I read somewhere, I’m not sure where, that this book was one of four by the author that were loosely linked by theme. That theme is what marriage has meant for women. I didn’t know that before I started reading and so I didn’t read them in sequence. Now that I have read all four I can say that it didn’t matter at all, but that it was interesting to consider them together, and to think about how that theme and the position of women evolved.
The four books are Consequences, Thank Heaven Fasting, The Way Things Are and The Diary of a Provincial Lady and I can warmly recommend all four for what they have to say, the stories they have to tell, and the author’s ability to make her reader understand and empathise.
That said, I have to say that I think this book is not as strong as the other three, because I found it difficult to warm to the heroine, and because it is a little less distinctive than the others, having too many points in common with the much better known and much loved title that followed in its wake.
This is the story of Laura Temple, a provincial wife and mother of two young sons, in her early thirties. She is also a writer of short stories, that have been praised but have had no significant success beyond that. She struggles to find time to write, because managing her household and keeping up with her social obligations seems to take up every moment that she has.
Lady Kingsley-Browne tells her that she needs to be firmer with her staff, and Laura knows that she is right but she just can’t do it. She tries to be sensitive to their situations, but that often unsettles or upsets them, and they frequently decide to move on.
She also knows that she is being less than even-handed with her two boys. Edward is her first-born, and he is a bright and practical child, but Laura can’t help loving the mischievous Johnny more. She knows that sometimes that shows, that her favouring of Johnny would in all probability hurt Edward, but again she seems unable to do anything about it.
This would be an unhappy tale in the hands of many authors, but E M Delafield illuminated Laura’s life beautifully, she made her story easy to read, and she turned her into a very real person who you wanted to know, to speak to, and to set in the right direction.
I loved Laura’s voice; her perception her friends and neighbours and of the world around her; and her understanding of her foibles. It was easy to believe that she could have been a successful author.
It doesn’t help that her marriage has stagnated. She and Alfred had married young and maybe not for the best of reasons, and they had run out of things to say to one another.
They had been reasonably in love with one another. Alfred was – or so Laura supposed – incapable of being unreasonable in love, and she herself had expended most of her capabilities for romance in purely imaginary directions. She had , in her maiden days, composed speeches to an ideal lover that would have astonished and disconcerted Alfred to a considerable extent, had she ever spoken them aloud.
But she never had, and had never seriously wished to, and in the course of seven years of child-bearing and rearing, housekeeping, writing stories to augment her income, and talking about the bulbs to her neighbours, Laura had almost forgotten that she had once thought herself destined for a grand passion.
That makes her very susceptible to a man named Marmaduke Ayland, who expresses an interest in her writing, who sees her as a woman and not just a wife and mother, and who offers words of admiration and love. A love affair begins, but Laura finds that she cannot shake off her fondness of her husband, that she cannot stop thinking of her sons and so she feels terribly torn.
The romance was rather sedate, but I am afraid I couldn’t quite believe in it. My feeling was that Laura was in love with being in love and the possibilities that offered, and that Duke’s feelings were quite similar, and that he was unprepared for the possibility that she might really leave her husband. That meant that I couldn’t feel real concern, but I did appreciate the points that were being made about the impossibility of the choices women had to make between love, marriage, family, and pursuing their own interests.
I loved the sub-plots, one comical and one serious, that said more about those important choices – and compromises – that women have to make, and about how society views them. My feelings about the two young ladies concerned – Lady Kingsley-Browne’s spoilt daughter BéBée and Laura’s younger sister, who had been a bright young thing about town, were much less conflicted than my feelings about Laura.
There was much about her that I liked, but I couldn’t get past her knowingly favouring one son over the other, and though I knew that she was trapped to some degree by circumstance and society, I couldn’t help feeling that she should have appreciated that she was luckier than a great many women, and that she could have done something to make things a little better.
That said, there are many good things in this book, more than enough for me to say that it is well worth finding and reading.
The final sentences may be the best of all, and I thought about them for a long time after I put the book down.