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Consequences

by E M Delafield
Persephone book no:

12 13 14


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A Well Full of Leaves
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PREFACE BY NICOLA BEAUMAN
448pp
ISBN 9781903155028


EM Delafield is best-known as the author of Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930). But her own favourite among her books was Consequences (1919), the deeply-felt novel she wrote about the plight of girls given no opportunities apart from marriage.

The heroine of Consequences, Alex Clare, is twelve when the book opens in 1889 and is being brought up in Bayswater in London in true Victorian fashion - that is, "to believe that it was something between a minor tragedy and a major disgrace for a girl to remain unsought in marriage after her twentieth birthday." She endures a girlhood that in no way prepares her for the hurdles ahead and then is let down by everyone around her because no-one ever takes the trouble to make life comprehensible to her. Alex is awkward and oversensitive and gets everything wrong; she refuses to marry the only young man who 'offers' and believes there is nothing left for her but to enter a convent. But that is not quite the end of her tragic story.

This is an angry book, angrier, indeed than any of EM Delafield's others, and for a reason: its author, who had worked as nurse through the First World War, made her own friends and earned her own living, felt, at the age of 28, confident enough to express the anger she felt towards her own mother. Delafield criticises rituals ranging from the harsh rules governing the lives of girls at boarding school, to Lady Clare not seeing her children except at prescribed times of day, to Nurse's absurd strictures and lack of kindness, to the near-sadism of life in the convent.

Conseqences is in essence a diatribe against the constraints of the Victorian family. It was part of the anti-Victorian explosion so famously expressed in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, written around the same time; it is a scream of horror against Victorian values. To the contemporary reader, the novel also raises all sorts of interesting questions about neurodiversity, sexuality, organised religion, and so on.

Consequences is a deeply feminist book, as well as funny, sardonic, perceptive, shocking and sad. It is also highly readable and very moving.

Also available as a (free) e-book.

Endpaper

Much of the book is spiky and sharp: appropriately, the fabric for the endpaper is 'Thistle', a Silver Studio block-printed cotton sold at Liberty's in 1896, the year Alex would have been nineteen; by which time she is ensnared - scratched - by thickets of convention and etiquette.

Picture Caption

'Portrait of a Woman' by Arnold Mason, 1931


Read What Readers Say

A Blog with a View

Alex in ‘Consequences’ reminded me a bit of myself in the early chapters – technically pretty, talented, and promising but a bit off as a child, never quite fitting in with the other children. With me, that was because anxiety and only-child syndrome plagued me early on, causing me to act like I deserved and needed to be the centre of attention. With Alex, it seemed to be about a need for affection and attention. I consequently emotionally invested myself in the story and buckled in for a very angsty and uncomfortable ride. Alex took everything to the extreme, desperate for friendship and human affection, developing deep and over- whelming crushes on others that often caused her to self-destruct. Angst really is the driving force of the book. Everything about it is about deep and unrestrained feeling. I often found myself needing to put it down to recover or to cringe. Alex had my sympathy throughout, and reading about a Victorian heroine like her was refreshing.

Heavenali via Instagram

In ‘Consequences’ we encounter Delafield’s concern with women’s place in the world, but here there are none of the wry observances I remember from her most famous work, ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’. It was in ‘The War Workers’ that I first saw the anger that Delafield is also capable of. It is clear that in ‘Consequences’ it is that same anger which fuelled her. The theme of this beautifully poignant novel is the fate of women of a certain class who do not marry. Her central character is Alex – an awkward girl, who in time becomes an awkward young woman. In this novel Delafield recreates upper class Victorian family life, convent school days, the anxious social whirl of a young debutante and the hard, privations of the religious life of a nun. There is a terrible inevitability to Alex’s fate – she has never learned to get along with people, is unable to empathise with them. The reader knows even at this stage that Alex is unlikely to find her happy ending. Despite being over 400 pages, ‘Consequences’ is hugely compelling – and Delafield’s writing made me sit up late turning the pages – I just had to know what was next for poor Alex Clare.

Categories: Mothers Single Women Women’s Place Working Women

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