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.

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