My relationship with E. M. Delafield has undoubtedly been a bit on again, off again. The Provincial Lady novels, of course—I mean, what can I say that hasn't been said before? They are wonderful and have, frankly, acted as a literary therapist for me on untold occasions. But for some reason it took me forever to read any of Delafield's other, more serious work, and now that I have, I must report that my experience has been a bit mixed.
I finally started, a couple of months ago, with The Way Things Are (1927), which featured prominently in Nicola Beauman's discussion of women's fiction in her book A Very Great Profession and which is practically the quintessential feminine middlebrow novel. I found it to be simultaneously a more realistic version of the Provincial Lady's life—allowing the deeper stresses and strains and dissatisfactions to come through—and a more romanticized, fantasy version, as the harried main character falls in love with a handsome, debonair, doll of a man who (of course!) adores her back and wants nothing more than to marry and live happily ever after. She sacrifices true love, however, for the sake of her children, thus providing a comforting warm glow of noble self-sacrifice for the novel's readers—many of whom might have related quite well to the frustrations the novel describes and the temptation to escape them, and might have enjoyed the thought that true love with a perfect man could be waiting for them as well if they, too, weren't so noble and self-sacrificing.
I had a lovely time with The Way Things Are, but didn't feel I had anything scintillating enough to say about it to warrant a full review. Then shortly after I realized that, tucked away on the bottom shelf of my "to read" bookcase, was this book—a happy find at one of the San Francisco Public Library's giant book sales a couple of years ago. I had forgotten all about it, and when I rediscovered it I couldn't wait to dive right in.
While The Way Things Are focuses on a wife and mother who resists temptation, however, First Love begins with one who gives in to it. Delafield's fascination with this theme might make one wonder about the relative level of fulfillment she felt in her own marriage in these years—just a year or so before she created her immortal Provincial Lady, who made such a lovely frolic of the same frustrations. But be that as it may, when First Love opens, Fay Carey, mother of young Ellie, has run off with another man, and Ellie, piecing together what has happened from what little she is allowed to hear, romanticizes the event she is forbidden to discuss:
The version that presented itself to her mind of her mother's story had become part of her phantasies. Phrases that she could not remember having heard recurred to her when she lay between sleeping and waking, and gave her a strange, frightening and yet ecstatic thrill.
"He must have been waiting for her at the station—the last train, too—close on midnight."
"She went out of the house with only her lovely velvet cloak, and her jewel case in her hand—Marie never missed it till next morning."
"You may say what you like, but they've given up the whole world for one another."
It was with that last sentence, and its romantic implications, that the thrill became definite. To love, and to be loved, formed the sum of all Ellie's daydreams. For herself she craved nothing less than romance—and nothing else.
Although the adults around her express concern that Ellie might inherit her mother's disposition, in fact this early romanticizing of what is ultimately a tawdry fling (there are clear indications later that Fay hasn't been faithful to her second husband either) seems to cause Ellie to grow into a fragile, naïve, and emotionally needy young woman. She is contrasted throughout the novel with her cousin Vicky, who is sophisticated and liberated and cynical in the inimitable post-World War I style (a flapper in spirit, if not in practice), and who comes to resemble her aunt in more ways than one—much more than poor, awkward Ellie ever does. I admit that while Ellie never really excited my interest as a character, the following passage, which absolutely reflects my own experience with anything requiring manual dexterity, did produce a spark of real empathy:
She had been told, ever since she could remember, that she was clumsy, and untidy, and that her fingers were useless, and she knew it was true, for she always picked things up by the wrong end, and put her clothes on back to front, and catches and doors and safety-pins and knots that worked quite easily for anybody else always defeated her.
(I only rarely put my clothes on back to front—luckily for Andy, who is practically required to be seen publicly with me—but otherwise this could be taken as a description of your poor hapless middlebrow blogger!)
The meaning of the "first love" of the novel's title is not quite as obvious as it might seem. Although the story does hang primarily on Ellie's terrible choice of Simon, a shallow, superficial young doofus, as her first love (words like cad and bounder were created for such chaps), it may also refer to Fay's experience in finding her first love (such as it is) only after she was married to someone else. Or it could refer to Ellie's father, who rather touchingly never quite recovers from his foolish first love for Fay. He, in fact, became one of the novel's most relatable characters for me—eternally cranky due to his own unhappiness and solitude, torturing Ellie with his contempt, being generally a poor father whose (rare) attempts at real parenting only backfire and cause her pain, and yet, somehow, nevertheless seeming to warrant a big hug. Who could read of his first face-to-face encounter with his ex-wife, many years after she abandoned him, without feeling a trace of compassion?:
Lady Dallinger raised her head, carefully looking straight in front of her. An additional tinge of exquisite sadness seemed to pass over her face. Her profile, only, was presented to George Carey's gaze. His hand went up to his mouth, in a series of nervous, agitated movements. He dropped his top hat, and Ellie heard him cursing beneath his breath, as he stooped to recover it. When he straightened himself again, white-faced and breathless, she had passed on. The anti-climax, with its graceless, awkward triviality, seemed pitifully characteristic of him.
Passages like that one show Delafield's perceptiveness and empathy—and her ability to bring a character to life in just a few words—fully intact. Unfortunately, though, for me such moments were a bit too few and far between here. Somehow I suspect that Delafield didn't intend Ellie's irritable, sharply critical father, who mostly fades into the novel's backdrop, to be the only character who awakens compassion or interest. But the others are all people I wouldn't bother to walk across the room to talk to at a cocktail party—which rather subtracts from the novel's power.
In fact, I'm not quite certain who was meant to be the heroine here—the easy-breezy Vicky, who is unimpeded by social mores and is able therefore to coldly plan a loveless marriage in order to remain a party girl for life, or the rather dim-wittedly traditional Ellie, who is so emotionally raw that one might feel an impulse to ship her off to the Foreign Legion for some therapeutic toughening up (the WAAFs didn't exist when this novel appeared, but Ellie is indeed a prototype for one of the kinds of women who, a decade or so later, might have been saved from themselves by the prospect of some challenging war work). Vicky memorably advises Ellie at one point not to listen to "the people who want you to purr and lay eggs," but the advice is probably wasted on Ellie, who seems to aspire to just such a life of purring and egg-laying. (Or perhaps I'm missing the point altogether and Delafield intended neither to be a heroine? Perhaps she was making a bitter statement on the condition of modern women? Well, you be the judge.)
Despite what I found to be the novel's weaknesses, there is one really striking passage about halfway through the novel, in which Ellie, tormented with doubt about whether Simon (aka The Cad) really really likes her, decides to give up on him, leaving London and returning home to the country. Her train ride and her first day or two at home provide a powerful evocation of pain and heartbreak:
All her thoughts came carefully now, like wounded people, creeping very cautiously, on tiptoe, afraid of being hurt anew—or like frightened things, noiselessly seeking a way out of some place that was fraught with peril.
Ellie looked out of the window.
How very far away from London she was already. There would be no need, to-morrow and the days following, for her to dread going, out, because of that utterly irrational expectation of an encounter, that always ended in the sick flatness of disappointment.
"Take your seats for the first luncheon, please." It was a great help to move, and to walk down the narrow swaying length of the corridor, all one's attention taken up by the effort of not letting oneself be thrown against the sides of the train.
Lunch occupied nearly an hour.