Consequences by E.M. Delafield

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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22 responses to “Consequences by E.M. Delafield

  1. Excellent post, Iris. We talked about this before, so you know I can relate to a lot of what you said here.

  2. It’s impossible not to feel empathy for Alex, who tries so hard to do what is expected of her by her family & society, and anger too, at a society that placed such expectations on young women. The bit where Alex was at a dinner party talking books with an older man & got told off by her mother in case she developed a reputation for being clever made me feel sad & angry. There was so much more to Alex, if only she had been given the opportunity to express it. It’s an excellent book and it obviously touched you very deeply. This is a lovely, heartfelt, post Iris.

  3. This sounds so good! I’ve only read Provincial Lady but I loved it. I’ll be on the lookout for this book, for sure.

  4. This sounds like an excellent read, and I feel like I could probably relate to the main character as well. The fact that the book touched you so deeply, and that you found yourself in the pages is very interesting, and your reaction to the plight of the main character shows that you not only understand what she was going through, but you can empathize as well. This was a lovely review, and now I am hoping to read this book. I have been looking for that one special Persephone that I can send away for and read with abandon, and this might just be it.

  5. This sounds so different from Provincial Lady, and more akin to House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, which made a big impact on me. I’m going to add Consequences to my TBR list.

  6. WHat a beautifully written post Iris

  7. I am pretty sure I own this one–how sad that I don’t know for certain! I do hope to read it.

  8. Oh, I think your experience of this book was very similar to mine with Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Though I don’t think I related so closely the heroine of that novel, I felt like I could see myself in her position and understand how lonely she was, and that made my experience of the book so different than my experience of many others.

    I have this as an e-book, and I started reading it this summer but didn’t get far at all. I’ll try harder next time. Thanks for such a personal and thoughtful review.

  9. You had me at “Belgian convent”. I recently read Diary and really liked it, especially the self-deprecating humor that the Brits are so good at.

  10. This sounds great. I do want to get to the Persophone books, eventually.

  11. Great review, Iris. I read this years ago, and remember how bleak it was, but how well written. Delafield usually can’t help being funny, even when she’s tackling serious topics, but this is the least humorous of the fifteen or so Delafield novels I’ve read.

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  20. Thanks for writing about Consequences. I read this book solely based on the book blogger reviews, and I am very very glad. It is a wonderful book with surprising depth and insight into a “failed life.” I liked Delafield’s neutrality towards her protagonist, not making it an objective or a subjective account. (hmm…does this make any sense?)

    • That does make sense! I do believe she leans towards sympathy of Alex, her writing comes across as very neutral, which I thinks actually helps getting the reader to feel sympathetic, somehow? I am so glad to hear you liked this book! I discovered the author Delafield through other book bloggers, and I am so glad I did. I feel a little honoured to be part of spreading that love.

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