The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield

The Pelicans (1918) by E.M. Delafield was a wonderful find in a real life bookshop – one I visited with Rachel and Jenny – and one of my Project 24 books. Delafield is one of my very favourite authors, and this is about the 23rd book I’ve read by her – nothing beats finding one of them in the wild. Early warning, it might well be the worst book of hers that I’ve read, but it’s testament to her talents that I still liked it.

The Pelicans

The Pelicans starts with kindly, scatterbrained Lady Argent and her artistic son Ludovic discussing the recently orphaned young sisters Rosamund and Frances. They live near the River Wye and have had an idyllic childhood in many ways – but now they are to be taken away by a distant relative of their mother, who wishes to be called Cousin Bertha. Lady Argent thinks she is a paragon of kindness, and this is clearly the reputation that Bertha wishes to promote – and quite possibly believes herself. But Ludovic is not convinced, and the sisters are also rather daunted by the move. Her friendly approaches towards them leave them rather wary and confused – but off they go, to join Bertha’s daughter, a simpering and devoted companion, and a grumpy but affectionate husband (affectionate to the girls; he clearly loathes his wife but has determined to stay out of the way).

Delafield wrote about unpleasant women time and again, and they are very often the sort who project an appearance of capability and being the supposed centre of adoring crowds. This can sometimes be done comically, as in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, or with a rather darker overtone – Faster! Faster! or Humbug. In The Pelicans it rather falls between two stools. Even her darkest novels have amusing moments, and there are many in The Pelicans that I will come onto, but she hasn’t quite decided how to treat the character of Bertha. Ironically, by making her quite nuanced (because how many people are actually ogres in disguise?), she is less satisfying as a character – do we require more consistency in a fictional construct than we would encounter in real people?

My favourite sections came when Bertha talks to her neighbour and frenemy – no word describes it better, I’m afraid – Nina, who has a son about Rosamund’s age (there is a brief romance) and is a widow. They exchange spiky conversations where each tries to outdo the other, and subtly insult each other. It’s all so delicious, and I longed for those pages – particularly whenever Nina would use the Biblical analogy of Mary and Martha to compare them, which she does often, and which displeases Bertha immensely. Another of Nina’s traits is to remind her friend about her (Nina’s) status as a widow:

“It somehow gave me a little pang – it seemed to bring back that concert, years ago when Geoffrey and I were together.”

Bertha was too familiar with the singular power that the most unlikely incidents possessed of recalling Nina’s happier hours to accord more than a passing acknowledgement towards this tender tribute to the past.

The companion-cum-housekeeper (Miss Blandflower) was also a delight to read, with her verbal tics done beautifully:

“Here I am, last but not least,” agitatedly murmured the late-comer, while her hostess cordially embraced her, and presented Rosamund and Frances.

Miss Blandflower belonged to that numerous and mistaken class of person which supposes the art of witty conversation to lie in the frequent quotation of well-known tags and the humorously-intended mispronunciation of the more ordinary words in the English language.

These examples show you the way Delafield has with a sardonic sentence, familiar to anybody who has read any of her novels, and I could read it for hours. But this novel gives us rather more of a different sort of novel – one which sneaks into so many of her early novels: it’s about a nunnery. Frances becomes very involved in the Catholic church (Bertha is not Catholic, but has a deep interest) and this takes over – Frances goes on a retreat, and eventually decides to live there, and many of the scenes are in this new cast of characters. It doesn’t follow the well-worn path of bashing the church, thankfully, but it’s a new set of people when we haven’t really got full potential out of the original set, and they were not as interesting to read about. It got a little slow, though there were definitely highlights in the dialogue of a booming woman who lived at the nunnery (though not a nun) and considered herself rather more at home than those around her might suggest.

The main issue with The Pelicans is probably structure. It covers so much of the girls’ lives that we never quite linger at any one stage long enough – and the periods Delafield picks seem a little disjointed and unexpected, as though she’d plunged into their timeline at random. It was only her third novel; she got much better at this.

So – her humour and the way she balanced comic sentences was already there. The melodrama that popped its head up throughout her career was a little unbridled. She hadn’t quite worked out how to manipulate characters into the forms that would work best for her. But it’s always fascinating to see the development of an author, and – if this is perhaps at the bottom of my list of EMD reads – it’s pretty impressive that it’s still really rather good. Hurrah for Delafield!

Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield

Messalina of the SuburbsRachel 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!

Tea or Books? #34: novels based on real life: yes or no?, and A Pin To See The Peepshow vs Messalina of the Suburbs

E M Delafield, F Tennyson Jesse, and novels about real people – that’s what’s on the menu for episode 34.

Tea or Books logoIt’s very nice to have Rachel back (hi Rachel!) and we’ve both been doing homework for this episode – reading these novels specially to discuss them. Which hopefully means we have some more details to hand than usual – but it can get confusing, so here is a handy guide to help you get through the slightly confusing interlinking of these two novels and real life. It’s the woman, the lover, and the husband in each case. (All will become clear when you listen.)

The people in real life: Edith / Frederick / Percy
A Pin To See The Peepshow: Julia / Leo / Herbert
Messalina of the Suburbs: Elsie / Leslie / Horace

Hope that helps! As always, let us know if you have any choices to make – and if you have any suggestions for future episodes. As long as it can be in an ‘X vs Y’ format, we’ll consider it! Our iTunes page is here, and you can rate/review through iTunes itself, should you so wish :)

Incidentally, I did some counting while editing this podcast episode, and it turns out this is the 23rd book I’ve read by E.M. Delafield!

The books and authors we mention in this episode…

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Daphne in Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit
The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Josephine Tey Mysteries by Nicola Upson
The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries by Gyles Brandreth
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
Virginia Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Travesties by Ed Stoppard
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Summer in February by Jonathan Smith
A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E M Delafield
The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield
The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse
The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor
The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

The Suburban Young Man – E.M. Delafield

Can we talk about how  pleasingly this bookmark goes?

I started reading The Suburban Young Man (1928) when Tanya was giving a paper on it at a conference we both attended – that link will take you to her great review of it, which includes interesting research into Delafield’s writing of the novel.  Well, I didn’t manage to finish it then, and it went back on the shelf for 18 months or so… and recently I picked it up and swiftly read through to the end.

It’s definitely not one of EMD’s best books, but it’s EMD – so it’s still definitely worth a read.

The main characters are aristocratic Antoinette and the eponymous young man – Peter – who is married to the saintly housewife Hope.  They begin an extramarital affair which is entirely a meeting of minds – Delafield, as with her better-known The Way Things Are, never takes things as far as the bedroom door, let alone further.

Much of the novel is taken up Antoinette and Peter telling each other how well they are suited, even though their backgrounds are so different.  One of the assumptions the novelist makes (and all the characters make) is that the suburbs – here represented by ‘Richford’ – are entirely beyond the pale, and culturally mired in the commonplace.  That view is essential to many interwar novels, but it falls rather flat for the modern reader.  Still flatter, for this modern reader, is all the earnest discussion of romance.  Delafield is at her weakest when she tries to be earnest – she is so, so much better at lifting the veil on self-delusion, or the comedy of everyday life, and not with paragraphs like this:

He was unable now to view himself as disloyal to his wife with any sense of conviction, and this not because technically he had remained faithful to her.  Merely he could not feel that he had taken from Hope anything that she had ever possessed, or would ever have wished to possess.  They had married one another neither by reason of passion nor from any strong sense of affinity, and the liking and admiration that he felt for many aspects of her personality had increased, rather than diminished, of late; nor did he think that she liked him less.
Hope is an absurdly tolerant character, who invites Antoinette to tea and has rational discussions about the possibility of her husband running off.  Their marriage is pretty emotionless, but she is almost violently rational, and it’s not terribly convincing.  More interesting (to me) are the scenes of Antoinette as a worker in an office, and discussions of what it was like for the newly-poor(ish) upper-classes to need employment.

Tanya wasn’t a fan of Norah (Peter’s sister-in-law) but I have to say that, along with Antoinette’s vague but surprisingly wise mother, Norah was my favourite character.  Mostly because it gave a chance for Delafield to show her claws, which I delight in.  Here’s a couple of examples.

Norah burst out laughing, as she invariably did at any opprobrious epithet, however applied.

Norah made a grimace that might have suggested a spoilt child in a prettier woman.
So, although I wasn’t hugely impressed when I put it back on the shelf in 2012, I rushed through the second half in 2014. Delafield’s writing is dependably engaging, and I certainly enjoyed reading The Suburban Young Man. But I’ve now read 23 books by Delafield, and this one is probably towards the lower end of the list, and I wouldn’t avidly encourage you to seek out the (extremely scarce) copies of this one.

Since Delafield came out of copyright recently, I’m hoping that more of her books will be reprinted – and not just endless copies of the (admittedly exceptionally good) Provincial Lady series.  But I shan’t shed too many tears if The Suburban Young Man is left to languish a bit longer.

Lots of Provincial Ladies

Be prepared for me to be pretty flexible in my Reading Presently project, folks.  I mostly won’t be including re-reads, but I will be more inclined to if I’m reading the gift for the first time – i.e. first time in that particular edition, but not first time overall.  And, in the first days of the new year, I re-read E.M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady for the umpteenth time, and loved it just as much as ever.  I’m amazed by how consistently wonderfully Delafield writes it, with almost every line making me smile or laugh.  Just flicking through a copy, here is an example, because I feel she should get to say something in this post:

Write letters.  Much interrupted by Helen Wills [the cat], wanting to be let out, kitten, wanting to be let in, and dear Robin, who climbs all over the furniture, apparently unconscious that he is doing so, and tells me at the same time, loudly and in full, the story of The Swiss Family Robinson.
As I say, I’ve read it many times – this is probably the eighth or ninth time in ten years – but this is the first time I’ve read the particular edition given to me by (drum roll, if you will)… Thomas at My Porch!  Yes, that adorable man knew that I had something of a collection of Provincial Lady editions, and sent me this beauty:

Isn’t it fab?  I was so grateful, especially since it’s an edition I’ve never seen on my bookshop travels in the UK.
Whilst we’re here, I thought you might fancy a little tour around my other editions, no?  If nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about your own book buying compulsions.  You’ll feel a model of restraint and good sense, by comparison.
This is the first ever edition that I bought, having read The Provincial Lady Goes Further from the local library (large print edition – the only E.M. Delafield book they held).  This is the edition I’ve read most often – in fact, it’s always on my bedside table – and the spine has fallen off.  It’s all four Provincial Lady books in one, with an introduction by Kate O’Brien.  It would have originally had a lovely dustjacket – like the one pictured in Christine’s post here – but mine came, instead, with a cup mark.
Over the years, I’ve bought up cheap editions of the various books in the series, when I’ve stumbled across them.  That accounts for this little pile – two copies of The Provincial Lady Goes Further, and one of The Diary of a Provincial Lady – which, interestingly, has a bunch of pages duplicated in the middle, and thus must be worth…. um, nothing.

One of the reasons I buy these, other than because they’re simply lovely, is for the fantastic Arthur Watt illustrations:

And then, of course, I have the Virago Modern Classics edition, with Nicola Beauman’s introduction.  I couldn’t not have that, could I?  But… I suppose I didn’t medically need to get this two separate editions of this omnibus, simply for the different covers… (second photo not mine, pinched from Christine’s site – because I forgot to take a photo of it, and it’s in Somerset.)
And, finally, when shopping in one of my favourite bookshops – Malvern Bookshop in Malvern, Worcestershire – I came across the Folio edition of the first book.  I don’t think the illustrator really interprets the book in the way I would, but Folio books are so beautifully produced that I couldn’t leave this one on the shelf now, could I?  No.  No, of course I could not.
Ok, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking… I don’t have the Cath Kidston edition which Virago published a year or two ago!  And you’re right, of course.  I imagine one day, when I find it cheaply, I’ll add it to my collection.  ‘Collection’ sounds better than hoard, doesn’t it?
Well, my name is Simon, and I am addicted to editions of the Provincial Lady.  Thomas is my enabler.  I’m well aware that I couldn’t stop any time I wanted to.  I’m not even trying to go clean.   Don’t LOOK at me, I’m SO ASHAMED.
(I’m not.  Not at all.)

Books I Borrowed…

There are a few books I’ve borrowed from friends and libraries which have now been returned, and so I’m going to give each one a paragraph or two, instead of a proper review.  Partly so I can include them on my Century of Books list, but partly because it’s fun to do things differently sometimes.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll get carried away, and write far too much… well, here are the four books, in date order.  Apologies for the accidental misquotation in the sketch today… I only noticed afterwards!

Canon in Residence – V.L. Whitechurch (1904)
This was surprisingly brilliant. Rev. John Smith on a continental holiday encounters a stranger who tells him that he’d see more of human life if he adopted layman’s clothes.  Smith thinks the advice somewhat silly, but has no choice – as, during the night, the stranger swaps their outfits.  Smith goes through the rest of his holiday in somewhat garish clothing, meeting one of those ebullient, witty girls with which Edwardian novels abound.  A letter arrives telling him that he has been made canon of a cathedral town – where this girl also lives (of course!)  He makes good his escape, and hopes she won’t recognise him…

Once in his position as canon, Smith’s new outlook on life leads to a somewhat socialist theology – improving housing for the poor, and other similar principles which are definitely Biblical, but not approved of by the gossiping, snobbish inhabitants of the Cathedral Close.  As a Christian and the son of a vicar, I found this novel fascinating (you can tell that Whitechurch was himself a vicar) but I don’t think one would need to have faith to love this.  It’s very funny as well as sensitive and thoughtful; John Smith is a very endearing hero.  It all felt very relevant for 2012.  And there’s even a bit of a criminal court case towards the end.

Three Marriages – E.M. Delafield (1939)
Delafield collects together three novellas, each telling the tale of a courtship and marriage, showing how things change across years: they are set in 1857, 1897, and 1937.  Each deals with people who fall in love too late, once they (or their loved one) has already got married to somebody else.  The surrounding issues are all pertinent to their respective periods.  In 1897, and ‘Girl-of-the-Period’, Violet Cumberledge believes herself to be a New Woman who is entirely above anything so sentimental as emotional attachments – and, of course, realises too late that she is wrnog.  In 1937 (‘We Meant To Be Happy’) Cathleen Christmas marries the first man who asks, because she fears becoming one of so many ‘surplus women’ – only later she falls in love with the doctor.  But the most interesting story is the first – ‘The Marriage of Rose Barlow’.  It’s rather brilliant, and completely unexpected from the pen of Delafield.  Rose Barlow is very young when she is betrothed to her much older cousin – the opening line of the novel is, to paraphrase without a copy to hand, ‘The night before her wedding, Rose Barlow put her dolls to bed as she always had done.’  Once married, they go off to India together.   If you know a lot more about the history of India than I do, then the date 1857 might have alerted you to the main event of the novella – the Sepoy Rebellion.  A fairly calm tale of unequal marriage becomes a very dramatic, even gory, narrative about trying to escape a massacre.  A million miles from what I’d expect from Delafield – but incredibly well written and compelling.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny – Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)
Miss Penny, a genteel spinster living with her cook/companion Ada, encounters Miss Plum in the act of (supposedly) attempting suicide in a duckpond.  Miss Penny ‘rescues’ Miss Plum and invites her into her home. (Pronouns are tricky; I assume you can work out what I mean.)  It looks rather as though Miss Plum might have her own devious motives for these actions… but I found the characters very inconsistent, and the plot rather scattergun.  There are three men circling these women, whose intentions and affections vary a fair bit; there are some terribly cringe-worthy, unrealistic scenes of a vicar trying to get closer to his teenage son. It was a fun read, and not badly written, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith doesn’t seem to have put much effort into organising narrative arcs or creating any sort of continuity.  But diverting enough, and certainly worth an uncritical read.

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate (1980)
Oh dear.  Like a lot of people, I suspect, I rushed out to borrow a copy of The Shooting Party after reading Rachel’s incredibly enthusiastic review.  Go and check it out for details of the premise and plot.  I shall just say that, sadly, I found it rather ho-hum… perhaps even a little boring.  The characters all seemed too similar to me, and I didn’t much care what happened.  Even though it’s a short novel, it dragged for me, and the climax was, erm, anti-climactic.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps my tolerance for historical novels (albeit looking back only sixty or seventy years) is too low.  Sorry, Rachel!

Zella Sees Herself – E.M. Delafield

This is one of those posts where I’m going to tell you about a book which is impossible to find… so, should this make you desperate to read it, head to your local academic library!  The book in question is Zella Sees Herself (1917) by E.M. Delafield, her first novel (written when she was my age, actually), kindly lent to me by EMD-enthusiast Marie.  Since it can’t be bought for love nor money, I’ll keep my post pretty brief…  Oh, and this is the first 1910s book I’ve read for A Century of Books.

Zella Sees Herself follows Zella de Kervoyou from childhood to early adulthood.  It is what would now be called a coming-of-age novel, yet she comes of age so gradually, and through such shifting stages of maturity, that the term probably doesn’t quite fit.  Her first cause for change comes in the first pages, as her mother dies and she is shipped off to live with relatives.  Indeed, she relocates a few times – my favourite of the various relatives she encounters is Aunt Marianne, one of those incredibly un-self-aware women who prefix tired truisms with “As I always say —” and imagines that everybody has said precisely what she wishes them to say, so she can disregard what they actually think.  (When I say favourite I do, of course, mean favourite to read – not favourite to love.)

We follow Zella through her time at a convent, where she eventually decides to become a nun – and her speedy renunciation of this desire upon leaving the convent.  There is a quick dalliance with society, and finally the need to decide whether or not to accept the first man who proposes to her, unsure of her own feelings.

I’ve whipped through the plot because it is all fairly standard stuff, both for the period and for Delafield herself.  Apparently it was partly autobiographical.  First novels are always fascinating to read, especially when the first was not the best.  Some authors (Edith Olivier, David Garnett) never live up to their first effort; others go on to much greater feats.  Delafield is in the latter camp, which makes it all the more interesting to spot areas in which she would later develop.  There are plenty of hallmarks of Delafield’s later novels – both in theme and style.  Covents crop up a lot in her work, as does the uncertain hunt for a husband.  Aunt Marianne even quotes the title to one of Delafield’s later novels:

Aunt Marianne vanished, but reappeared next moment at the door in order to add, in a slightly Scriptural tone which she would not have employed had she been aware that she was quoting no more sacred authority than the poet Shakespeare:

“Remember, Zella, that one is expressly told to go down upon one’s knees and thank Heaven fasting for a good man’s love.”
Ten points if you spotted it, and another ten if you can name the Shakespeare play from which it derives.

More importantly than these sorts of things, there are elements of Delafield’s style which are beginning to bud.  You can already see plenty of signs of her dryness, irony, and the pleasure she gets in sending up those who have no self-awareness.  As the title wryly suggests, Zella cannot, in fact, see herself.  It’s a theme which is repeated throughout Delafield’s work, used both comically and tragically.  In Zella Sees Herself there is both.  Aunt Marianne is one amongst many who is self-deluded.  Another is Alison St. Craye, a few years older than Zella and a would-be intellectual.  In her case, Delafield uses self-delusion for comedy.  Here’s an example I noted more or less at random:

The debate proved tedious.

A nervous-looking girl in black was voted into the chair, and made a preliminary speech which began and ended with a stammering sentence to the effect that everyone must agree, whatever their individual view of the matter, that the subject of Reincarnation was a very interesting one.

“Hear! hear!”

Alison’s speech was a lengthy one.  Her delivery was slow and over-emphatic; she spoke kindly of Christianity and its doctrines.

Most of the speakers had some personal example, that bore more or less upon the subject, to relate.  One or two adduced strange phenomena experienced by themselves, and a young married woman recounted at some length vivid recollections of ancient Carthage that obsessed her.

Alison shook her head slowly from side to side, with contemptuous disapproval, or nodded it slowly up and down with contemptuous approval.  Lady St. Craye looked interested, and gently clapped each speaker.

Zella thought that she could have made a far more striking and original speech than any of them, but knew herself well enough to be aware that, if she were suddenly called upon to speak, her self-confidence would leave her, and leave her helpless.
For Zella, a lack of self-awareness – and, still more, the pain of dawning self-awareness – is more tragic than comic.  Delafield herself was still young (twenty-six – as I said, my age) and had yet entirely to shake off the earnestness of the youthful author.  Perhaps she never entirely lost it, nor is there any real reason why she should, but I prefer her in poking-fun mode than in exclamatory mode.

For a first novel, this is exceptionally good.  I don’t believe E.M. Delafield was capable of writing a bad novel.  In comparison to later efforts, it clearly falls a bit short – but is incredibly interesting in terms of putting another piece in the jigsaw of EMD’s writing career, and I’m delighted that Marie gave me the chance to read it.

One other person got Stuck into this Book!

“Some of the characters verge on caricature; there is much more subtlely in Delafield’s later characterisation, which relies less on extreme contrast between characters” – Tanya, 20th Century Vox

To See Ourselves

Burns’ (anglicised) line ‘Oh would some Power the gift to give us / To see ourselves as others see us’ was one which Delafield played with on a couple occasions (the brilliant collection of sketches As Others Hear Us, and the play To See Ourselves which later proved inspiration for VMC The Way Things Are). More broadly, I think it can be seen as the cornerstone of her writing – whether witty or sad or biting (and Delafield excels at all of these, in different works) her primary technique is demonstrating people’s lack of self-awareness.

Danielle and I have both been reading Gay Life (1933) and both our reviews will appear today – if I’ve understood time differences properly, then Danielle’s will come along later. It is another example of characters who have built up false images of themselves – but rather than having a single focus, Gay Life is filled with a cast of many. We see through nearly all of their eyes at different points, and thus Delafield builds up many perspectives on the same few days and group of people. They’re all on a long holiday in the South of France, staying at a hotel, mostly having stayed to the point where they know each other reasonably well and have separated wheat from chaff – usually getting stuck with the chaff. Delafield’s title, of course, uses ‘gay’ in its original sense – but also ironically. Despite the supposedly delights of the resort, few of the characters are enjoying themselves; even fewer have happy or uncomplicated relationships with those around them.

There are so many people – I ought to start introducing them. Hilary and Angie Moon are recently, and dejectedly, married (‘The little that they had ever had to say to one another had been said in the course of an electrically-charged fortnight, two years earlier, when they had fallen desperately in love.’) She’s already on the look-out for a new beau, but isn’t likely to find it in grumpy Mr. Bolham, still less his hapless secretary Denis. Angie’s not the only woman willing to welcome love – Coral Romayne is besotted with Buckland, the beefy holiday tutor hired ostensibly to teach her neglected son Patrick. There are a few more, but I don’t want to dizzy you.

EMD is mistress of the brief description which utterly reveals a character and their flaws. This, for instance, is Denis: ‘Morally – in the common acceptance of the term – he had remained impeccable, for he was both undersexed and inclined to a physical fastidiousness that he mistook for spirituality.’ And Dulcie, one of the most amusing characters in the novel, who is the daughter of a hotel entertainer, and thus treading an awkward line between guest and servant: ‘Dulcie continued to prattle. It was evidently her idea of good manners, to permit no interval of silence.’

One character I haven’t mentioned, who is awfully significant, is the novelist Chrissie Challoner. She is staying in a house near the cottage, and one of the central threads of this multi-faceted novel is her encounter with Denis. He’s had a rather pathetic life, but she immediately sees through his facade of worldliness – and rather falls in love with his true self. Which leads to all manner of moonlight proclamations and furtive assignations. Being honest, I was a bit worried at this point. A lot of interwar novelists try their hand at romance and flail a bit madly. It’s all much more comfortable for the reader when they’re being arch and detached – and there is nothing detached about Chrissie’s pondering on his inner being, declaring she has never felt this before, etc. etc. I daresay such things are enjoyable to the people experiencing them, but not really to the reader…

But, of course, I ought to have trusted Delafield not to err. After a few pages where it seems Denis may have finally met a woman who will understand and appreciate him… but no, I shan’t spoil the plot for you.

Besides, Delafield is never too earnest. The humour of The Provincial Lady is toned down, but makes it appearances, especially when Dulcie is on the scene.
“Mr. Bolham, is your bedroom door locked?”

“Why should my bedroom door be locked?” said Mr. Bolham. “I’ve nothing to hide.”

Dulcie gave a thin shriek of nervous laughter.

“You are funny, Mr. Bolham. I shall die. I suppose it did sound funny, me putting it like that. What I meant was, really, could I possibly pop in there, just for one second, to get something – well, it’s a bathing-cloak really – that’s fallen on to your balcony.”


Dulcie giggled uncertainly.

“It’s not my fault, Mr. Bolham,” she said at last, putting her head on one side.

“I know. It’s the Duvals.”

“It just dropped off their window-ledge, you know.”

“Did madame Duval send you to get it?”

Dulcie nodded.

“I expect she thought you might be a tiny bit cross, as it’s happened so often,” she suggested.

Mr. Bolham felt her eyeing him anxiously, to see if this would get a laugh. He maintained, without any difficulty, a brassy irresponsiveness, and Dulcie immediately changed her methods.

“I like to do anything I’m asked, always – my Pops says that’s one of the ways a little girl makes nice friends,” she observed in a sudden falsetto. “And Marcelle – she lets me call her Marcelle, you know – she’s always terribly sweet to me. So naturally, I like to run about and do errands for her, Mr. Bolham.”

“Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed doing this one,” said Mr. Bolham sceptically. “I’ll send the towel, or whatever it is, up by the chambermaid.”
Although there are some central players in Gay Life, the cast is so wide that things don’t get dull or stilted. Delafield takes it in turns to focalise goings-on through the eyes of each character, so that we are still learning back-story well on into the last quarter of the novel – so it feels more like meeting every guest at a hotel than it does like a linear novel. Presumably that is the effect EMD wanted – and it certainly works. Plot isn’t entirely unimportant, though – and a Big Event rears its head towards the end.

Danielle asked me, in an email, what else I’d read by Delafield. I did a quick count on the back of a piece of scrap paper, and realised that I’ve read 19 books by EMD – mostly in pre-blog days, and a fair few in pre-uni days, when I could afford to indulge in one author for a month or two. (Favourites include: As Others Hear Us, Mrs. Harter, The War Workers, Faster! Faster!, Consequences…) Of that 19, I have read no duds. Gay Life isn’t the best of those reads – in fact, it probably lags somewhere towards the end – and yet it is really very good indeed. EMD deservedly has most of her fame from the Provincial Lady books, which are sublime and which I can well imagine reading every year for the rest of my life – but her other works shouldn’t be neglected. She seems incapable of writing a bad novel, and if most play towards sombreness and melancholy, she can never quite avoid the comic touch.

Gay Life is incredibly scarce, but you might be able to find it in a library. But you can’t go wrong with a Delafield – and I encourage you to look beyond the Provincial Lady books (and, of course, to read those IMMEDIATELY if you have yet to do so). It is wonderful that she is remembered at all, but she leaves a legacy of works which have been sadly neglected – have a hunt in your library archives and see what you can find! Go on, have a search now – and let me know what’s available in your area.

I’m looking forward to hearing Danielle’s response to this novel, and will put in a link here once her review appears. EDIT: here it is!

To Hear Ourselves…

I’m off to the cinema tonight to see The Time Travel[l]er’s Wife, the novel by Audrey Niffenegger which I wrote about in a scattergun fashion last October. Since I’m otherwise engaged, I’ll save an in-depth book review for another night, and instead introduce you to one of my favourite books, EM Delafield’s As Others Hear Us.

A common experience for those who’ve loved The Diary of a Provincial Lady but have exhausted the four wonderful volumes of that series, is to read some of her works, and realise how different they are from Provincial Lady land. Consequences (published by Persephone Books), The Way Things Are and Thank Heaven Fasting (Virago Modern Classics) and the most easily available. All great books; none remotely like the Provincial Lady. Her witty, light, self-deprecating take on life is shifted for social issues, real torment, and a rather sombre tone. In my experience of EM Delafield’s works (and I’ve read, ooo let me see, eighteen of her books) only two have the same light, amusing feel of DoPL: and As Others Hear Us and General Impressions. I’m struggling to engage with a few books, as I mentioned, so I turned to the old reliable: As Others Hear Us.

The title plays on the old saw, from a Burns poem, ‘O would some power the giftie gie us / To see ourselves as others see us.’ It was a quotation of which EMD was fond, since she also named a play To See Ourselves (the play from which her novel The Way Things Are was more or less adapted.) EMD transfers this ‘see’ into ‘hear’, and thus plays with dialogue. There are four sections to this book, involving longer-running characters etc., but the bulk of it are these little scenes. They are entirely dialogue, little excerpts from people’s lives. They show what a brilliant way EMD has at exposing the nuances of people’s characters and relationships, all through their own words. Difficult to describe, so I’ve included a couple in their entirety, which I typed up years ago for a wonderful EMD site. I think you’ll either read them and be baffled at why I find them hilarious – or, like me, you’ll be desperate to read more.

Before I share them, I must be honest and say… As Others Hear Us is ruinously expensive. I didn’t pay much for it five years ago, but a quick check on the usual secondhand book sites suggests that you’ll be lucky to find an affordable copy – this is more a title to track down in your library or their inter-library loan facility. On the plus side, General Impressions is fairly affordable, and is a similar thing. The scenes in that one aren’t entirely dialogue, if I recall, but they are still incredibly funny. Do go and find either book. I’d love to see them reprinted, but I suppose this sketch-orientated kind of book isn’t very fashionable anymore… who knows, maybe the tide will turn. Here goes – ‘The Reconciliation’, and ‘At the Writing-Table’.

The Reconciliation

‘I came around because I really think the whole thing is too absurd.’ ‘So do I. I always did.’ ‘You can’t have half as much as I did. I mean really, when one comes to think of it. After all these years.’ ‘Oh, I know. And I dare say if you hadn’t, I should have myself. I’m sure the last thing I want is to go on like this. Because really, it’s too absurd.’ ‘That’s what I think. It is all right, then?’ ‘Absolutely, as far as I’m concerned. What I mean is, I never have believed in keeping things up. I’m not that kind of person.’ ‘Neither am I, for that matter.’ ‘Oh no, dear, I know. But I must say, you took the whole thing up exactly in the way I didn’t mean it, in a way. Not that it matters now.’ ‘Well, it’s all over now, but, to be absolutely honest, I must say I can’t quite see how anybody could possibly have taken it any other way. Not really, I mean.’ ‘Well, you said that I said every one said you were spoiling the child, and of course, what I really said wasn’t that at all.’ ‘Well, dear, you say that now, I know, but what you said at the time was exactly what I said you said. Or so it seemed to me.’ ‘Well, there’s not much object in going over the whole thing all over again now it’s over, is there? But if you’d come straight to me at the time, I must say I think it would all have been simpler. It doesn’t matter, of course, now it’s all over and done with, but I just think it would have been simpler, that’s all.’ ‘Still, dear, it’s perfectly simple as it is, isn’t it? If you think I spoil the child, you’re quite entitled to your own opinion, naturally. All I said was, that it seemed a pity to tell everybody that everybody thought so, when really it was just simply what you thought. And I must say, I can’t help being rather amused, but we all know that lookers-on see most of the game – it just amuses me, that’s all.’ ‘Very well, dear, if you choose to be offended you must be offended, that’s all. As I said at the time, and still say, no one is fonder of children than I am, but to let any child go to rack and ruin for want of one single word seems to me a pity, that’s all. Just a pity.’ ‘Have it your own way, dear. I shouldn’t dream of contradicting you. Actually, it was only the other day that someone was saying how extraordinarily well brought up the child seemed to be, but I dare say that’s got nothing to do with it whatever.’ ‘Well, all I’ve got to say is that it’s a pity.’ ‘And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s ready to take offense. I never have been, and I never shall be.’ ‘Besides, while we’re on the subject, I don’t understand about the blue wool, and never shall understand.’ ‘We’ve gone over the whole of the blue wool at least twenty times already.’ ‘I dare say, and I’m not saying anything at all. In fact, I’d rather not.’ ‘And if it comes to that, I may not have said very much about it – it’s not my way – but it would be an absolute lie if I said that I didn’t remember all that fuss about the library books.’ ‘I said at the time, and I still say, that the library books were a storm in a tea-cup.’ ‘Very well, dear. Nobody wants to quarrel less than I do.’ ‘As I always say, it takes two to make a quarrel. Besides, it’s so absurd.’ ‘That’s what I say. Why be so absurd as to quarrel, is what I say. Let bygones be bygones. The library books are over now, and that’s all about it.’ ‘It’s like the blue wool. When a thing is over, let it be over, is what I always say. I don’t want to say anything more about anything at all. The only thing I must say is that when you say I said that everybody said that about your spoiling that child, it simply isn’t what I said. That’s all. And I don’t want to say another word about it.’ ‘Well, certainly I don’t. There’s only one thing I simply can’t help saying . . .’
At the Writing-Table’Are you any good at whether a thing is EI or IE?’ ‘Not much, but I might.’ ‘Well, is it receive or recieve? I’ve written them both a hundred and forty-eight times on the blotting-paper, and they look completely wrong which ever I do.’ ‘”I after E except after C.”‘ ‘That’s muddled me worse than ever. Besides, I think you’ve got it wrong.’ ‘I dare say. Look here, the only thing to do is to leave it and not look at it and then go back with a fresh eye and you get it at once. I often do that.’ ‘Very well then, this is what I’ve said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive – or recieve – your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday. As a matter of fact I was perfectly furious.’ ‘Oh, I wouldn’t put that, would you? Of course it’s quite true but isn’t it kind of undignified? Or isn’t it?’ ‘Oh, I haven’t said that. I was only saying it.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ ‘Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised – or isn’t that strong enough?’ ‘Personally, I should put Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I was completely astonished and underline astonished. Because after all you were.’ ‘Oh, I was foaming, of course. I still am, if it comes to that.’ ‘Who wouldn’t be? And the trouble we took over those accounts!’ ‘That reminds me. What do you make six sevens come to?’ ‘Well – wait a minute. Give me a pencil and paper. I can do it if I add them.’ ‘How frightfully clever you are. I should never have thought of that.’ Seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven.’ ‘Isn’t that one too many?’
‘I thought it was. Very well, seven and seven, and seven and seven, and seven and seven. That’s forty-two.’ ‘Good, how marvellous. I’m afraid it’s pence.’ ‘Like Alice through the Looking-Glass.’ ‘Why did she have pence? I don’t remember any.’ ‘I mean one and one and one and one and one and one and one.’ ‘Oh, the Red Queen. Yes.’ ‘I always love the kitchen picture.’ ‘I know. So do I. Well, Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was a good deal surprised, how would that do?’ ‘Isn’t that the same as before?’ ‘I said Rather before.’ ‘So you did. Personally I should put Absolutely staggered.’ ‘I easily might. What was I asking you about these sevens?’ ‘You said they were pence.’ ‘So they are, I’m afraid. How many did you say they made?’ ‘Forty-two or something.’ ‘Thirty-six would be three shillings, and six over. How very neat. Three and sixpence exactly. Isn’t it?’ ‘Wait a minute. I’ve lost the pencil. I make it three and sixpence, definitely.’ ‘I should think it’s bound to be right, if we both make it come to the same, shouldn’t you?’ ‘I should think so. Why don’t you get one of those marvellous little books that tell you how much everything comes to? People use them for wages.’ ‘I always mean to. I’ll make a note of it on the blotting-paper. There’s receive and recieve again, and they both look exactly the same as they did before. No fresh eye or anything.’ ‘How awful. I don’t suppose Mrs. Cartwright would know the difference, actually. She didn’t seem to me in the least intelligent.’ ‘Oh, she isn’t. But she just might, one never knows. I wouldn’t mind spelling it wrong, if she hadn’t behaved so badly about the sweet- stall.’ ‘I know exactly. I’ve got a frightfully good idea: what exactly have you said.’ ‘I’ve said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive – recieve – your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday.’ ‘Very well, just put instead: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to get your letter about the sweet-stall, and so on.’ ‘That’s marvellous! I must just re-write it, but I think it’s worth it, don’t you?’ ‘Absolutely. I do loathe writing letters.’ ‘So do I. I always think it takes such ages when one ought to be doing other things. Now, can you listen a minute? This is what I’ve put: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say …’

Russian Here, Russian There

I love the Alice illustrations so much that I’m a bit reluctant to move on from them… but I suppose they’re still there for me and anyone else to look at. And if my copy of the Alice books weren’t in Somerset, I’d have definitely re-read it by now… as it is, I have instead finished a book I’ve been dipping in and out of for quite a while now. One of those books to read at bedtime – it’s EM Delafield’s Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia.

The astute among you will notice that this isn’t the title in the little picture accompanying this post… blame latterday publishers. Straw Without Bricks is an account of EM Delafield’s experience after her American publishers asked her to visit Russia and ‘write a funny book about it’. She does so as herself and, though her voice is often quite similar to that of the Provincial Lady’s in other books, there is no suggestion that this is one of the Provincial Lady series… in fact, it’s not even written as a diary. The Provincial Lady tag was just added in reprints to sell more copies. Tsk.

Violet Powell’s so-so biography of EMD makes little mention of this book, except to say that it wasn’t very successful, and generally judged to have been a bad idea (and EMD may have shared this opinion). I imagine that was largely because at the time of publication, 1937, the world wasn’t quite ready for an honest appraisal of life as a tourist in Soviet Russia. For readers of 2009, it is a fascinating book – EMD does write in quite a light style, but this is certainly not the ‘funny book’ that her publisher was hoping for. Delafield’s own political leanings were to the left, though not as far as Communism, and she treats the country and its inhabitants seriously. Much of this is with a subdued horror – at the indoctrination, the lack of freedom, the systematic removal of beauty and individualism – but she never makes Communism’s adherents appear ridiculous. The humour is often directed towards her fellow tourists, or such quintessentially British anxieties as having to wait around for something to happen, or wondering how to pass someone one is keen not to engage in trivial conversation.

Her accounts of visiting factories, maternity wards, farms are all deeply interesting – a very true version (one assumes) of a little-accessed situation, without being dry or documentary-style. In the end, it is the absence of a moderate reaction to Soviet Russia which frustrates and baffles EMD:

‘My fellow travellers all have opinions of their own which they regard, rightly or wrongly, as being of more value than mine. Most of them are pessimistic, and declare that they don’t ever want to come back again, and that the Crimea was lovely but the plugs in the hotels wouldn’t pull, and Moscow was interesting but very depressing.

Some, on the other hand – like Mrs. Pansy Baker – are wholly enthusiastic. (There is no juste milieu where the Soviet is concerned.) How splendid it all is, they cry, and how fine to see everybody busy, happy and cared-for. As for the institutions – the creches, the schools, the public parks and the prisons – all, without any qualification whatsoever, are perfect. Russia has nothing left to learn.’

As I said, Straw Without Bricks isn’t written in a diary format – in fact, the format confuses me a little. I don’t know the publication history (perhaps, like the PL books, this appeared in Time and Tide?), but most the book seems to be organised in separate but linked articles – sketches or anecdotes centred around certain events or people which vaguely follow on from each other, but could be read individually. The first eighty pages, though, are all about a Soviet Commune EMD lived in – a section followed, anachronistically, by an essay about sailing out to Russia. Odd. But easy enough to cope with, so long as temporal logic isn’t sought to join these sections!

This book isn’t as good as the Provincial Lady books proper, or rather it’s different. Those are some of the warmest, funniest, truest books I’ve ever read, and I will read and re-read them for the rest of my life – Straw Without Bricks performs a wholly different task, and is in its own right an important, touching, sensible and informative book with many sparks of humour which is recognisably EMD. Occasionally I found myself wishing she’d simply written the ‘funny book’ her publisher asked for; in the end I realised how much more sensitively she’d approached the task, and the result is much more appropriate, even if somewhat less immortal.