Thank 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 2011, Thank 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.”
“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?
* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.