Nov 17, 2010

Consequences by E.M. Delafield

Consequences by E.M. Delafield

E.M. Delafield’s 1919 novel Consequences is very different in tone from her more famous Diary of a Provincial Lady – though it could be argued that despite the superficial differences, they have some thematic similarities. Consequences opens in 1889, when its protagonist, Alexandra Clare, is twelve years old. It then follows Alex for the next twenty years. Like any late Victorian young lady of her social stance, when she comes of age she is introduced to society and into the marriage market. But Alex is a shy and awkward girl, domineering with her siblings but submissive to the point of annulling her personality with those she doesn’t know well. Unsurprisingly, she fails to attract a husband, or to even make any friends. The title of Consequences refers to the results of an education that prepared girls for little more than to be decorative objects and men-magnets. In Alex’s case, the consequences are complete helplessness, a lifetime of acute loneliness, and a despair she can barely articulate.

Consequences has quite a lot in common with my favourite Persephone to date, Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady: both are early twentieth-century novels that look back on the late Victorian period and mercilessly denounce how it let down its young women by completely failing to prepare them for life – or for any form of life that deviated from the very strict script it was supposed to follow: that of engagement, marriage, and motherhood. As a result, both are suffocating, powerful, and absolutely heartbreaking novels.

However, Delafield differs from Ferguson in that she shows the consequences of a Victorian upbringing not only in the lack of external opportunities for anything other than marriage, but even more so in the psychological marks it left on women and girls (though there is certainly also a psychological element in Rachel Ferguson’s character Grace). The approach Delafield chooses is difficult to pull off successfully: by making Alex so awkward and helplessness, she perhaps risks having readers blame the victim and add to the problem. But I think Consequences is an effective novel exactly because despite everything, Alex is difficult not to sympathise with. How could she have known better? How was she to be expected to look after herself? Nobody ever taught her how to do anything at all.

Personally I could relate to Alex’s social awkwardness; to her defeatism; to her retreat into silence when she begins to feel unwelcome or self-conscious. For that, and for everything else, my heart broke for her. But all along I wondered if it a large number of readers wouldn’t find her off-putting, just like many of the book’s other characters find her off-putting. Interestingly enough, this Persephone edition includes two contemporary reviews of Consequences at the end which reveal exactly that: in both cases, Alex is blamed for her helplessness. The fact that her younger sisters managed to do better for themselves is pointed as an example that her fate is in fact the result of nothing but her own personal failings. If only reality were as simple as that.

I imagine that it’s possible that some readers would argue that there’s nothing feminist or even particularly revolutionary in presenting a woman as powerless and dependent as Alex, especially when this is done without comment. But the excellent foreword by Nicola Beauman includes a passage that addresses this exact argument:
[…] Fiction which is not overtly feminist, which, in other words, describes women’s lives without openly railing against their flaws and restrictions but makes the reader understand them, nevertheless, this kind of fiction is almost more upsetting than straightforward, politically feminist fiction.
[…] In all these novels, indeed in virtually every Persephone book, women are starved of freedom but choose to conform. They do so for love of their families and, just as much, from an unwillingness to tackle society head on; and they take refuge in humour, in self-deprecation, in ‘keeping busy’, in ‘mustn’t grumble’. Yet, and this is a very important yet, these books are still deeply feminist. Each and every one of them is asking – does it have to be like this?
This is exactly how I feel not only about this and other Persephone books, but also about, for example, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Victorian sensation novels. They expose all the restrictions surrounding women’s lives in the Victorian era, even if don’t overtly comment on the absolute unfairness of their situation, and even if they tell the stories of women who choose to conform in the end. I find that for modern sensibilities, that’s perhaps even more effective than a less subtle approach, which would inevitably run the risk of being perceived as preachy, heavy-handed, or even anachronistic.

Another interesting thing about Consequences is the fact that it’s possible to read quite a lot of lesbian subtext into Alex’s repeated infatuations with girls and women. I’m not sure how confident I can be about this reading, because the truth is that the social life of a Victorian girl like Alex would rarely have put her in contact with members of the opposite sex in any way conductive to the development of real intimacy. It’s possible that these same-sex passions were the result of her hunger for connections; it’s also possible that they were much more. The text is silent about whether or not there was any element of sexual attraction to them, but this is not something a 1919 novel would likely have been open about. In any case, I don’t want to stubbornly insist on this or that requirement for reading her attachments as romantic passions to be considered “valid”. It’s interesting to consider that there might have been yet another layer buried under the countless feelings Alex could never have voiced. If so, this is simply one more tragedy to add to the many that formed her life.

Favourite passages:
She had been led to expect, from constant veiled references to the subject, that as soon as she grew up, opportunity would be afforded her to attain the goal of every well-born girl’s destiny – that of matrimony. Girls who became engaged to be married in their first season were a success, those who had already twice, or perhaps thrice, been the round of London gaiety with no tangible result of the sort, had almost invariably to give way to a younger sister, so that she, in her turn, might have ‘the chances’ of which they had failed to profit.

‘You seemed to be gettin’ on very well with the man on your other side – not the one who took you down, but the oldish one,’ she said afterwards in a pleased voice.
‘I never found out his name,’ said Alex. ‘He told me he wrote books. It was so interesting; we were talking about poetry a lot of the time.’
Her mother’s face lost something of its smile.
‘Oh, my darling!’ she exclaimed in sudden flattened tones. ‘don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.’
Alex, her solitary triumph killed, knew that there was yet another item to be added to that invisible score of reasons for which one was loved or dislike by one’s fellow-creatures.

‘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 youngest 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 bein’ able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible,’ said Lady Isabel very simply.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)


litlove said...

I loved Diary of a Provincial Lady and have been tempted by Consequences before. After your wonderful review, I might well pick it up, if just to see whether I find the heroine off-putting.

I think it's an interesting effect of Victorian novels that the social horizon of the author often limits the possibilities for protagonists in ways that seem absurd to modern readers. All those terrible marriages, for instance - why won't the women stand up to their bullying husbands, or move out? But the fact they cannot conceive of such a thing, and that society would condemn them roundly, can't be taken lightly. What we think is viable socially is often tied in really subtle ways to the economic situation, and even more deeply bound up with what constitutes 'good' behaviour.

I'd be interested to see how Consequences deals with the goodness or otherwise of Alex's behaviour!

Vishy said...

Wonderful review, Ana! I have heard of 'Diary of a Provincial Lady' but I haven't heard of 'Consequences'. I liked your analysis of how 'Consequences' could be a feminist novel and what Nicola Beauman says about it in the foreword. I think it is interesting when a writer presents things the way they are but still makes us think (in the case of this novel, from your review it looks like Delafield has depicted Alex as a Victorian woman who was compelled to do what women were expected to do in that era, without thinking too much about things or trying to realize her potential, when such acts fall outside the norms of what was expected in society those days). I don't know whether this is because of the way the writer narrates the story and subtly takes us through the issues involved, or whether this is because of the way we read the book, with the literary apparatus and tools we have today. Or is it a combination of both - the writer revealing us subtle secrets and us looking at it through our critical apparatus? What do you think?

Vivienne said...

Is this one a Persephone too?
It sounds like a meat market to me. If the girls did not perform well and show their abilities through their personality, they would be left on the shelf. I am so glad society is no longer like this. I don't think I ever considered the poor girls who did not find husbands.

I just noticed you were reading Sexing The Cherry. I hope you enjoyed it more than me. I just couldn't get into it.

JoAnn said...

Thank you for including passages from the foreword. I suppose the same argument could be made for a novel like The Group (which is fascinating).

Nymeth said...

litlove: Yes, exactly! Those things really can't be taken lightly, which is why I so often find dismissive reviews of the "this character was just weak and stupid" type so distressing to read. As for the rules of "good" behaviour, it's interesting how in Alex's case, she almost takes them TOO seriously. Delafield remarks on her confusion about the fact that, for example, she's told by her mother she's not supposed to flirt because only "fast" girls do that, but of course that at the same time she's expected to flirt a little to hold the interest of the men she meets. Alex never really learns to negotiate those grey areas, which is a big part of why she fails socially.

Vishy: I think that in this case, it was definitely a combination of both. Delafield meant the story to be a criticism of the Victorian social system, even if she never says so outright. But she doesn't need to, because circumstances speak for themselves. At the same time, the historical and social perspective we now have as contemporary readers make these things even more obvious and inescapable than they might have been in 1919.

Vivienne: Yep, it is. And yes, it was pretty much a meat market. I'm finding Sexing the Cherry very strage so far, but we'll see how I get on with it in the end!

JoAnn: Yes, I absolutely agree!

GeraniumCat said...

I find books that deal with this fascinating, both the comparison with modern society, and the opportunity to empathise with a character whose experience is so different from my own. For that reason I usually much prefer the quiet and submissive characters to the "fast" girls - they are much more interesting. On the other hand, I also enjoy autobiographical accounts of women who weren't quiet and submissive, the ones who were ahead of their time. The quiet ones tend to rely on someone else to write their accounts for them, I suppose. I'd love to find a diary written by someone in Alex's circumstances who became a governess, or something, rather than getting married - I can think of fictional instances, but not "true" ones.

Paperback Reader said...

Someone (I can't remember who - very ikely Mrs. B) wrote about Consequences during the first Persephone Reading Week, making me desperate to read it; I still haven't :s

Often a more subtle attack on confinement and conformity reads is more subversive and effective than the overt approach.

Clare said...

I can easily see Alex's infatuations with girls and women as both lesbian subtext and as a "substitute" for intimacy with the opposite sex–situational sexual behavior, although I usually find it difficult to read Victorian women as sexual (not that they aren't, but they usually don't present as such).

Amanda said...

Can I just make another subtle hint here that I think you should join the classics blogger directory? :D

Alexandra said...

What I’d like to know is: how does it end? I imagine that the ending must be important since it’s a story with a moral. But I understand you can’t tell :)

Interesting point about her personality and how that might lead readers to think that her problems are her own fault. Maybe it is when it comes to her not being able to connect to men around her, but surely that’s no excuse for her lack of preparation (or support).

Debi said...

Okay, so I'd already stopped and wrote this title on my wish list after your review. But Ana, then I read the passages. The second one just shattered my heart into teeny tiny pieces. :(

Karenlibrarian said...

Oh, I hope I get this one for Christmas! I have so many Persephones on my wish list. I loved Diary of a Provincial Lady so I really want to read more Delafield. And your mention of Alas, Poor Lady intrigues me also. This is getting to be an expensive habit.

I also agree with Debi --that's a heartbreaking quote. God forbid a girl should be considered clever!

Zibilee said...

I find the questions that this book brings up very interesting. Can a novel still aim to be feminist if it does nothing to change or challenge the situations that a particular character faces? I think yes, that even by it's very nature of highlighting the character's plight it is subtly doing work in the minds of its readers. I think this message is only compounded by time and the various societal changes that we, as women, go through. Very interesting book and review, Ana. You gave em a lot to think about.

Emily said...

Fascinating post, on a book I hadn't heard of before. Re: the possible lesbian subtext, I don't think the fact that a person is isolated from the opposite sex necessarily invalidates any same-sex relationships they may have (not that I think you were saying this). Even if a person's feelings might have been different in different circumstances, those relationships can still be meaningful and are still, obviously, same-sex. This seems especially true to me since "homosexual" as an identity rather than a behavior is an idea that hadn't caught on yet in 1919. Anyway, this sounds like an interesting read!

Nymeth said...

GeraniumCat: That's an excellent point, and one I hadn't considered before. I guess the quiet girls never told their stories because even writing was considered a questionable activity for "respectable" women at the time. But it would be amazing to find a diary!

Claire: I must look for the link! Fyrefly's search engine sadly didn't reveal it. Anyway, I've no doubt you'd enjoy this!

Clare: Very true that they're not mutually exclusive!

Amanda: Okay, okay, I'll do it :P

Alexandra: I really can't say, but it's not hard to guess it's not happily :\

Debi: I know :(

Karen: Ha, it IS an expensive habit :P I really think you'd love both this and the Ferguson.

Zibilee: I don't think it's so much that it does nothing to challenge the status quo as it is that it does it subtly. Which I actually love, but judging by those reviews included at the end, it made it easier for the point to be missed.

Emily: That's such an excellent point about behaviour versus identity!

Carolyn said...

Ooh, now you've made me interested in this! I didn't pay much attention to it on the Persephone list before. I agree with your comment on my review of The Tortoise & the Hare, this does sound like a similar passive heroine, the type that I can relate to and sympathize with more than the bolder ones. I'm glad you think these are still feminist texts, I think differences in personality and experiences simply have to be taken into account -- not all people are forceful and it isn't fair to blame an introvert for not having the same social skills that others have. If I hadn't been encouraged to do the unconventional things that are available to women now, like taking drama classes, I would have been socially squashed like a bug and mostly overlooked my whole life I think.

The mindset of being a victim, learned helplessness, is one that was taught to most women at the time (with society set up in a sort of bullying hierarchy, rich pampered white sons and men being able to treat those beneath them any way they saw fit and others following the same behaviors just to maintain their social standing) and sensitive, shy people would be much more likely to pick up the victim role, to take it too much to heart, to not know how to hold onto their own personality strongly enough. (Speaking from my own experience!)

irisonbooks said...

You have added 2 books to my wishlist in one go (The other Delafield is already on my wishlist).

And this: "I could relate to Alex’s social awkwardness; to her defeatism; to her retreat into silence when she begins to feel unwelcome or self-conscious." is how I feel, all too often. If only for that, I'd like to read the book.

Tiina said...

Sounds very interesting! I'll add this to my TBR list.


heidenkind said...

I say go with the lesbian subtext. Why the heck not?

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

What a very fascinating review -- I've not seen this one before, but I'm quite interested in the Persephone books and need to pick one up. Stunning how these classics are so riveting 100 years later.

Jenny said...

It always makes me so sad to see the consequences of being unprepared for what's going to happen in life. Persephone does that really well, I think.

(I just read an intensely upsetting story in a memoir set in the 1950s. The memoirist witnessed a girl being taken sexual advantage of by a bunch of guys. The girl in question wasn't raped, but she had a horrible first experience of sex, and it was idiotically preventable. If someone had bothered talking to her, or to the group of guys, about what sex was and what it was all about. It was horrible. People should be prepared for what's going to happen in life!)

Erin said...

I agree with Iris -- I'd read this one just because I think I, too, would relate to Alex. I'm very curious now!

Violet said...

I don't know how you keep cranking out these thoughtful reviews, but I know that when I visit your site (I don't use an RSS reader!), I'm going to come away with something to think about.

This time, I'm thinking about class, and how upper class Victorian women were laced into tight lives, as tight as their corsets, but lower class women (such as I would have been if I'd lived then) had a great deal more freedom, and perhaps led much richer lives. I think there are always ways to rebel, but we must be prepared to take the risk. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most oppressed Victorian women around, and look what she did! Plenty of moneyed Victorian women escaped their domestic prisons, but I guess they had to have the gumption to do it. Maybe that's my point here; maybe Alex lacked courage. I think that without courage, without being willing to act on a leap of faith, we do tend to lead dull, "safe" and stultifying lives. The risk is everything! I find it hard to empathise with a character who won't get off his or her backside and sieze life by the throat! I think that's why I love Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary so much. At least they took the risk, even if it didn't pay off in the end. At least they experienced passion! :)

Amy said...

Sounds really interesting Ana! One of these days I'll try one of these Victorian books I promise ;)

Bina said...

I have yet to read something by Delafield and I had only heard of Diary of a Provincial Lady, not this one. But you make Consequences sound so good, maybe I need to read this one first :)

I agree with you about books that don't have to have an outspoken feminist angle, in depicting the circumstances as they are, without an explicit agenda they are sometimes more informative to modern readers. And it is the reader who fills a text with meaning ;)

Jason Gignac said...

I think a LOT of times, people have a tendency to look at 'weak characters' of the past's fiction and feel angry at them for not being stronger - without seeing how much strength it might take to simply survive. The Awakening is a good exmaple of this for me. The fact is, quite simply, that to expect every woman to be a revolutionary is unfair and demeaning in some ways. How can we be angry at a system that is unfair and then be angry at the people who suffer it's effects?

Also, I thought your mention of the possible lesbian subtext was interesting. Being a fan of Emily Dickinson, whose friendship with her sister in law, particularly, is often studied in a sapphic light, it's a really baffling question. At one level, yes, of course there must have been people who were simply atttracted to the 'wrong' gender, and then on the other, I think that many of us are really capable of being attracted to anyone, or more precisely, that we are attracted to something besides the configuration of their gender parts, and particularly during the victorian and edwardian periods, you have all these women shut up in a world where they are never supposed to talk to men really, and where they're taught, in fact, to be frightened of them in a way, so when you come of age surrounded by women, seeing the best of being deeply, intimately acquainted with other women, some of the letters written between female friends of the period (or between male friends in a very similar way) are in so many ways much more passionate than the letters between lovers, to where you begin to ask - what IS the most important thing in a relationship? What's REALLY the difference between two people who have that kind of fiery love for each other, and a 'marriage' or 'love affair' or whatever? If the arbitrary line is simply that they have sex then, really, that opens a whole can of worms to be thought about. I'd love to - LOVE to - find a good book about passionate friendship in the 19th and early 20th century, and in school, I actually toyed with the idea of making this something I studied, say in Grad School, becuase it's something that sort of points to what they were missing in some ways, while in others, simultaneously hinting at something we've lost, or missed the point of, in our own culture.

Nymeth said...

Carolyn, I can't tell you how much I can relate to your comment. I'm a huge introvert myself, and if I'd had Alex's lives I suspect I'd have been completely crushed by circumstances - which wouldn't mean I wouldn't be revolting against them inside. I very much agree it's not fair to blame people for not being more assertive or defiant or whatever. We don't all have it in us to be like that.

Iris, I honestly think you'd love them both!

Tiina: Enjoy!

heindekind: Why not indeed?

Coffee and a Book Chock: Do read a Persephone! They never disappoint.

Jenny: They do! And argh - those things make me want a time machine so badly :\

Erin: I hope you both enjoy it!

Violet: It's true that some women were braver and more assertive than others, but I don't think it's fair to expect everyone to be able to do what EBB did (much as I love her!). As I was telling Carolyn above, I'm not courageous myself and I very much suspect that if I'd been a Victorian women I'd have been squashed like a bug :P

Amy: Good ;)

Bina: This one is even better! About twice as sad as Provincial Lady is funny, though :P And very true about the reader and meaning!

Jason: "How can we be angry at a system that is unfair and then be angry at the people who suffer it's effects?" Yes, yes, exactly! In Alex's cases, as frustrating as it was to watch her helplessness, I could hardly imagine her being able to act any differently. I did Delafield did a superb job of getting that across. And I would also love to read a book on those friendships! I wish you'd written that grad school thesis and then published it as a book :P

Rosemary said...

I'm so glad to come across this post! I recently picked up _Diary of a Provincial Lady_ at a used bookstore, and loved it so much I downloaded _Consequences_ to my Kindle. I was so surprised at how completely *different* it was from _Diary_ that I had to get online to see what others had written about it.

I think a "queer" reading of the novel is very much possible, even if Alex never identifies herself as such. Lines like the following really have jumped out at me:

"It was wrong to attach so much importance to loving; it was *different*, in some mysterious, culpable way, to feel as she did....All these desires, being wrong and unlike other people, must at all costs be concealed and denied."

However, having read more here about how the novel progresses, I'm not sure I have the stamina to finish's so painful to follow Alex's slow demise!

BTW, I *very* much appreciate Jason's comment about _The Awakening_, especially his point that "to expect every woman to be a revolutionary is unfair and demeaning in some ways. How can we be angry at a system that is unfair and then be angry at the people who suffer its effects?" I teach that novel with some regularity, and that gives me some good fodder for defending poor Edna.

Great post!