I loved to play the game ‘consequences’ when I was a child. There was something so exciting about the way you could invent a story with such ease, simply by taking it in turns to write out little more than a boy’s name, girl’s name, where they met, what they said, and the consequence of their meeting.
This game appears at the beginning of E.M. Delafield’s novel of the same name. In this particular round of consequences, which takes place in a smart Victorian nursery, the consequence is ‘a wedding-ring’. However much imagination the children might have, marriage seems to be the only possible way a boy-meets-girl situation can end up.
Delafield examines this scenario in her novel – after all, isn’t a novel, in many ways just an extended game of consequences, albeit without the humour that comes from the randomness of having so many different authors? Can there be any other consequence, asks Delafield, any other way of living for a late-Victorian young woman apart from marriage?
Consequences is the story of Alex Clare, who is a difficult girl from the outset. As the eldest child, she bosses around her siblings, which has the terrible consequence of her sister nearly breaking her back, after Alex made her do a pretend tightrope walk on the stairs. While it may be her sister Barbara who has the literal fall, Alex has the metaphorical fall from grace, and her parents punish her by sending her away to a convent school in Belgium.
Already, Alex is shown to be contrary, to not fit in, to not make friends easily. At home, the closest she gets to feeling loved is when her mother allows her to stay down in the drawing room amongst the grown-ups – a result, Alex tells herself, of being her favourite.
At the convent, there is no hope of being nurtured or loved. Alex suffers from intense crushes on some of the other girls, most pronouncedly on vain, self-serving Queenie Torrance. She lavishes her feelings so intensely on people as she is desperate for a crumb of affection in return.
It is a miserable, lonely childhood, through which Alex feels that she is a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy. And yet, she survives, sustained mostly by the hope that:
when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.
Needless to say, it doesn’t work out quite according to plan. Alex comes out as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, ferries her around to ball after ball … but with little success:
Lady Isabel had said, ‘Never more than three dances with the same man, Alex, at the very outside. It’s such bad form to make yourself conspicuous with anyone – your father would dislike it very much.’ Alex bore the warning carefully in mind, and was naively surprised that no occasion for making practical application of it should occur.
Alex is made to think that being attractive is the most important thing – the culmination of her life so far is this window of opportunity to ensnare a husband. And yet, she is so intent on being attractive that she completely fails. As she begins to doubt herself, Alex becomes less and less of a success, until she finds herself an unhappy wallflower, miserably sitting out the dances at her mother’s side.
I found this part of the novel terribly painful. However much one doesn’t like Alex, and is annoyed by her childish bossiness, or inability to express herself, surely everyone can empathise with the horror of being a teenager! Surely we have all suffered the pain of going to a party (albeit perhaps not a debutante ball) and failing to attract a flock of boys? And haven’t we all have felt deeply envious of the beautiful girl who, with seeming lack of effort, has them falling at her feet? I bet we have all had occasion to sit out a dance and feel rather miserably left out. It is such a painful time, when one’s confidence is balanced on a knife edge – a moment of pride in your appearance is swiftly quashed when no one pays it any attention. Worse yet is when someone does pay you attention only to tell you how much they are in love with someone else! Poor Alex, as Maurice Goldstein takes her down to dinner only to go on and on about how much he loves Queenie Torrance. I felt so sad for her as she gets into bed that night and wishes that someone would love her as much as Maurice loves Queenie. It is an ache for love that everyone must have suffered.
But just when all seems to be going wrong for Alex, Delafield gives us a moment of hope. A holiday romance results in Alex’s engagement to Noel Cardew. You can’t help but wonder if somehow Alex has pulled it off. Here is her chance of a happy ending, of achieving the consequence of a wedding-ring on which everyone is so fixated.
But Noel Cardew is unbearably dull, lifeless and self-obsessed. He is more passionate about making plans for the land which he is to inherit – ‘I rather believe in the old-fashioned feudal system, personally’, than in talking about their wedding. Alex endeavours to persuade herself that she loves him, but she grows aware of an ‘ever-increasing terror that was gaining upon her’.
This felt to me like the turning point of the novel. Will Alex follow convention and marry him, or will she be true to her instinct of the loneliness that awaits her in a loveless marriage and break it off? Today, if one were faced with the dilemma, of course you would think the latter is the right thing to do. Delafield tells us that Alex ‘took the bravest decision of her life’ and breaks off the engagement.
And yet, instead of being congratulated for being true to her instinct and averting an oncoming disaster, her family does not approve. Her mother cries, her father scolds her as ‘weakly impulsive’, and we have the feeling that Alex has fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. For what Alex hasn’t realised is that there is no option for her other than to get married.
She says to her mother that ‘lots of girls don’t marry and just live at home’, but Lady Isabel explains that their lack of funds won’t allow for that. The house will go to Cedric, the eldest son. The rest of the money will go to Archie, ‘because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it.’
‘But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?’
To which her mother explains:
‘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.’
This prediction comes back to haunt Alex later in the book, as the reality of her lack of money, and also her complete lack of knowledge about its value and how to handle it, becomes cripplingly clear. The whole Victorian system relies on Alex marrying, and she has just thrown away her only chance.
So, E.M. Delafield begs the question, what can a young lady do, if she doesn’t marry? Alex’s horribly sad story illustrates Delafield’s point that the answer is nothing.
Consequences is a bleak, angry statement, and yet written with a sad lyricism. I read it knowing that it was all going to end badly, and yet I was unable to tear myself away. As the plot twisted and Alex’s life turned steadily downhill, I was appallingly gripped, wanting to know exactly how Alex would reach rock bottom. This horrific addiction to someone’s downfall reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, another Persephone Book.
If there is a strand of hope to which we can cling in this tragic tale, it is that E.M. Delafield purposefully set in the past. She is critical of Victorian values and hopeful of the changes that are to come. Towards the end of Consequences, we see Alex’s youngest sister Pamela happily enjoying far more freedom than her sisters – indeed she even takes the Underground! Pamela can never suffer Alex’s fate. Even in the space of a few years, a great deal can change.
And there is the story of E.M. Delafield herself. Her early life followed a similar pattern to Alex’s, and yet she succeeded in becoming a brilliant and successful novelist. Delafield wrote Consequences in 1919 – much has changed for women since then. And yet, inevitably it makes you wonder how much has improved really. How often do women still struggle to earn enough money to live independently? How rarely do they not marry?
Consequences left me with a great deal on which to ponder – the limitations of a woman’s place, the importance of money, and also the huge progress brought about by psychoanalysis (a fascinating strand of the novel, which alas there isn’t the time or space to discuss here). And yet, to be completely honest, all these reflections which have sprung from the book have only hit me now, after I’ve finished it. Reading it, I found it impossible to gain the distance to look on it with anything like cool, calculated intellect. I was utterly enthralled, totally wrapped up in Alex’s horribly sad story, perpetually close to tears. Alex’s misery and helplessness seemed to seep out of the book and into my spirit. I nearly sacked off a brilliant party from sympathy with Alex, longing instead to stay at home and suffer with Alex to the end. (You’ll be relieved to hear that I did go to the party in the end.) It’s a profoundly affecting book, and only afterwards can one be dispassionate enough to see that it is also an angry and absolutely vital feminist statement.