on 30 June 2010
'She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman's failure or success in life depended entirely upon whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband.'
Thank Heaven Fasting was published in 1932, but it's not clear precisely when this story is set ... it must be pre-WW1 because votes for women is an ongoing issue. And remember, it wasn't only WW1 that brought about a shortage of eligible men ... prior to this, there were the losses of the South African wars and the executive demands of running an Empire which also created a deficit as Britain 'exported' so many young men.
Monica's first season gets off to a good start until she ruins everything by one evening of extremely mild bad behaviour ... she snogs a caddish young officer at a dance, word gets around and her reputation is sullied. 'It was not at once - it was not, indeed, for years - that Monica fully realized the disastrous results of her love-affair with Christopher Lane. yet, even on her return home after the ball, she learnt something of the extent to which she had jeopardized her own chances of happiness and success in life.'
It was disaster for a girl who didn't marry ... what else could she do, with no education, no possible career, only the prospect of charity work to advertise her ignominious status as an old maid.
EM Delafield knows this world inside out; having failed to attract a husband in her own first season, she narrowly escaped becoming a nun and was only rescued by the wider opportunities offered by WW1.
Not as gruelling a read as EMD's tragic earlier novel Consequences ... this time she tackles the same issues with a lighter, wittier touch and much wry humour.
on 15 February 2015
A fascinating story. It seems hard to believe that some years ago a woman's only hope of a civilised existence was to marry. If they were unfortunate enough not to then they hardly existed. They were the poor maiden aunt, sister or friend who was quietly pitied. Monica was one of these souls until the kindly man who she had known for so many years asked her to marry him and she gratefully accepted. I think it likely that she did not love this man but in gratitude for being accepted by society she was prepared to accept him and work to make him happy. And to think that her "sin" was to allow a man to play with her innocent affections. By today's standards this book is a real eye opener. It is so very well written I felt for poor Monica, her joys, her sorrows,her desperation at her future and her relief of her marriage to a kindly man. A lovely read.
It is difficult to tell at exactly what date this novel is set; the appearance of motor cars and chauffeurs, taxis, the Morning Post, frock-coats, influenza, telephones, Mudie's and a shortage of eligible men could indicate either the reign of Edward VII or George V, but the references to Suffragettes and the absence of any mention of the Great War as well as the descriptions of Monica's clothes and the Exhibition at the White City narrow the field to between about 1908 and early 1914. The life led by the heroine, Monica, and her circle is still that of the privileged few; the house in Eaton Square, the full staff of servants, the presentation at Court before her first social season as a débutante and the leisured and protected life she leads might seem enviable at first glance. Happiness in such a life is, however, entirely determined by success in marriage. To rebel against that destiny or, worse, simply not to achieve it, results in isolation if not ostracism, and a deep and genuine sense of personal failure.
Monica's chances at first look promising; she is reasonably pretty, reasonably intelligent, charming and nicely dressed, and her parents are rich and well-connected - in the expression of the time, `quite-quite' - and her first ball is a success. Her opportunities for meeting eligible men during the Season are numerous even though she is not free to go absolutely anywhere she pleases: "Monica's mother was, comparatively, liberal-minded; she allowed her child to go out to matinées with only another girl, and to walk in the streets of Belgravia - not the Pimlico end and not beyond Harvey Nichols at the top of Sloane Street - escorted only by a maid. Monica might go in cabs, even hansoms, although not in omnibuses, and she might travel alone by train, first-class, if her mother's maid went in the carriage with her".
Despite this level of supervision, however, Monica falls in love with a seasoned player who has no serious intentions, and despite the relationship being by our standards almost virginal (holding hands and kissing being as far as it gets), this lapse in self-control wrecks the rest of her girlhood. After years of increasing loneliness she meets another man who at first seems to be all that she longs for; but despite demanding intense emotional commitment he turns out to be so determinedly in love with an old flame as to prevent his ever considering marriage to anyone else.
At last, after she has all but given up hope, she gets a proposal from a middle-aged barrister. He has been hanging around since her first dance and, though harmless and kindly and quite-quite, he has never been seen as a serious possibility; Monica has never found him even slightly attractive. Now, however, she feels "an incredulous flood of joy and relief" as she accepts him. When faced with a last-minute attempt to dissuade her she allows herself no misgivings: "Herbert Pelham had asked her to marry him. He was in earnest. He stood for security and, above all, for the removal of Monica's reproach amongst women. The years of anxiety and suspense had taught her their lesson. Not for...anyone or anything in this world, would Monica relinquish the blessed certainty of becoming a wife".
Of course it could be objected that a book of this sort no longer has any relevance. It would certainly be no use as a guide to modern marriage. Perhaps some would simply despise Monica for her lack of courage, her conformity and her failure to control her own destiny. But my pleasure in works like this is that of getting temporarily into the mindset of someone from another age, seeing their world through their eyes and imagining how it felt to live within their boundaries, to hear the command "Thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man's love" and understand exactly what it meant. This unpretentious and carefully-observed story deserves to be in print again, and I hope the popularity of E.M.Delafield's better-known Diary of a Provincial Lady might encourage the publisher to give it another chance.
on 16 September 2012
This novel works as rather an antidote to romance novels. It's the story of Monica from when she comes out. She leads a very stilted life where everything is geared towards correcting her behaviour and character in the hope that she will manage to find a husband. She doesn't, for ages and ages, not least because she is silly about a cad, and eventually she marries a man, partly out of relief at not having to simply be a spinster any longer. Very sad, and very good.
on 29 September 2014
These days this is almost a book for students, people who are interested in what life was like Then. The story of Monica is thoroughly unsatisfying - which is what, I imagine, Delafield wanted to express. It could almost be compared with a 60s kitchen-sink play - a stream of consciousness that doesn't go anywhere - except that no-one in this life ever went anywhere near a kitchen sink, but their lives were just as bounded. Delafield saw the horror of her own restricted, artificial, upper class life, and expressed it in suitably restricted and artificial terms. (The sisters who are slowly and genteely going mad; Monica herself who is absolutely delighted to marry, in her late 20s, someone she despised ten years earlier, simply because it is a marriage - what comes next is irrelevant.) It is an ironic and wry novel by someone who suffered from the system. Not heavy, not anguished - well written and an easy read, but without the humour that Barbara Pym would have leavened it with. Which is interesting when one thinks of the humour that Delafield later turned to in the Provincial Lady series - which can be seen as essentially 'what came next'. This all sounds a bit negative, but actually I found it a fascinating book and will probably read it more than once.