E.M. Delafield and I have shared what is beginning to be a long acquaintance. It started back in 2009 when I first read (and loved) her famous Diary of a Provincial Lady (a book that screams to be revisited by the way). That was followed a year later by a ghost story "Sophy Mason Comes Back". Although last year we didn't cross paths, the year before I devoured not one but two books by her, Thank Heaven Fasting and Gay Life. I suppose as with every author who is equally prolific, some books are better than others, but I can't say a moment spent with E.M. Delafield has ever been a wasted one. With every subsequent meeting I promise myself to read more, and that promise has been renewed once again after this week's Persephone Short Story, "Holiday Group".
Published in 1926, "Holiday Group" covers some of the same territory as both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Perhaps not as humorous or witty as the latter and with a not quite so pessimistic ending as the former (pessimistic being maybe too harsh a word, but an ending where the woman must simply "settle" for the life she's been given), it's a story that has Persephone written all over it. It's a view into a woman's, more so a wife and mother's world, one who readily and happily inhabits it but who is also maybe just a little under-appreciated.
Julia and Herbert Cliff-Hay have come into some money. It's enough to pay back borrowed money as well as pay the premium on their son's educational annuity policy. Their daughter must content herself with a mere Post Office savings account, as one must "think about education" with boys. But the best part is they can finally afford a fortnight's holiday at the seaside. The question subtlety asked is just who benefits from the holiday.
Reminiscent of R.C. Sherriff's The Fortnight in September, Delafield perfectly describes the anticipation but also the frustrations and minor annoyances of preparing for and then traveling to a holiday destination. There are two small children and a baby to organize and amuse. Questions are asked repeatedly and assurances given that surely fray a parent's patience and nerves. And that's just getting there. Arriving means settling into the bed and breakfast and then getting to the shops before closing to purchase necessary supplies--from sandbuckets and spades to bread and butter. Endless marches to and from the bathing pools and wet suits to take on and off. Walks to take and suppers to make.
It's no wonder that when Herbert first suggested the holiday Julia looked startled. Even more so when he called it a second honeymoon. Despite his helpful gestures, and he does help Julia with the children, he doesn't quite understand why she's so tired at the end of the day. She tactfully blames it on the fresh sea air, which is heavier than that at home.
"'You won't be quite so tired, I hope, at nights, after a few days' holiday,' said the Reverend Herbert, when he in his turn got into the double bed."
"He tried to make his voice sound only kind, and not resentful, but the effort was wasted upon Julia, who was sleeping like the dead."
I sometimes think that in every woman's life there comes a point where she becomes her mother. Well, metaphorically speaking anyway. Amidst the to-ing and fro-ing and the hustle and bustle Julia recalls how harried her own mother was on their holidays and how disappointed she felt when her mother would decline going for long walks. Now she understands why. While Herbert knows Julia is busy at home, he expects a seaside holiday to be different.
"He was kind as ever--but he evidently didn't understand it."
Now I understand why I can count on one hand how many family vacations my own took while growing up.
This story is vintage Delafield. Now I want to go and pull out one of my Provincial Lady sequels or maybe The Way Things Are, which I have in a Virago edition.
I know it's still early days, but this is a really exceptional collection of stories to dip into. Each story is such a satisfying little slice of life and impressive in its execution. It certainly passes the test for me as each story beckons me to read further. If you like short stories and you haven't already done so, add this one to your wishlist!
Next week another new to me author: Malachi Whitaker and "The Music Box". (I might just start reading ahead).