It's no wonder really that historically women have felt oppressed and stifled by their lot in life. Aside from being trussed up in corsets and made to behave properly (not surprising that Victorian women were fainting all the time), there was a time when women (at least of a certain class) were raised with the sole purpose of finding a husband and marrying well. To have a home, a husband and a recognized position was to have an occupation. And pity the poor soul who has spent her youth in training and early adulthood in search of the perfect mate who does not succeed. She's left with nothing at all. Bad enough to be born a daughter, but to end up a spinster...oh my. E.M. Delafield's Thank Heaven Fasting is a witty, observant yet astute rendering of just such a young woman. Although it is in many ways every bit as delightful as her Provincial Lady books, there's another current running through this story that might be somewhat bleak had not Delafield approached her story with irony and humor.
I wish I could call Monica Ingram a subversive heroine--someone who would do her modern sisters proud by throwing off society's restraints and living life by her own rules, but she is every bit the dutiful daughter as any mama would expect, even if she knows somewhere in the back of her mind how awful her situation is. That doesn't make her any less likable, all the more so really for her moments of enlightenment. She's a product of her times, so I can't be hard on her, and she'll have her happy ending even if to my own very modern sensibilities it felt a little like she was settling. But surely there is much to be said for feeling as though one's existence has finally been justified? And maybe it's better to settle than live out one's life in the presence of such an overbearing mama who asks for your opinions and then promptly tells you you're wrong.
According to the afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald the title, Thank Heaven Fasting, comes from Shakespeare's As You Like It when Rosalind quips "Thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man's love". That is what young women are groomed for in Delafield's story. From an early age Monica is raised to believe that the ultimate goal in her life is to make that walk down the aisle and into the arms of a respectable gentleman. She and her mother even fantasize over the colors she'll choose for the bridesmaid's dresses. Her friends are selected so as to give her the best opportunities to meet suitable young men. Frederica, or Fricky as she's known by those closest to her, and Cecily Marlowe might not have been Monica's first choice for friends, but the family is wealthy and well situated.
"Monica realized, as she grew up, how important it was that one should meet all the right people, since it was only amongst the right people that a young girl could find the man she might hope to marry."
The Marlowe's are slightly older than Monica and between the three something of a rivalry will spring up, particularly between Monica and Frederica. Monica seems to nearly always have the upper hand over the two sisters, who are the oddest girls and entirely too interdependent on each other. To receive an offer of marriage in a young woman's first Season would be quite a coup. Marriage by the end of the second Season is perfectly acceptable and hoped for. If a third Season passes without even a nibble of interest, rationalizations are made or outright lies are passed as to why someone has been left on the shelf for so long.
There's a certain code a young woman must follow to ensure she's not only primed and ready for her Season but will also be shown in the very best light to her contemporaries. Sleeping in, breakfast in bed and not too much exertion in order to remain fresh is imperative. A young woman must always look as though she's having the time of her life rather than fading into the background like a wallflower. She mustn't let any one young man monopolize all her time, so not too many dances with the same partner. However one must also not sit out too many dances and therefore look unpopular. It's not proper to call a young many by his first name and it would be presumptuous to ever agree to write to him. It must always be kept in mind that single men and women cannot be friends. And remember only certain young men are acceptable. He must be a gentleman and be in a position to provide for a wife. Nice and handsome is fine, but if he doesn't have the right income he can't take a wife in any case. Rules are revised if no offers at all are made, as the situation may become desperate.
Heady with the excitement of her first Season, Monica proves to be something of a success. She's pretty with a freshness about her, and she catches the eye of not just one young man but several. Unfortunately one misstep will put a dark mark on her record. What gentleman will take an interest in a young woman who has disgraced herself? And herein lie a few of the truths about what women have endured. Penelope Fitzgerald, in writing about Delafield, captures the essence of life for some women that I felt in the pages of the book;
"The total impression (Fitzgerald is referring to the impression Delafield made on a journalist in Russia during her travels there)--and this, I believe accounts for the comic and pathetic tension of her books--is of a woman who would like to free herself and understands how it is to be done but can never quite bring herself to the point of doing it."
It's not just Monica but Cecily as well who understand their situations and are not happy in them, but what can be done? Is it easier to create new paths or stick to those tried and tested. So, I write my post slightly tongue in cheek, which is how I imagine Delafield wrote her book. Although Delafield doesn't give the exact period in which the story is set, she refers to those "hysterical" suffragettes (Cecily doesn't think they're so bad at all actually--an unpopular opinion) and the fact that there are not so many men to choose from anymore, which makes me think that it must be post-WWI. So many things were changing for women, but not fast enough. Perhaps it's sometimes just easier to do what's expected and find what happiness in that that can be found.
This is a wonderful story and Delafield is such a good and witty writer--she packs so much into so few pages. It's a pity that Thank Heaven Fasting is no longer in print, though there are inexpensive used copies out there if your'e willing to order online. I have The Way Things Are on hand, which I'm now really looking forward to reading, and my library has Gay Life, which according to the Wikipedia is "set on the Cote d'Azur, Hilary and Angie Moon have to live on their wits and her beauty". She seems to have been a prolific writer and one whose works I think I will enjoy exploring.