Thursday 3 March 2011

To See Ourselves

Burns' (anglicised) line 'Oh would some Power the gift to give us / To see ourselves as others see us' was one which Delafield played with on a couple occasions (the brilliant collection of sketches As Others Hear Us, and the play To See Ourselves which later proved inspiration for VMC The Way Things Are). More broadly, I think it can be seen as the cornerstone of her writing - whether witty or sad or biting (and Delafield excels at all of these, in different works) her primary technique is demonstrating people's lack of self-awareness.

Danielle and I have both been reading Gay Life (1933) and both our reviews will appear today - if I've understood time differences properly, then Danielle's will come along later. It is another example of characters who have built up false images of themselves - but rather than having a single focus, Gay Life is filled with a cast of many. We see through nearly all of their eyes at different points, and thus Delafield builds up many perspectives on the same few days and group of people. They're all on a long holiday in the South of France, staying at a hotel, mostly having stayed to the point where they know each other reasonably well and have separated wheat from chaff - usually getting stuck with the chaff. Delafield's title, of course, uses 'gay' in its original sense - but also ironically. Despite the supposedly delights of the resort, few of the characters are enjoying themselves; even fewer have happy or uncomplicated relationships with those around them.

There are so many people - I ought to start introducing them. Hilary and Angie Moon are recently, and dejectedly, married ('The little that they had ever had to say to one another had been said in the course of an electrically-charged fortnight, two years earlier, when they had fallen desperately in love.') She's already on the look-out for a new beau, but isn't likely to find it in grumpy Mr. Bolham, still less his hapless secretary Denis. Angie's not the only woman willing to welcome love - Coral Romayne is besotted with Buckland, the beefy holiday tutor hired ostensibly to teach her neglected son Patrick. There are a few more, but I don't want to dizzy you.

EMD is mistress of the brief description which utterly reveals a character and their flaws. This, for instance, is Denis: 'Morally - in the common acceptance of the term - he had remained impeccable, for he was both undersexed and inclined to a physical fastidiousness that he mistook for spirituality.' And Dulcie, one of the most amusing characters in the novel, who is the daughter of a hotel entertainer, and thus treading an awkward line between guest and servant: 'Dulcie continued to prattle. It was evidently her idea of good manners, to permit no interval of silence.'

One character I haven't mentioned, who is awfully significant, is the novelist Chrissie Challoner. She is staying in a house near the cottage, and one of the central threads of this multi-faceted novel is her encounter with Denis. He's had a rather pathetic life, but she immediately sees through his facade of worldliness - and rather falls in love with his true self. Which leads to all manner of moonlight proclamations and furtive assignations. Being honest, I was a bit worried at this point. A lot of interwar novelists try their hand at romance and flail a bit madly. It's all much more comfortable for the reader when they're being arch and detached - and there is nothing detached about Chrissie's pondering on his inner being, declaring she has never felt this before, etc. etc. I daresay such things are enjoyable to the people experiencing them, but not really to the reader...

But, of course, I ought to have trusted Delafield not to err. After a few pages where it seems Denis may have finally met a woman who will understand and appreciate him... but no, I shan't spoil the plot for you.

Besides, Delafield is never too earnest. The humour of The Provincial Lady is toned down, but makes it appearances, especially when Dulcie is on the scene.
"Mr. Bolham, is your bedroom door locked?"

"Why should my bedroom door be locked?" said Mr. Bolham. "I've nothing to hide."

Dulcie gave a thin shriek of nervous laughter.

"You are funny, Mr. Bolham. I shall die. I suppose it did sound funny, me putting it like that. What I meant was, really, could I possibly pop in there, just for one second, to get something - well, it's a bathing-cloak really - that's fallen on to your balcony."


Dulcie giggled uncertainly.

"It's not my fault, Mr. Bolham," she said at last, putting her head on one side.

"I know. It's the Duvals."

"It just dropped off their window-ledge, you know."

"Did madame Duval send you to get it?"

Dulcie nodded.

"I expect she thought you might be a tiny bit cross, as it's happened so often," she suggested.

Mr. Bolham felt her eyeing him anxiously, to see if this would get a laugh. He maintained, without any difficulty, a brassy irresponsiveness, and Dulcie immediately changed her methods.

"I like to do anything I'm asked, always - my Pops says that's one of the ways a little girl makes nice friends," she observed in a sudden falsetto. "And Marcelle - she lets me call her Marcelle, you know - she's always terribly sweet to me. So naturally, I like to run about and do errands for her, Mr. Bolham."

"Well, I hope you've enjoyed doing this one," said Mr. Bolham sceptically. "I'll send the towel, or whatever it is, up by the chambermaid."

Although there are some central players in Gay Life, the cast is so wide that things don't get dull or stilted. Delafield takes it in turns to focalise goings-on through the eyes of each character, so that we are still learning back-story well on into the last quarter of the novel - so it feels more like meeting every guest at a hotel than it does like a linear novel. Presumably that is the effect EMD wanted - and it certainly works. Plot isn't entirely unimportant, though - and a Big Event rears its head towards the end.

Danielle asked me, in an email, what else I'd read by Delafield. I did a quick count on the back of a piece of scrap paper, and realised that I've read 19 books by EMD - mostly in pre-blog days, and a fair few in pre-uni days, when I could afford to indulge in one author for a month or two. (Favourites include: As Others Hear Us, Mrs. Harter, The War Workers, Faster! Faster!, Consequences...) Of that 19, I have read no duds. Gay Life isn't the best of those reads - in fact, it probably lags somewhere towards the end - and yet it is really very good indeed. EMD deservedly has most of her fame from the Provincial Lady books, which are sublime and which I can well imagine reading every year for the rest of my life - but her other works shouldn't be neglected. She seems incapable of writing a bad novel, and if most play towards sombreness and melancholy, she can never quite avoid the comic touch.

Gay Life is incredibly scarce, but you might be able to find it in a library. But you can't go wrong with a Delafield - and I encourage you to look beyond the Provincial Lady books (and, of course, to read those IMMEDIATELY if you have yet to do so). It is wonderful that she is remembered at all, but she leaves a legacy of works which have been sadly neglected - have a hunt in your library archives and see what you can find! Go on, have a search now - and let me know what's available in your area.

I'm looking forward to hearing Danielle's response to this novel, and will put in a link here once her review appears. EDIT: here it is!


  1. I've found this a very helpful review Simon. I'd been under the misapprehension somehow that apart from the marvellous Provincial Lady books the others were all terribly gloomy, so I've looked at them on the shelves and avoided reading them! Knowing there's touches of her comic genius throughout makes me want to explore the rest now. Thank you!

  2. Good heavens -- you've read 19! and I've read -- none. Shameful. I have got the War Workers downloaded as an ebook, but haven't got around to it yet. Clearly I need to get my act together.

  3. Your quote regarding Denis made me laugh. You have to savour Delafield's books don't you...she paints such a picture in just a few words that you don't want to miss a thing!

    Checking the library catalogue I see that we don't have this but I'm going to try an inter-library loan and see where that gets me. Thanks for the riveting review!

  4. I have a few of E.M. Delafield's books on my TBR shelf (thanks to your previous high praise) but I still have yet to get to her -- that's the problem with having an over-abundance of good books at hand! Soon...soon...
    Of course, my library doesn't have anything by her - of the five I checked, 2 have a couple of Provincial Lady books. So, I'll stick to the TBR shelf for now.

  5. I LOVE the sound of this. I adore E M Delafield and think she is an incredibly diverse and fascinating author. She can write comedy and tragedy equally well, and those that think of her as 'just' the writer of the Provincial Lady series are really missing out!

    The New York Public Library has all of her novels - but only in the reference library. Not very useful for those of us who don't have the leisure time to spend 8 hours at a stretch in the library!

    Fantastic review Simon, though I am cross that you've made me want to read a book I can't get hold of!

  6. No Delafield at all in any of my local libraries I'm afraid. I haven't read any of her work, I'll keep my eyes peeled in charity shops for her books.

  7. I still haven't read any books by Delafield although I think I have one somewhere. Gah, too many books and not enough time!!!

  8. You can't say I don't jump to it and do what I'm told! And to my surprise and delight, it seems there are three Delafields in library storage that I haven't read, or even heard of. Gay Life; General Impressions, from Time and Tide; and A Reversion to Type. Wait for it ... "A bad hat from a country family marries Rose, a girl he meets on a voyage to Ceylon. After he dies of drink, she makes her life in his family house, finally managing to escape her guilt over her degenerate son.' (That's Wikipedia) Well, that'd give the Provincial Lady something to talk about at the WI.
    Can see I'm going to have to get up to the library.
    But Simon, 19 ... of course, you do have the advantage of living in Oxford. I think I've read four apart from the PL. (Have a soft spot for Late and Soon which might be described as Provincial Lady's daughter goes off the rails!)

  9. What I love about reading along is getting another person's perspectives on a book and added insight as you've read a fair few of her other books so can talk about her work more widely--it always makes me see even more than I did when I was reading, so thank you! It's really interesting to think about the themes that run through all her works, which I expect I will see as I read more of her books (and I fully intend to). She did very well in this book when it comes to people's lack of self-awareness--Denis was particularly well done. I wonder if Chrissie wanted to fall in love with every man she was attracted to and seemed slightly disappointed when it didn't happen with Denis. I wouldn't expect her to take too long to find another possible love interest either. If this is lagging towards the end of her works I am in for even better reads! I'll email you about perhaps reading along again sometime soon. And I'll be digging out the one or two other PL novels I have (didn't realize the names had been changed over here)...but it's a bit too late to shift books now...something to look forward to over the weekend. Wonderful post!

  10. Donna - I don't know if you've read consequences, the one that Persephone publish, but that is probably the gloomiest of all the ones I've read - Persephone do love gloomy books over funny ones, don't they?! But yes, for the most part that strand of her brilliant comic touch always fights its way in.

    Harriet - ah, but when you find an author you love for the first time, aged 18 or so, you have time to read loads, and not much else to tempt you! Now I love too many authors to splurge... Although you MUST read some soon, Harriet. I think you'd like Faster! Faster! a lot, if you could track it down. Plus, it has a quotation from Alice as a title.

    Darlene - did your library have any of her novels? Good look hunting them down through ILL! Maybe you'll get the copy Danielle read?

    Susan - oo, which are on the tbr shelf? I'm sure you'll love the Provincial Lady, for starters.

    Rachel - Thanks Rachel - and sorry! I tend not to write reviews of books I've read that are impossible to find, because it might just frustrate people - but I thought I'd encourage people to try out their libraries ILLs! Yes, sitting in New York Public Library for hours isn't really an option, is it... maybe an ILL? But any you can find will be great! Do you have more to read on your shelves? And I love the first paragraph of your comment - so, so true.

    seagreen reader - (sorry, don't know your name!) how irksome, re:Delafield absence in the library. Hope you come across something by her - although I can't remember ever finding non-Provincial Lady titles in shops, I've had to buy them all online.

    Sakura - another one you'll have to try! (Do Comyns first, might be more up your street, I think ;-)) Happy hunting for the Delafield, though!

    Mary - you get a gold star :) General Impressions is great fun - a series of sketches and things. A Reversion to Type is one of those I don't even have on my shelves, but sounds very intriguing! Which four non-PLs have you read, do tell?!
    As for my 19 - most of those were before I came to Oxford, I think, helped by lovely Elaine (of Random Jottings, but before she started her blog) lending me her EMDs through the post.

    Dainelle - thanks so much for encouraging me to read this, it's been good fun! It's always great to get other people's insight - I just wish we could have been in the same room, chatting about it over tea and cake. Let's do another before too long...

  11. Other than Late and Soon, I've only read the obvious ones. Simon. Consequences ( so gloomy I had to give up Persephones for a while to recover!) and The Way Things Are and Thank Heaven Fasting (seem to recall that I far preferred the latter). Oh, and that memoir of her convent days that's in the Violet Powell biography. I keep meaning to read War Workers but don't like reading online, do enough of that for work!

  12. Mary - Consequences is definitely the most gloomy of the ones I've read! The War Workers is great, but I agree - I wouldn't read it online. I also don't want one of those nasty POD editions... well, I have an early War Workers, but have refused to get other EMDs because they're uninspiring PODs.


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