and studying tables of dietetic values.
Occasionally, the need to add in things that really happened – particularly letters that were sent, in which ‘Elsie’ suggests she is trying to poison her husband – mean that the narrative has a bit of a jolt. Delafield tidies away required moments in slightly clumsy asides, that make the reader feel that perhaps the real people weren’t quite like this. But they are small jolts, not earthquakes.
The novel ends during the trial – which came as rather a surprise to me, as the book was far from finished. It turns out there was a collection of short stories at the end, which were enjoyable enough (though mostly about how terrible women can be to women) – but made the ending feel more abrupt to me than it probably is. Still, the novel is definitely up to Delafield’s usual excellent calibre, and I recommend getting hold of a copy.
If you listened to the podcast, you’ll know that (much as I liked this novel) I preferred A Pin To See The Peepshow – so I hope I get around to writing about that one soon!