Wednesday 12 September 2012

Consequences - Beware of Spoilers

If you don't like spoilers, then don't read this post, because I'm going to give away an ending! Now I realise that many of you don't like to be told what happens in a novel, but I've always been quite happy to know the outcome in advance - indeed, sometimes I even sneak a peek at the final chapter because I can't wait to find out. My shelves are full of books which I've read so often I could probably recite huge chunks of them from memory, but knowing the ending never detracts from my enjoyment. And there are classics and popular books which are so well known that they've become part of our literary culture, and it would be hard to avoid knowledge of the plots and characters.

Then there are novels where the ending is such an intrinsic part of the story that it colours your view, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a review without mentioning it. And EM Delafield's Consequences was just such a book. It takes a brave author to end a story with the suicide of the central character, told from the perspective of that person, but that is just what Delafield does here, and she does it with immense sympathy and dignity, showing us the utter desolation of a woman who has failed to find any meaning in her life.

I downloaded EM Delafield's
'Consequences' from Girlebooks.
Throughout her life Alex Clare remains isolated and disconnected from those around her, and never, ever manages to find her niche. She is the eldest child of wealthy Sir Francis and Lady Isabel, and we first meet her in the nursery, playing a game of Consequences with her brothers and sisters. A pretty child, she is unloved: her siblings think she is too bossy, and her parents see so little of their offspring they rely on Nurse for character descriptions – and Nurse believes Alex is violent, overbearing and quarrelsome.

The children see their mother for half an hour on Sundays when they go down to the drawing room after tea (except during the season), an experience enjoyed only by Alex, because it provides 'the notice that her soul loved'. But when she is 12 Alex almost kills her sister Barbara, persuading her to be a tight-rope dancer on a skipping rope tied to the stairposts. Barbara falls and injures her back, so Alex is sent to school in disgrace.

Alex went to school at the end of September. And that was her first practical experience of the game of Consequences, as played by the freakish hand of fate.

For the school, a Belgian convent, is cold and cheerless (physically and emotionally). Alex finds it difficult to make friends, but forms unsuitable one-sided attachments, first to a young nun, and then to beautiful Queenie, who is most definitely not 'one of us'. (My last post was about a real-life Victorian lady who also had a predilection for unsuitable relationships, and I begin to wonder if well-brought-up Victorian women saw such escapades as a form of escape from the narrow confines of their lives.) Anyway, Alex's need for love remains unfulfilled, just as it did at home:

She despised herself secretly, both for her intense craving for affection, and for her prodigality in bestowing it. She was like a child endeavouring to pour a great pailful of water into a very little cup.

When Queenie leaves, she seems to suffer some kind of breakdown, and her reputation for being difficult is firmly established. Academically she learns little, and the girls are taught nothing of arts they need to survive in society so, since such knowledge does not come naturally to Alex, she returns home awkward, badly dressed, unable to make polite conversation and totally unprepared for the social whirl she encounters at her coming out. At this point I have to ask why her parents sent her to such an inadequate establishment. Did they know – or care – that this horrible place did not meet the needs of their daughter (or, come to that, of any other girl)? What on earth were they thinking of ? Did they select the school as a punishment, knowing how bad it was, or did someone recommend it, and were they under the impression that Alex would be transformed into an educated, elegant young lady?
Her mother is disappointed. Alex lacks grace, can't flirt like the other girls, or make light-hearted conversation, and she doesn't seem interested in the life she is expected to lead. By the end of her first season Alex has failed to receive a proposal of marriage, but eventually she does get engaged , to Noel, who is pompous and passionless, but must have a woman to run his house and estate.
The Family of Queen Victoria, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
in 1846, helped promote the image of loving, caring families.
But in may upper class Victorian homes children rarely saw
their parents.
Alex, realising they don't love each other, and wanting something from life that he can't offer, breaks off the engagement, to the bewilderment of those around her. She forms another of her one-sided attachments, to a Mother Superior, and becomes a nun, spending ten years following a harsh regime in a Belgian convent. But when Mother Gertrude moves elsewhere, Alex realises she has no true vocation, and suffers another break-down. She leaves the order, singularly ill-equipped to cope with the demands of normal life, and somehow the final tragedy – when Alex fills her pockets with stones and walks into a pool on Hampstead Heath - takes on a terrible inevitability.

'Consequences' is not an easy read, and Alex is not an easy character: it's difficult to like her, but I felt so sorry for her – how could you not sympathise with such an unloved child who is denied the care and nurture she needs. Unlike her brothers and sisters she never finds her niche in life, and never learns how to 'play the game'. She always feels different, and seems alienated from people, finding it difficult to form relationships or to communicate with others. She cannot understand people, and they cannot understand her, and she is convinced life and people have treated her unfairly, and feels inadequate, but doesn't seem to be able to rouse herself to take any positive action. I wondered if Delafield based Alex on a real person – someone suffering some kind of condition within the autistic spectrum perhaps, or someone with a personality disorder or chronic depression.

Published in 1919, it lacks the humour of the Provincial Lady books, which were written much later, and at first glance it seems very different (it is certainly much grimmer). But concerns about society and it's values, and women's roles within society, are present in all publications (just as they are in The War-Workers). It highlights the dependence of upper-class women on men, and the necessity for them to marry well and do the right thing (they were not expected to work, and were left high and dry when property went to the eldest son). It also shows how little attention was paid to children – which is odd when you consider how much Victorians professed to value family life.

I downloaded this to my Kindle (free of charge) from Girle Books, but I would dearly like a copy of the 'proper' book published by Persephone, with fabulous endpapers and a bookmark to match.
The design on the endpapers of the Persephone edition is 'Thistle',
a Silver Studio block-printed cotton which went on sale in Liberty's 
in 1896 (when Alex was 19).


  1. I loved the Diary of a Provincial Lady, but for some reason I've never looked for more by Delafield. This looks very interesting, though, so I shall be on the look out for a copy!

    1. This is interesting and thought provoking, and I enjoyed it - if enjoyed is the right word - but although some of the themes may be similar to Provincial Lady it is very different in style and content.