Tag Archives: E.M. Delafield

Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield

Thank Heaven Fasting - E.M. DelafieldThank Heaven Fasting – E.M. Delafield
Virago Modern Classics, 1988

originally published in 1932
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Thank Heaven Fasting tells the story of Monica Ingram, daughter of a well-off family. As the book opens, Monica is about to have her formal “coming out” and prepares to attend her first ball. From there on out, she tries to live up to the expectations of her family, and society, by presenting herself in the best possible way, in order to do her duty as a girl and marry  a respectable husband.

The story consists of three parts. Part I is titled ‘The Eaton Square Tradition’ and focuses on the beginning of Monica’s years in society; Part II is called ‘The Anxious Years’, which portrays the period after Monica has failed to receive an offer of marriage during her first season; the ending is given in Part III, aptly titled ‘The Happy Ending’, although one might wonder whose definition of happiness Delafield favours with this title.

Like Consequences, which I read in 2011Thank Heaven Fasting  focuses on the lot of girls and women in society. Starting from the opening paragraph, this book provides insight and commentary on women’s place in society during the early years of the twentieth century. And so, the story begins with the reflection that:

“Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life—the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square—was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.”

Followed by such paragraphs such as,

“She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely upon whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband. It was not, even, a question of marrying well, although mothers with pretty and attractive daughters naturally hoped for that. But any husband at all was better than none. If a girl was neither married nor engaged by the end of her third season it was usually said, discreetly, among her mother’s acquaintances, that no one had asked her.”

and,

“But, Monica,” cried Cecily, “surely you wouldn’t hesitate for a minute? There are so awfully few men to go round, any husband would be better than none – and he sounds so splendid.” And she added piteously: “We can’t all three be failures.”
“Don’t,” said Frederica, frowning. “You talk as if marriage was the only thing that can make women happy. But there are lots of unhappy married women.”
“They aren’t unhappy in the same way. And people don’t despise them, anyway,” said Cecily simply.
The three looked at one another.
“If even one of us could find a husband, it wouldn’t be so bad,” said Cecily suddenly. “I mean, Fricky and I. You’ll get married, I expect, Moica, one of these days.”

Thank Heaven Fasting, like Consequences, is not about the rebellious girls who manage to make their own way in life despite circumstances. Instead, it focuses on girls that are so ingrained with society’s expectations that they cannot quite look beyond them. Consequences featured a girl making a decision for herself, despite expectations, and her facing the fall-out of said decision. In a way, Thank Heaven Fasting features a small glimpse of a similar situation, but its focus is nevertheless a little different. In Thank Heaven Fasting the emphasis is places on the ingrained feeling of failure that girls might experience, and the emotional and psychological effects of this. Monica tries very hard to live up to her parents’ expectations, of which she is constantly reminded by her father in particular, and by her mother in a slightly more sympathetic light. When she fails to become married right away, she is burdened by the knowledge and fear of impending “failure” as a woman, which would be a double failure, as it is already one to be born a girl instead of a boy. It is not for nothing that when one of the persons in the novel gets married, Delafield states that, “she prayed that she might be a good wife (…), and that if ever they had a child it might be a son.”

Delafield makes sure to point out the fact that, in many ways, Monica was privileged. She had good connections, her parents were comfortably well off and could afford to buy her pretty clothes and help her on her way. Moreover, Monica, like I imagine most people in a class-based society, is shown as ignorant of those “below” her station in life. At one point, Delafield observes that “she had a dim idea that the kitchenmaid did actually sleep in the boxroom.” And even though she is portrayed as sympathetic for what the house staff does for her each day, Monica is also shown to take their service for granted. Interestingly, this does not take away from the reader’s sympathy for Monica, just like her failure to be rebellious, yes, even her blatant dismissal of sufraggettes out of ignorance and conformity, does not take away from the sympathy the reader feels for Monica’s fate. Delafield, then, manages to evoke pity and sympathy for what Monica had to suffer for being born a woman, while at the same time pointing out the limitations of taking this one case as the universal model of female suffering. This is one of the things I appreciated very much about this novel, on top of the fact that I loved its theme and general storyline. It shows how smart Delafield is, how sharp, how humane, and how critical without blatantly pushing her opinion in your face.

In some ways, Thank Heaven Fasting reminded me how lucky I am to be born where I was born, to be living at the time I am living. On the other hand, in its commentary on social expectations, it still strikes a chord. We may not always acknowledge it, but being a single woman is still often frowned upon. Society still reiterates the idea that to be single is to fail at life in some ways. Even for those in relationships, the lack of marriage, or children, is often brought to the fore as a failure to accomplish what everyone, and particularly women, should strive for, because it is what life is supposed to be. I *am* grateful that I am living the life I am living, having read Thank Heaven Fasting, and I particularly appreciated it for its historical commentary on gender expectations, but it is also interesting to consider what it might tell us about our world today, and the constrictions we, and society, often place on ourselves.

Long-Awaited Reads Month Reflections:
There is a reason why I read this book for Long-Awaited Reads Month, even if I bought it only recently. Had I bought it earlier, which I wanted to do but failed to accomplish because this title has proved pretty difficult to find, I think I might have needed the push of this month to read it anyway. Why? Because it came highly recommended by Ana. Personally recommended even. In her post, Ana compares Thank Heaven Fasting with Consequences, and Consequences happens to be one of my favourite reads of 2011, and probably an all-time favourite. To say that I had high expectations of Thank Heaven Fasting  is an understatement; another title by Delafield on the societal pressures on women to marry promised to be right up my alley. I am very happy to say that it was exactly what I had expected. Actually, it was better than I expected. I don’t think it quite tops Consequences for me personally, but it is definitely up there with it.

Other Opinions: Things Mean A Lot, A Work in Progress, Verity’s Virago Venture, Desperate Reader, Book Snob, Bunny Stuff,  books as food, Yours?

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Project Gutenberg Project: The Third Miss Symons by F.M. Mayor

Today, I am over at the Project Gutenberg Project, with a post on The Third Miss Symons by Flora Macdonald Mayor. This book about the life of a single woman during the beginning of the twentieth century reminded me of Consequences by E.M. Delafield, one of my favourite books from last year. I did not like The Third Miss Symons quite as much, but I am still very happy I read it. Please click over to read my post.

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The Project Gutenberg Project blog is, as the description on the website states, a project:

“started with the goal of making public domain titles from sites such as Project Gutenberg and Librivox more accessible. Although a great resource, Project Gutenberg doesn’t currently categorize books by topic or genre, so it’s difficult to find obscure gems. Solution: research, discussion, and reviews!”

Alongside Aarti, Alexandra, Chris, Lu, Meghan, Nymeth, and project leader Tasha, I am one of the regular contributors. Guest posts are always welcome!

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

The Diary of a Provincial Lady - E.M. DelafieldThe Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield
Virago Modern Classics, 2008

Originally published 1930

After loving Consequences so much last year, and hearing so much praise about this book from other bloggers (although not everyone loved it) I just *had* to read it. I very much enjoyed reading The Diary of a Provincial Lady, though my love for it is not as strong as that of some others. I feel that, perhaps, it was overshadowed a little by my love for Consequences.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy this. Nor could I help but fall for the provincial lady’s way with words and the cadence of her diary entries, which, as Thomas pointed out, “brilliantly capture the episodic, shorthanded cadence so typical of how one thinks about things. Not always in lovely complete sentences, but short bursts of thought, like thousands of brain synapses firing directly onto the page.” The book is humorous and had me laughing repeatedly. I can imagine this working as quite a good “pick me up” book on days when you need a little comfort.

What I enjoyed about The Diary of a Provincial Lady is that it is funny in a sympathetic manner. It manages to poke fun at the characters without losing the reader’s sympathy for the Lady or the other characters. It reminded me a little of Henrietta’s War in the gentle mocking of neighbours, while Delafield, like Joyce Dennys, does not shy away from laughing at the Provincial Lady herself.

There are moments when the age of the book shows. It shows in some of its charms, but also in its seeming acceptance of class and gender boundaries. There is the endless issues surrounding her overdraft and spending too much money, there are the complaints about a male servant, questions of how to maintain boundaries with servants, there are the times when the lady, through her minor complaints, seems to take her position and lifestyle for granted. However, I wonder if this isn’t part of the comedic nature of the book as well, is not the reader supposed to see the absurdity of some of these complaints? I don’t know. In part, these topics made me feel a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, the reader is often invited to laugh at them.

Besides humourous, the lady can also be very observant and reflective. There are hints of tentatively questions why it is accepted that servants will always be servants, there is many a time when she reflects on the absurdity of social standards and the pretence of her lifestyle, or moments when she questions her role as a woman:

“Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.”

or:

“Lady B. at once adds that she always advises girls to marry, no matter what the man is like, as any husband is better than none, and there are not nearly enough to go round.
I immediately refer to Rose’s collection of distinguished Feminists, giving her to understand that I know them all well and intimately, and have frequently discussed the subject with them. Lady B. waves her hand–(in elegant white kid, new, not cleaned)–and declares That may be all very well, but if they could have got husbands they wouldn’t be Feminists. I instantly assert that all have had husbands, and some two or three. This may or may not be true, but have seldom known stronger homicidal impulse.”

The interactions between Lady B. and “The Provincial Lady” were particularly entertaining as they included many of the above type of back and forth, in which, somehow, Lady B. always manages to have the last word, using remarks on the other lady’s  being well-read or intelligent as a way to cut her off or make her opinion less important.

In short: there is much to love in The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I particularly enjoyed the comedy and observations in which no one is overlooked or “right”. At the same time, however much I enjoyed reading this, I think I may prefer Delafield’s more tragic Consequences to this comedy. They are difficult to compare, really, since they are so different in tone and style. Whereas that novel compelled me to keep on reading, I was more comfortable dipping in and out of Diary. I think it is just that sort of book: a book that you are able to read in one go, or quite comfortably read a few pages at a time.

Other Opinions: Still Life With BooksThings Mean A Lot, My Porch, Shelf Love, Jenny’s Books, A Work in Progress, Stuck in a Book, A Good Stopping Point, Savidge Reads, Ela’s Book Blog, Verity’s Virago Venture, The Sleepless Reader.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list. 

Consequences by E.M. Delafield

Consequences – E.M. Delafield
Persephone Books, 2000 (originally published 1919)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

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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Comfort Reading

Comfort reading is a very broad concept to me. I never realised this. Last year (I cannot believe it has been almost a year already!) when I was in Sweden, alone and homesick those first few weeks, I read YA book after YA book, until I became so fed up with them that I never bothered to review them all. Young Adults books can be real pleasures, but reading too many at a time can have them become predictable, especially if, like I did, you concentrate on only vampire-ish fiction.

After that, I became slightly obsessed with Jane Eyre. I guess that mood lasted. I cannot help but feel lately that all I wish to do is reread Jane Eyre. But this is the thing with blogging, it makes you keep track of your reading. And ever since I started writing about what I read, I want to keep doing that – even if I am rereading a book. But can I really reread Jane Eyre when it has been only eight months since I read it twice, or wait a minute, three times in a row?

Lately I am reading many many books at a time. This has several reasons: I listen to one while running, I am reading for the Feminist Classics project, I read on the couch at night but prefer my ereader in bed, etcetera. There is no clear pattern and there are few books that truly seem to engage me. Like Ana mentioned in a blog post of hers last week, if I read a book I really really like, I usually wait to long to write about it and I forget too much to actually make a proper post. I was never big on note-taking while reading and most of the time I simply remembered enough to write about the books, but now I feel like I may as well review the books I never got around to last year, since they are about as fresh in my mind.

Back to comfort reading. The only books that I feel are safe enough to explore at the moment – I often feel some books are too complicated, or perhaps too harsh and bitter and angry and sad – are those I at this moment consider my true comfort reads: Books in line of Henrietta’s War (Bloomsbury Group books), or Virago Modern Classics (Elizabeth and her German Garden was simply wonderful), or Persephone’s or well.. you’ll understand what I mean. They are gentle. I think gentle is the perfect word for them. They do contain problems, bitterness even, but the characters are often so easy to feel compassionate with, to identify with, and their settings never get cruel in a black-and-white thriller & horror movie manner.

Oh, and anything Jane Austen related. Rewrites if they are good enough, books about her life and work. But the problem with Jane Austen’s original works at this moment is that I know them too well, and sometimes familiarity can be a problem. I am longing for that passionate feeling, that feeling of “oh wow, Mr. Darcy” or even just “oh wow, I cannot possibly put this novel down in the upcoming three hours.” I love my comfort reads, but a lot of them are comfort reads at this moment when I have little time for reading because they are also okay to put down for a while. I would like to be caught up in a book once again, feel I need to read it NOW. But perhaps this will have to wait for more quiet times.

What I am currently reading:

Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari
I am listening to this while running. It was on offer for free a few weeks ago from here. I thought it would be nice to listen to a Young Adult book while running, nothing too complicated. But ugh, those scenes about the pox and the turtle that refuses to be killed make me feel sick to my stomach.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
I am reading this for the Feminist Classics Project. I was supposed to host the discussion on this in July, but only one person managed to finish the book in time. I am not sure I will finish it by the end of August. It is interesting. Simone de Beauvoir is clearly a very smart person. But she is also very hard to follow at times. Plus, and I’m sorry to say it, this book is loooong.

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
This book is a gem. I am forever grateful to Danielle for making me aware of this author. His travels in Eastern Europe on the brink of the Second World War – fascinating. It is not a fast read though, it needs time and dedication. Almost feels a little like meditation.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
I wanted YA with dept. I think that is what I am finding here, if this is even YA, does anyone know? The writing style is beautiful. But I am a little scared for the scene. You know, that scene, that everyone talks about when they review this book. I really need to start reading this again. Writing about it makes me feel I neglected it this past week.

Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein
When I saw Teresa was reading this on goodreads, I hurried over to netgalley to request my own copy. Teresa has recently reviewed it. I just started reading (have read 30 pages) and find it very interesting. But also a slow read, lots of literary theory so far.

Consequences by E.M. Delafield
Last night when I was still awake at 3 am, I did not really feel like continuing in “Why Jane Austen”, so I reached for a Persephone. Ah – these books are true wonders. I am only 15 pages in, but I feel like I just know I am going to love this. I know it will be bitter. It is the setting and period I love. Lately, novels set in 1900-1920 seem the thing for me. I never really understood people’s obsession with the period, now I cannot get enough.

See my problem here? I am reading too much at a time. Some of these books I am enjoying too little, but most of them I really like. But for those I cannot find the time they truly merit.

What are you reading this Sunday?