E. M. Delafield is best remembered for her light and bright Provincial Lady books, but she wrote a great deal more than that. This book, reissued by Virago back in the day and by Bloomsbury more recently, is my first venture into those ‘other books’ and I found that it was very different and very good.
‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ speaks profoundly of the restrictive ridiculousness of upper class society in Edwardian Britain. The author grew up in this society, she struggled with it, and it is clear from the very first page that the passage of time had not tempered her feelings:
‘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.
One was safeguarded.
One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.’
Monica Ingram was the much loved only child of a socially ambitious mother and wealthy father. They wanted only the very best for their darling daughter and they had made her aware of the supreme importance of a good marriage for a woman. She understood a woman who failed to elicit a proposal of marriage from the right man would be viewed as a failure for the rest of what would inevitably be a joyless life. She would have no wedding day, no home of her own, no children, no social position …
When Monica takes her first steps as a debutante things go very well: she is pretty, she is charming and she speaks quite naturally with the people round her. Her mother is cautiously optimistic and she is very pleased when she finds that Monica has an admirer; though she is quick to tell her daughter that he is not ‘The One’.
“Besides, though he may be a very nice young man, we’ve got to remember that he isn’t, really, very much use. He’s too young, for one thing, and there’s no money at all, even if he hadn’t got an elder brother.”
Monica, disconcerted and disappointed, did not quite know how to reply. She was afraid that her mother was going to say that she would not be allowed to be friends with Claude Ashe any more.
“It’s quite all right, darling,” said Mrs. Ingram very kindly. “I like you to make friends of your own age, and one wants people to see that — well, that there’s someone running after you, more or less. Only I want you to realize that you mustn’t take anything at all seriously, just yet.”
Things go terribly wrong when Monica encounters Captain Lane at a party. He draws her away from the company, he charms her, he kisses her, and she responds. In her innocence, she believes herself to be in love, she believes that what is happening can only be the precursor to a proposal of marriage, and she forgets everything that her mother taught her.
Monica’s parents are appalled. They know that Captain Lane is a notorious rake, they know that their daughter’s behaviour has been noticed and that there will be gossip; and that it will ruin her chances with any respectable man. The only course open to them is to bring the romance to a swift conclusion and take Monica away to the country for the summer, in the hope that when she returns, all will be forgotten.
When the Ingrams return to London memories have faded but they haven’t gone away; and events have taken their toll on Monica, she is a year older and her prettiness has faded too. She comes to realise that, she sees a new generation of debutantes catching the eyes of eligible young men, and she realises that her chance of marriage is diminishing rapidly.
She is thrown back into the company of her childhood friends, Frederica and Cecily, who had also failed to elicit proposals; because their upbringing had been so sheltered that they were uncomfortable and awkward in society; and because they felt the disappointment of mother, who was successful in society but seemed not to understand that her daughters needed her help and support.
Monica had a much closer relationship with her own mother, but seeing her friends’ position intensified her fears for the future.
In the end she had just two gentleman callers. One was a friend, who appreciated Monica’s willingness to listen to tales of his great lost love, and the other was an older man who had proposed to many and been turned down each time. Had Monica’s hopes of matrimony gone, or did she still have a chance?
Her story made a wonderful book.
Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure.
Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!
This could have been a polemic but it wasn’t; because the characters lived and breather and because everything that happened was horribly believable.
The writing was clear and lucid. The dialogues rang true and they said everything that needed to be said.
The end of this book gave me hope for Monica but it also made me realise how trapped she was.
‘She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely on whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband.’
Sad but true.