Nov 22, 2011

Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield

Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield

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.”
“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.”
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.

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.

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.
Reviewed at: Verity’s Virago Venture, A Work in Progress, Book Snob, Desperate Reader, Bunny Stuff, Books as Food



  1. And the system still works the same today as I try to advise my own girls on how to behave with boys! But you are right, now it is more about respectability than anything else.

  2. The more Delafield reviews you post the more ashamed I feel I haven't read any. Really need too soon, but thanks to you I've got a nice little list to work from.

  3. Vivienne: I can hardly imagine how complicated these issues are for a teenager's parents! As infuriating as the double-standards may be, there are very real problems out there that anyone navigating relationships can't not be aware of.

    Jessica: No reason to be ashamed, but I hope you do read her soon! She's an amazing writer.

  4. I remember very similar rules also - not conveyed so much by my mother but by magazines like Seventeen and Cosmo. And if you watch music videos now, with all the emphasis on sex and the appeal of bondage/humiliation for women, I don't know how far we have come!

  5. Jill: I remember that from teen magazines in the 90's/early 00's also. And yes, excellent point! What you said also reminded me of this recent article about Hollywood prejudices and women's sexuality being used as a form of aggression.

  6. The premise and ideas surrounding this book are so sad, and reading your review makes me realize, that as Jill said, we haven't really come that far. This seems like something that I need to check out. It will probably be very eye-opening to me. Very detailed and wonderful review, Ana.

  7. When I read The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and loathed it, I was dismissive of Delafield as a writer. Oh, how very wrong I was! I need to thank you and Iris for steering me towards Conseqences, because that was all kinds of brilliant and heart-breaking, and made me appreciate Delafield's writing. I've put this in the queue and hope to get to it soon. What I like about Delafield is just how precisely she skewers social proscriptions and expectations with her pen. She did that in the The Diary as well, but I was too close-minded to see it at the time. Mea culpa.

  8. This sounds like a great book - thanks for the review!

  9. My own experience with marriage makes me interested in books like this. I actually wanted to be a "spinster". I never saw myself married, and even as a married person now, I (and my husband) still find it amusing we decided to 'tie the knot' due to our independence and non-reliance on tradition.

  10. My library has a few Delafield novels and now I am hoping this one is amongst it. Wonderful and clever review as always, Ana.

  11. Oh my goodness...I WANT. WANT. WANT. WANT. WANT this book! (And luckily for me, Rich just asked me for a couple gift ideas.) This sounds incredible! This whole part of your review:

    "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."

    Yeah, how could one resist?!!

  12. Do you remember that book called The Rules? I think it came out in the late '90s, with all these rules for women to follow if they want to get a husband. Those rules sound pretty similar!

  13. Zibilee: Thank you! And sadly I don't think we have, no :\

    Violet: We all judge things a little hurriedly sometimes. I'm so glad you gave her another chance and connected with her writing. I kept thinking about you and Iris as I was reading this one.

    Rachel: You're welcome :)

    Trisha: It's certainly a wonderful things that marriage dynamics have changed enough that the two are no longer mutually exclusive!

    Iris: I hope it is too! Like I was telling Violet I kept thinking about the two of you as I read this. I really think you'd love it.

    Debi: You'll love it too! And Consequences, and Alas, Poor Lady :P

    Heidenkind: I don't think that one made it to my part of the world, but I'm not at all surprised to hear it existed!

  14. I really want to read Delafield! I have Consequences on my Kindle, but it didn't draw me in as I expected, so I went onto something else. But I'll give it another go!

  15. Great review - I love seeing more EM Delafield novels talked about across the blogosphere. I read this one in 2003 or 2004, and most strongly remember the sinister way in which the ending was called 'happy' when it really was anything but. I was under the impression that it was set in the late Victorian period, but I could be wrong.

    I've been researching the books for and about early twentieth century spinsters, for my DPhil, and some of it is really chilling!

  16. I've just spent some of my afternoon counseling with a younger co-worker whose friends are offering her all kinds of advice on "how to find a husband". I want to slap each and every one of them. It is astounding to me that young women still feel the pressure to marry and I guess in some ways and in some social circles, still suffer the consequences of remaining unmarried.

  17. I see you couldn't resist Delafield for long :)

    Sounds as fantastic as Consequences, and I remember that line of getting yourself talked about well!

    And I hate how these rules are still advertised everywhere and yet I pretty much daily hear something along the lines of how much things have changed for women.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.