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.

10 thoughts on “The Suburban Young Man – E.M. Delafield

  • January 27, 2014 at 9:37 am
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    I would say that that is a completist's book only, then. Mind you, I'll be seeking it out if I need 1928 … (I'm already stressing about 1914 at the moment)

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:20 pm
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      I think that's a fair summary, Liz, although I really don't think EMD could write a bad book. It's much better than most other authors' best books.

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  • January 27, 2014 at 11:49 am
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    Sounds like it's to be read simply for the language – certainly the plot doesn't sound that rivetting…. But some books and authors we *do* read simply because we love the way they write!

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:20 pm
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      Her writing never lets her down! Although it does get a little hackneyed when she tries to do romance.

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  • January 28, 2014 at 12:20 am
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    Like a serge jacket and a cunningly rustic exquisite tie. Would make a very handsome ensemble! Would you wear it?
    – Diana Birchall

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:21 pm
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      Ha! Interesting… I don't wear ties if I can help it, so probably not.

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  • January 29, 2014 at 10:20 am
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    Have you read Delafied's Heel of Achilles? I found that interesting for the depiction of working life, but the characters were tedious and eventually I gave up.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:22 pm
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      I can never remember if I've read Tension of Heel of Achilles, but whichever of those it was, I remember nothing whatsoever…

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  • February 1, 2014 at 8:52 pm
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    Does the modern reader not disdain the suburbs as an intellectual wasteland? This one still does – though, to be fair, I feel rather bad about my snobbishness and about the prejudices I carry from both my inter-war-focused reading and my city upbringing. Still, experience hasn't given me a reason to reconsider.

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    • February 1, 2014 at 9:23 pm
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      I hadn't realised that opinion still existed, so thank you for bringing it to my attention, Claire! I'm so anti-city that I always feel an admiration for any fictional character who lives outside one… but I do reserve my greatest admiration for countryside-dwellers above suburbanites.

      Reply

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