A heart-felt book set in later Victorian times with a young girl, Alex Clare, growing up in a somewhat wealthy family with what would seem to be lots of choices for her to make over the years. However, Alex never seems to fit in anywhere – she always seems to be making mistakes and getting into trouble, even when older, and so she learns to see herself as a problem and the Black Sheep of the family.
Her only method of feeling happy was to have vivid close attachments to her friends, all women and none of it reciprocated. Poor Alex. She does her best to win the affections of Queenie in school, but goes a bit overboard and Queenie moves on, not returning the level of friendship. The same thing happens after Alex has turned down a quite suitable engagement (although it was lacking in love) and ends up entering a convent as a nun. Her parents are horrified that she has turned down the engagement as there were not a lot of other offers coming in, but are understanding (but a bit lost) at her decision. She is also quite clever, but that wasn’t encouraged either, to wit:
“Don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.” (Mother of girl in question.)
As the years go and Alex’s younger siblings grow up and enter society, Alex feels she has been left behind and it’s her fault. Her self esteem is shattered and only by attaching herself in another deeply-felt (but unrequited) friendship with her Superior Nun, can she go on and takes vows for a religious order in Belgium. (This is similar to what Delafield did as well in real life just a few years before this was published…) However, when the Superior Nun leaves for another convent, Alex is lost. (She sounds like she is primed for therapy to me.)
Finally realizing that she was never meant to have taken her lifetime religious vows, Alex requests to be set free (which she is after a long tedious process), but although she is free, she is never allowed to marry anyone. (Note: How can this be? If you are not a nun any more, then wouldn’t you be free to go what you want? How would this get monitored? Was it an honor system? What happened if you did get married? Did monks have the same set up?…)
However, Alex has been in the convent so long now, that all her family have gone on and developed lives without her, thinking as they were thinking that she would remain in the religious convent for the rest of her days. So – when she leaves, everyone is a little confused as to what, exactly, they are to do with her.
As Father Farrell notes, “A maiden aunt isn’t so very much thought of, in the best of circumstances, let me tell ye”… and that is it in a nutshell. If you are a Victorian era woman and don’t marry, what on earth are you supposed to do? The options just weren’t there for you. Well, they were in some ways but you would have been completely bucking the trend with little support if you did. And imagine the shame of the family name!
This is quite a tough read for me, as it’s painfully obvious how chafing the restrictions of society with regard to gender roles could be. Her younger brother inherits the house and most of the money so he doesn’t really have to worry about anything. Her youngest sister is a Society Deb and a hit in the social circles, and her middle sister is now a widow, poor but not too badly off. With the rules as they were, there was no choice for a middle-aged ex-nun. She had no money saved (since she’d been in the convent for years) so she was completely reliant on other people (mainly her family). She had no marketable skills – her convent years had not set her up for the future as an ex-nun – and she didn’t really have any idea of how the world really worked as her family had provided throughout her childhood and then the convent had acted in a very similar fashion.
Life seems to happen to Alex who drifts along like a branch in a stream. She is very passive about her choices, understandable but no less irritating, and she feels very detached about everything. Her whole life has been handled by someone else (her parents and the nanny, and then the convent) so she is not used to making decisions herself, and feels very childlike in comparison to her siblings, all of whom seemed to have got on ok. There were times when I really wanted to shake Alex into taking some responsibility for her life… But she was Victorian to the core.
It’s quite interesting to compare this 1919 novel with “The L-Shaped Room” written 40 years later: there were more choices for women, that’s true, but society frowned upon unmarried women then as well, especially pregnant ones. So both Alex and the protagonist of that later novel face a similar lack of options: if you are not married (and especially if you are pregnant and unmarried), where do you fit in? Where do you go? … And even now in the twentieth first century, there are still remnants of this – nothing as bad as it was, but the threads of it remain.
Delafield obviously felt very strongly about feminism, and this is obvious throughout the novel which can be argued to be one of the earlier examples of feminist writing. This was a completely different read from the “Diaries of a Provincial Lady” – this was one of her earlier works and is a much more serious look at the roles of gender in Victorian society.
The ending is sad, but not surprising.