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 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!