Consequences by E M Delafield (1919)

Until I picked up this book, I had completely forgotten the old-fashioned game of consequences; taking it in turns to write out a boy’s name, a girl’s name, where they met, what he said, what she said and the consequence of their meeting; folding over the paper each time so that nobody could see what had been written before their turn came.

I had never thought about the boy or the girl whose tales – sometimes odd, sometimes funny, sometimes sad – were folded over in discarded scraps of paper, but E M Delafield did, and it made her think of the world she grew up in and of young women whose life stories played out in a way that could be as haphazard and in a world where the only possible – the only acceptable – consequence was the acquisition of a wedding ring.

In this book – beginning with a game of consequences in a nursery – she asks whether there was an alternative.

The answer that she reached was a sad one.

She tells the story of Alex Clare, who is first seen as an insecure and awkward child. Alex is the eldest of her siblings, and she proud of the status she believes that gives her. She is bossy and the children’s nanny is protective of the younger children and critical of Alex.

I found that it wasn’t easy to like Alex, but it was very easy to feel sympathy for her. She lacked the understanding and empathy with others that many people are born with or quickly learn, and it seemed that there was nobody who would guide and teach her.

Alex pushed her sister, Barbara, to ‘tightrope walk’ on the stair rail, and the first consequence of that was that she fell and was lucky not to break her back. The second was that her parents decided that their eldest child was unmanageable, that they had to protect her siblings, and that she must be sent away to school – at a convent in Belgium.

This was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to Alex. She had nobody who would love her, nobody who would give her the guidance that she so desperately needed; and she had no aptitude for making friends. She developed intense crushes on certain other girls,  but she was so intense in her affections that even when the other girl was kind there was no real prospect of a true friendship

Alex felt that she was a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy, but she clung on to the hope that one day things would be different

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Of course there was no magical transformation.

Alex ‘came out’ as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, did everything right. She took Alex to the right parties, she made sure that she was beautifully groomed and dressed, she carefully explained what Alex should do in every situation. But Alex had no more empathy, no more understanding, than she had when she was a small child.

‘She was full of preconceived ideas as to that which constituted attractiveness, and in her very ardour to realize the conventional ideal of the day failed entirely to attract.’

She had dance partners, she thought that she was a success, but in time she realised that other girls had much more interest from young men, and that their dance partners would return to them at other functions. Alex’s didn’t do that. She began to doubt herself, her small successes dwindled, and she becomes an unhappy wallflower.

I felt very deeply for Alex as she watched other girls achieve what she most wanted, what she had been quite sure she would have,  while she was failing and understanding why. The worst indignity came when a young man took her down to dinner and she found that he had asked her because he wanted to talk about his love for her school-friend; when she went home to bed and desperately prayed that somebody would love her like that one day ….

It seemed that hope was lost, but a holiday romance led to a proposal and an engagement ring for Alex.

Success at last!

After the proposal, it seemed that the romance was over. Alex’s fiance showed no interest in wedding plans and a new life together, though he wpuldtalk at length about himself and his plans for the land he was to inherit. Alex tried to persuade herself that she loved him, but she knew that she was not loved as she hoped to be loved, that she was a means to an end, and she began to fear the prospect of a loveless marriage.

She broke off the engagement.

She thought that she was doing the right thing, she thought she was being brave, but her family was horrified. She hadn’t realised that marriage was the only option for her and that she had thrown away the only chance of success she ever had.

‘Alex almost instinctively uttered the cry that, with successive generations, has passed from appeal to rebellion, then to assertion, and from the defiance of that assertion to a calm statement of facts. “It is my life. Can’t I live my own life?”

“A woman who doesn’t marry and who has eccentric tastes doesn’t have much of a life. I could never bear thinking of it for any of you.”

Alex was rather startled at the sadness in her mother’s voice.

“But, mother, why? Lots of girls don’t marry, and just live at home.”

“As long as there is a home. But things alter, Alex. Your father and I, in the nature of things, can’t go on livin’ for ever, and then this house goes to Cedric. There is no country place, as you know—your great-grandfather sold everything he could lay his hands on, and we none of us have ever had enough ready money to think of buyin’ even a small place in the country.”

“But I thought we were quite rich.”

Lady Isabel flushed delicately.

“We are not exactly poor, but such money as there is mostly came from my father, and there will not be much after my death,” she confessed. “Most of it will be money tied up for Archie, poor little boy, because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it. It was all settled when you were quite little children—in fact, before Pamela was born or thought of—and your father naturally wanted all he could hope to leave to go to Cedric, so that he might be able to live on here, whatever happened.”

“But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?”

“Your father said, ‘The girls will marry, of course.’ There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you being able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible,” said Lady Isabel very simply.’

That was horribly true, and from this point Alex’s life goes steadily downhill. She then turns to religion and enters a convent, but she was drawn there by a love of the mother superior – an echo of her schoolgirl crushes – and when she moves to a new community, nearly a decade later, Alex realises that she does not have a vocation and must leave.

Back in a world that has changed, where she has never lived independently, where she has never handled money and has no resources at all, she struggles to cope. Her family try to be kind, but Alex is beyond any help that they can give to her ….

‘Consequences’ is a desperately sad story but I had to keep turning the pages because E M Delafield was such a wonderful storyteller and she wrote with lyricism and with clarity. I could never doubt the truth of the characters and their circumstances, and I understood how trapped they were by the strictures of a society that might work for some but could never work for all.

I knew that there could not be a happy ending but I had understand exactly how the story would play out.

I felt the author’s anger, and I knew that it was justified.

A Book for E. M. Delafield Day: Thank Heaven Fasting (1933)

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.

(Illustration by Helen Dryden – the cover artwork from a magazine that Moira may well have read adorns the cover of the Virago edition of her story.)

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.

Poor Monica.

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.