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.
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