Consequences – E.M. Delafield
Persephone Books, 2000 (originally published 1919)
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Probably best known for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, in Consequences E.M. Delafield tells the story of Alex Clare, a young lady obviously of social standing. When we meet her first, she is 12 and it is 1889. The book then follows her progress to maturity: her life in a Belgian convent where she is sent to be schooled and as a sort of punishment by her parents, her entrance on the marriage market, her refusal of the one offer of marriage she receives, her subsequent entrance into the convent she was schooled at as a girl, and the annulment of her vows years later.
Alex Clare is an awkward heroine, who never really finds her place in the world. She is misunderstood by her parents, her family and the wider social circle in which she moves. As a girl, she likes to take charge when with her sisters and brothers, but she loses all personality in the face of other social relations, sacrificing all in the hope that someone will love her. She is desperate for love, really. And yet, time and time again, things go awry. Some might argue that this happens at least in part because of her need to be loved and her willingness to set aside her own wants and personality to feel adored. But I never felt Delafield meant to convey judgement of Alex’s wishes. Instead, she expresses deep sympathy for Alex and how misunderstood she is. And by doing so, she criticizes Victorian values. She allows the reader to ask questions about the expected social standards: How is Alex to understand the responsibility of money when she has always been treated as a child and a possession, then lives in a convent where money is communal, only to be thrown back into a world where all her money has gone to her sisters? Etc.
Consequences is easily the book that made the most emotional impact on me this year. Never before did it hit home so hard how utterly dependent girls were back then. Expected to marry within a year or three after entering ‘the market’, they should be willing to settle for the best offer even if no sympathy existed on second glance. I cried silently in bed while reading about Alex’s doubts about her engagement, I commanded her for the strength she shows in breaking it off, and then I cried again when I read about her family’s reactions and the further social isolation and awkwardness this led to.
But what made me sympathize with Alex so very deeply, is that I understand her awkwardness, her self-consciousness, her desperate need to please and her subsequent silent shyness when she feels uncomfortable or unliked. It was me in my teenage years, it is part of me now. I understand some people find this annoying: how can she be so passive? how can she “let these things happen to her”? But I have made a million notes because I recognised so much of myself in her that it scared me a little. I imagine some readers may dislike Alex for her lack of self-assertion. At times, I even felt some slight annoyance myself, especially when I tried to read with the eyes of others. But personally? It hit home too much to be annoyed – I could only be touched. And I loved the sympathetic portrayal of Delafield all the more because of that recognition, perhaps.
I cannot write about this book without bringing my personal experience into the equation. Exactly because this book was so very personal to me. It will always be part of why I loved this book so much. Nevertheless, I think it is a worthwhile read for anyone who finds themselves attracted to the Persephone Books. The fact that E.M. Delafield managed to achieve such an emotional read, to convey sympathy without spelling it out, to criticise without literally screaming, but nonetheless screaming in the face of Victorian values in a subdued, figurative sense, makes me want to tell so many of you to read it.
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