Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thank Heaven Fasting.

Thank Heaven Fasting. E.M. Delafield

When I started to explore the classics I found I was mostly reading men, during my school career we mostly studied the writing of men. As a student (History of Art not English) with feminist principles I used to become incensed by a lot of things, one of which was the suggestion that women don’t produce great art, and they did appear to be missing from the canon barring the usual suspects of Bronte’s, Austin, Woolfe and Elliot. This was the start of my quest to read more women writers which lead to my discovery of Virago books and changed my reading habits forever. I love what Virago did, what they stood for, and still have a lot of respect for what they do now, although I mourn a little for the books they bought back, only for them to disappear again. One of the many excellent things about Persephone books is that when they bring a book back they really bring it back, so long may they prosper and expand because I find these books say far more about my experience as a woman then much of the contemporary media that comes my way.

‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ ends with the heroine, Monica, sending up prayers of thanks ardent and humble during her wedding because finally “There was no further need to be afraid, or ashamed, or anxious anymore.” A husband means a recognised position, respectability and an occupation. Monica but for one small lapse is a good Edwardian daughter of the aristocracy, not inclined to question, more than willing to conform. A moment’s indiscretion brings disaster down on her – years in the social wilderness of spinsterhood follow, as do the silent reproaches of her parents.
Without education, without much imagination, and no need to make a living, what purpose is there for such as Monica? The answer seems to be none. A more rebellious spirit would find a cause – more rebellious spirits did find causes, but Monica neither rebellious nor spirited simply wants a respectable husband and who can blame her?

The men she meets and sees as social equals, the men who may be ‘possible’ husbands are dullards or cads, here for me far more then in ‘The Way Things Are’ is contempt for the male sex. Why should such creatures as these have the power to make or break a woman? The answer of course is that they shouldn’t. The prince charming who eventually rescues Monica is also dull, and old, and physically unappealing, but he has rescued her, and she is grateful, and what’s more he does it with a certain grace. I imagine that he knows what his proposal will mean to her, but he’s generous in this victory of age over youth, indeed he has always been kind. I’m sure that Delafield truly means this as a happy ending; Monica gets what she deserves, no more, no less. We can rejoice with her because in the end she is ‘safe for ever’, and after the years of self doubt and approaching despair that is far more valuable then romance.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Way Things Are. E. M. Delafield

As a long time fan of ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ I’ve meant to read more Delafield for a long time, and finally got round to getting my hands on ‘Consequences’ – the wonderfully chic Persephone edition, and for me even more exciting given that they are out of print again, the Virago editions of ‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ and ‘The Way Things Are’. ‘Consequences’ sounds frankly depressing so I’m holding back on that until I’m in the right frame of mind, and there will be more about ‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ later. In the meantime on to ‘The Way Things Are’.

For once I was interested in reading the Introduction seeing it was from Nicola ‘Persephone’ Beauman, but I’m glad I left it until I had finished given I disagreed violently with most of her conclusions. Again, more of that later. ‘The Way Things Are’ is the story of Laura Temple, 34 year old wife, mother of two young sons, part time writer, and member of the local gentry. She is not quiet yet the provincial lady, but she’s close. Her world is made up of her children, how to pay the bills, the impossibility of servants, and everything else that goes into keeping Up Appearances. Into this not very appealing mix walks Marmaduke Ayland and Laura finds she has a lover.

I wanted to love this book, and in part I did, the sub plot, especially the parts dealing with the insufferable BéBée Kingsley-Browne, and her fond mother are a total delight. I also wanted to like Laura, but found I couldn’t. The crux of the matter is her relationship with her sons. She adores the younger, Johnnie, a monster of spoiled precocity, and we are told again and again that it is because she sees her own personality in him, but “good little Edward”, oh dear poor little Edward, “outside the night – nursery door, she remembered remorsefully that she had forgotten to look at Edward, just as she always did forget to look at Edward when Johnnie was there.” This along with her belief that no woman has ever felt as she has, her habit of analysis, her snobbishness, and her vacillations over her rather sterile love affair make her hard to warm to.

Laura’s love affair is on the whole a harmless and understandable thing. It gives her sleepless nights, but beset as she is by neighbours determined on claiming her as middle aged and unremarkable, constantly placed in the role of mother to her not much younger sister, and married passed any pretence of romance she deserves the reminder that she is still desirable. Beauman’s introduction suggests that this is a novel to be appreciated mostly by middle class married women with children, and perhaps that group would look differently on Laura’s attitude to both her husband and sons, but any woman who has reached her mid 30’s will appreciate the limbo that exists between youth and middle age, the slow acceptance and frustration of the way things are...

Beauman also argues that in the husband Alfred, Delafield is showing a contempt for men that verges on hatred. I cannot find this in my reading. He may be dull, but I do not see the cruelty in his actions that Nicola does. Laura after all marries him at a time that she is “rather anxious to be married” she, like her sister will later on, makes a deal based not so much on romantic love as the offer of security a husband represents. The Temples are very much a couple, even if not in full sympathy with one another; they are still affectionate, still aligned together. It is not Alfred’s fault if his wife is dissatisfied - caveat emptor.

Still Delafield is Delafield and who else would write...
“Have you ever thought what you’ll talk about in the evenings after dinner, when you have been married for some time, and there isn’t anything new to say any more?” Laura solemnly enquired.
“I haven’t written out a list of subjects suitable for keeping a husband entertained, if that’s what you mean, but I have made up my mind that on evenings when we’re by ourselves, if I can’t be amusing, or amorous or interesting- then I shall go to bed with a headache, and advise Jeremy to go to his club,” said Christine.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nightingale Wood - Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is one of those books everybody knows (everybody who likes a nice inter war classic with a good dollop of humour that is) I first read it maybe 15years ago, and back then wasn’t the sort to read introductions – I liked, still like, to come to a book without someone else’s opinion, and introductions struck my youthful self as inauthentic, I wanted the ‘Classic’ experience unadulterated. Anyway enough of that, for years I was under the impression that Gibbons had only written the one book. My first inkling that this may not be so came with a collection of Virago Ghost stories which included a Gibbons short. Honestly I found it disappointing. The discovery that Virago where reprinting Nightingale Wood lead to some very elementary research and I now Know there are over 20 novels as well as collections of poetry and short stories.

Nightingale Wood is a charming Cinderella story where even the ugly sisters get a happy ending. Filled with observation of both human nature, and the Essex countryside it makes the perfect easy reading. I can’t imagine a more appealing description of the glories of an English spring, and whilst the commentary on the foibles of her characters may be wickedly accurate, even laugh out loud funny, they are never cruel. There is the hint of something nasty in the woodshed, not everybody’s happy ending is conventionally happy, but all in all it’s a happy romp that bounces along and I was sorry to finish.

With all the glories of Nightingale Wood fresh in my mind and happy recollections of Cold Comfort Farm somewhere in the golden past I set out on a hunt for more Stella novels confident of success on every level. Not to be. Prices on Amazon where prohibitive, the combination of high prices and glowing revues was encouraging however so I felt sure I was well on my way to finding literary truffles. Next step the local library, where they could only offer me Cold Comfort. Persistence paid off and I acquired a copy of ‘White Sand And Grey Sand’ second hand, and ‘The Woods In Winter’ on loan. I totally failed with both. I haven’t been able to read enough Gibbons to say the quality of her work is uneven, it’s just not available, and this is a shame. Her output was prolific enough to guarantee a few duds, and I suspect that whilst her earlier output is old enough to have a period charm if nothing else, some of the later works are perhaps stuck in the limbo we describe as ‘dated’. That was certainly my feeling about ‘The Woods In Winter’.
It still seems such a shame that the majority of Gibbons output is so hard to come by, either as a humorist, or as an observer of the natural world I am convinced she still has a lot to offer. I hope that the good people at Virago find more of a suitable quality, and reprint as they are for Barbara Pym.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I was wrong, the excellent Dodo Press has recently reprinted The Third Miss Symons, so happy days, it is now easily available

The Third Miss Symons - F.M. Mayor

In which Etta Symons whiles away her life - in essence a novel about the Surplus Woman but on a deeply personal level. Sadly Mayor only wrote three novels, reissued by Virago over the last few years, but now sadly all out of print again (though easy and cheap to come by second hand).
The Third Miss Symons is the first of these three, and though not her masterpiece, and really only a novella in length, it’s a powerfully moving book. Henrietta Symons is the third, a middle daughter, in a large Victorian family, the good fairies do not visit her cradle; she is gifted with neither beauty, charm, grace, nor good temper. Her arrival in the family has no novelty, and from these inauspicious beginnings she fails to make anything of her life.

She has no higher ambition or calling then to love and be loved, but the chances eludes her. Her more successful sisters grow up, marry, and move on with their lives. When her mother dies she tries to take her place as the angel in the house, but it is not to be - she hasn’t the trick of creating domestic harmony, her father re-marries and she is cast out, though well provided for, into the world. This for me is the crux of the novel. What is a woman to do when she doesn’t have to make a living, nobody wants her, and she has no vocation? In Etta’s case the answer is nothing. She takes herself off into exile, wandering between hotels, ticking off the correct sights to see, playing endless games of patience to pass the time.

Underlying everything else is the assumption that if a man cannot see the value in a woman sufficient to want to marry her, then society sees no value either and she is a failure. It would be wonderful to say that this attitude was left in Etta’s late Victorian world, but sadly it was not. Mayor’s work keeps its power precisely because so little has changed. A woman with a partner, any partner, is more successful than one without. It’s possible to empathise with unlovable Etta because she realises her faults, she can’t or won’t change them, but her self awareness offers the reader both a way in, and a mirror to hold to their own personality. I think we see that had Etta ever been loved by anyone in any capacity her life would have been transformed into something with meaning. She never blames any of those who owed her more for failing her, and thus becomes a sort of heroine. Please find and read this book Mayor’s work has too much food for thought to be allowed to slip back into obscurity.