1 March 2013

Thank Heaven Fasting by E. M. Delafield

'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 Nicholls 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.'

Does anyone else stand amongst towering shelves of second-hand books in a shop full to bursting wondering just how close they are to that gem of a book they've been searching forever for?  Well I do - all the time.  But a couple of weekends ago I found a new shop to browse on Bloor St and there it was, a book I have been dying to find, in all its glory. 

Published in 1932 my best guess is that Thank Heaven Fasting is set during some point just after the First World War.  Delafield isn't specific but there is talk of a shortage of men and both carriages and cars are employed for travel.  A home in Eaton Square is full of excitement as a coming-out ball at the Ritz is only days away and there is much to be talked about between mothers and daughters.  Everything is to be perfect on that night of nights as the ultimate goal is to catch the eye of an equally perfect young man from a well-to-do family.  The sad truth is that any husband is better than none, even the aging Mr Pelham with his bulging prawn-like eyes.

Mrs Ingram, Monica's mother, practically has a full-time job on her hands with writing out invitations, having the tiara polished and a pearl necklace restrung not to mention the appointments with dressmakers.  Bond Street must have been a veritable highway with hordes of young ladies and their mothers, being driven to and fro, seeing to every detail.  The Ingrams are particular friends of the strikingly beautiful Lady Marlowe from Belgrave Square whose daughters, Frederica and Cecily, apparently lack her beauty, grace and charm.  It gets worse...'Both were intensely conscious of their height, and stooped partly from the wish to minimize it, partly from sheer lack of vitality.  They gave limp and chilly hands to the greeting clasp of the visitor, and withdrew from the contact quickly, obscurely disliking it.'

Despite the litany of horror stories about what can happen to a young lady's reputation  due to dalliances with inappropriate men, Monica falls for the dashing, Christopher Lane (well of course she does!).  A state of secrecy and delicately worded half-truths become Mrs Ingram's new occupation as Monica becomes part of a dreaded group.  Those young ladies who are 'unattractive' to men.  Will her reputation ever be restored or will she end up a spinster watching life go by from behind the veil of net curtains? 

I loved this book and Delafield's writing is a treat to behold.  Her wit and turn of phrase are a joy but she also addresses the dark side of a rigid society that treats women as mere chattel passing from father to husband.  It is pointed out that a young lady's inability to secure a good marriage is seen as not only her failure but her mother's as well.  On balance I wonder if there are as many stories about a father's fear of failure if his son neglects to increase the value of the family business or marry well; George Grossmith's Charles Pooter and Lupin from The Diary of a Nobody springs to mind as one possible example.

The last sentence of Thank Heaven Fasting took me by surprise; its tone sadder than anything else in the book but oh so understandable.  E. M. Delafield delivers yet again.

13 comments:

  1. Oh Darlene, I've just had to put down my glass and fetch the stepladder to pull that last sentence down from the shelf!

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    1. Ooh, now I'm thinking about the poor person who won't have the book on their shelf and wonder what in the world it's all about! Well there is nothing like a quest.

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  2. Me too! Wine glass put down and rummaging about on bottom shelves. Wonderful review Darlene - brought it all back, thank you.

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    1. Hahaha! There could be an idea for a blog post in there somewhere...intriguing sentences and various clues to send people rifling through their book stash. Enjoy your day, Donna.

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  3. Isn't the last sentence heartbreaking? (The end of Crewe Train affected me in the same way.) Lovely review, Darlene.

    I'd assumed that the novel was set in the late Victorian period, but since it's not clear, it's guesswork, isn't it?

    And, as for wondering about potential gems in a bookshop - I wonder it by my own overflowing shelves!

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    1. I actually gasped, Simon. Now the need to read Crewe Train has been ramped up a bit...oh, and remember the last line in Little Boy Lost? Where are my tissues?!

      Late Victorian, eh? It's every bit as likely as my guess. Perhaps Downton Abbey has clouded my reading and every woman in a gown must surely look like Mary, Edith or poor Sybil!

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  4. Oh! This book is so sad. I love it best of E M Delafield's novels that I've read so far - it's so haunting and yes - that last line. Awful because you know it was true for so many women. I am going to go and get my copy right now!

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    1. I know! Between the corsets and the mothers hovering...how claustrophobic, the poor things were hardly allowed to breathe! Possibly explains why some young ladies were fine with marrying much older gentlemen. The thought of being a young widow with a fortune must have been quite tempting...ooh, aren't I cynical!

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  5. I wonder about where my next bookish revelation is going to come from when I'm in secondhand bookshops too. I've not yet read this one but I'm intrigued by your review, it's on my wishlist but obviously I need to bump it up higher. :)

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    1. Delafield is high on my list of favourite authors; she writes everything from laugh out loud wit to darker subjects you will mull over for days. Grab everything you can, Alex!

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  6. Sounds like an interesting read, I might have to make this my next purchase from Persephone.

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  7. Oh lovely post. Sadly the second hand bookshops near me mainly have inferior chicklit and crime novels! I dream of finding a pristine Rumer Godden I haven't yet read.

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  8. I have this one on my Kindle but haven't read it yet. Must put it next in the queue--and somehow stop myself from clicking ahead to that last sentence! K x

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