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?”
“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!