Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life—the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square—was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.The title of E.M. Delafield’s 1932 novel Thank Heaven Fasting comes from a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “But mistress, know yourself; down on your knees, / And thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love”. It tells the story of Monica Ingram, the only daughter of a well-to-do family. When the novel opens, Monica is about to become a débutante and have her first ball. Thank Heaven Fasting follows Monica’s attempts to do the thing every girl of her social sphere was raised to do: secure herself a respectable husband.
Thank Heaven Fasting takes place over an unspecified period in the early 20th century. There are no overt mentions of WW1, but there are plenty of references to there not being “enough men to go round”, which suggests it could be the post-War period. Then again, there are also some references to the suffragette’s campaign. In any case, this is a time when the marriage market is still in full swing, and when the options available to a girl like Monica are painfully limited.
E.M. Delafield revisits the themes of her earlier novel Consequences here, but from a different angle: Thank Heaven Fasting is not so much about money and the destitution that would most likely befall a woman who didn’t marry (Monica is well aware of this, of course, though as a single child she would fare better than most), but about the psychological aspects of the marriage market.
In this novel, Delafield mostly focuses on the sense of failure and humiliation experienced by women who failed to be “attractive to men”. And as this is something that has changed far less than the economic angle, Thank Heaven Fasting is not really a novel that invites a sight of relief or a pat on the back about how far we’ve come – not when we remember the stigma that still surrounds single women, the dominant cultural myths about failure and frustration and dreadful, inevitable unhappiness, the incredibly loaded term “spinster” and all that it still implies.
Much like Alex in Consequences, Monica is not a rebel, but that was exactly what made her experiences so interesting to me. The sexist ideology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not make a feminist out of every woman who suffered its consequences – some, like Monica, were too fully immersed in it to question the system, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t pay its price. Much of the power of Thank Heaven Fasting is in what it does not say; in what the characters don’t realise but the reader does. The final section of the novel, titled “the happy ending”, is particularly chilling in this regard. There’s no doubt that yes, Monica is happy, but there’s such tragedy in her final wish never to have a daughter.
Another interesting aspect of Thank Heaven Fasting is its analysis of the constraints the marriage market dynamics put on truly intimate relationships between men and women. How could they ever emerge when there were so many rules that had to be obeyed; so many games to be played? This aspect of the novel reminded me a little of To The Lighthouse. Take, for example, Monica’s mother’s litany of rules concerning how to act around men:
“Never make yourself cheap, darling. It doesn’t lead to anything, in the long run, to let a man know that you like him or want him to like you.”These rules are actually not too far removed from the rules I remember from my own upbringing, though the emphasis was less on marriage and more on “respectability”. Even though socio-economic circumstances have changed, these ideas still very much shape how we perceive female sexuality and what is or isn’t appropriate gendered behaviour. As a result, women are still expected to play this sort of game. The saddest thing of all is that the narrative eventually (and almost inevitably) proves Monica’s mother right: she’s right in the sense that yes, this is how the system works. And the more people obeyed it, the more real it became.
“Don’t talk about being ‘friends’ with a young man, my pet. There’s no such thing as a friendship between a girl and a man. Either he wants to marry you, or he doesn’t. Nothing else is any good.”
“A girl who gets herself talked about is done for. Men may dance with her, or flirt with her, but they don’t propose. She gets left.”
“Never have anything to do with a young man who’s familiar—asking if he may call you by your Christian name, or write to you, or anything like that. A gentleman doesn’t do those things to the kind of girl that he respects, and might want to marry.”
Thank Heaven Fasting is a powerful and very moving novel. As enjoyable as The Diary of a Provincial Lady is, it’s actually a shame that it’s Delafield’s best-known book and that it overshadows works like this or Consequences.
A few more memorable passages:
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. It was not, even, a question of marrying well, although mothers with pretty and attractive daughters naturally hoped for that. But any husband at all was better than none. If a girl was neither married nor engaged by the end of her third season it was usually said, discreetly, among her mother’s acquaintances, that no one had asked her.Reviewed at: Verity’s Virago Venture, A Work in Progress, Book Snob, Desperate Reader, Bunny Stuff, Books as Food
Before the tidal wave of pain and humiliation that had risen on the horizon of consciousness had actually broken, engulfing her youth and her confidence in herself and in life, Monica had time for that flash of astonished conviction:
Her mother had been right all the time.
It was a conviction from which she was never again wholly to free herself.