I’m currently reading books from my shelves. I picked two I knew had been waiting a long time: Mrs Harter and The Suburban Young Man, which were lucky market finds. I was slightly shocked to find I’ve had them since 2010 without reading them.
Mrs Harter was published in 1924. It’s the tale of a doomed romance between two people who meet by chance in the close-knit community of a small town. The story is narrated by Sir Miles Flower, crippled in a flying accident. He is married to Claire, a highly strung, emotional woman who always wants to be the centre of attention. Miles is brutally frank about her character defects and the fact that their marriage has not been a success. There is a slight complication in that he’s in love with Claire’s wise, kind sister Mary but although both are aware of this, nothing will ever come of it; they will just be friends. Mary’s children Martyn and Sallie are hard, bright young things. Martyn’s at Oxford, Sallie studying medicine in London. Their view of life is strictly rational and their attitudes to human relationships clinical; they despise automatically all the beliefs and taboos of the older generation. They and the other characters have all known each other for most of their lives and take a keen interest in their neighbours and especially in any novelty.
Mrs Harter, as she is always referred to, is a native of Cross Loman, the daughter of a plumber and so out of the class of the main characters. She married an older man, a solicitor, and went with him out East. That marriage has failed and she returns to live in rooms in her birth place. There she meets Captain Patch, a gentleman who for unspecified reasons has become a lodger with Mrs Fazackerly, a widow famed for the fact that her late husband is reputed to have thrown plates at her head. Mrs Harter makes a poor impression until she sings at a charity concert. In no time she and Bill Patch are seen around together and tongues are wagging. They are in love but there are major problems. She is married and the two are of different classes. ‘the affair of Mrs Harter and Captain Patch’ as Sir Miles describes it occupies the community of Cross Loman for a brief period and is then consigned to the past. There is no happy ending.
The problem of class differences between people in love is absolutely key to The Suburban Young Man. The eponymous hero is Peter Jannett, a writer living in ‘Richford’, a London suburb, with his nice wife and twin sons. He falls in love with Antoinette Rochester and she with him. As in Mrs Harter there are two obstacles to their love affair: Peter’s marriage and Antoinette’s superior social status.
Although I enjoyed reading this book I had a few problems with it. First, I hadn’t much sympathy for Peter. He had no business marrying Hope without loving her and no business continuing a relationship with Antoinette once it started getting serious. Secondly, we are told constantly that Peter and Antoinette have each found the love of their lives, that they can talk about books and have a perfect understanding. Yet there’s no evidence of this; they declare their love but it’s all tell and no show. My third issue is that apart from a sub plot in which Antoinette’s sister is nearly involved in a society scandal, the entire book is taken up with mulling over the same problems: whether divorce which hurts one partner can ever be right and whether people from different backgrounds can really be happy together.
Antoinette has no money of her own but comes from a world of country houses, titles and certain standards of behaviour. Peter is perfectly presentable and acceptable as a person even to Antoinette’s mother, but his relations are irredeemably vulgar, especially his ghastly sister-in-law, Norah. The one character who behaves perfectly throughout is Hope. Although not clever, she is clear sighted, practical and generous. She knows very well that Peter loves someone else and would let him go rather than live with an unresolved situation. When she and Antoinette meet, they like each other. It’s clear that Delafield thought the eventual resolution the right one and I was relieved that she didn’t use her favourite method of getting her characters out of a pickle, which is to kill one of them off.
My copy of Mrs Harter is in poor condition. As a first edition it has pages and pages of advertisements at the back. I love reading these, noting the very few familiar author names and the far greater number which have sunk forever. Hutchinson seems to have published many diplomatic and military memoirs by people one has never heard of but who were, presumably, better known between the wars. Perhaps it was just easier to get published in those days? There are also several pages of advertisements for magazines, some of which I’d love to find. Who knew they published this kind of thing?
There’s little point my saying these books are of interest to people who like E M Delafield’s writing as they are virtually unobtainable. Of the two, I think Mrs Harter is the better book. I like the narrative style and the amusing descriptions of the characters and their conversations. There’s almost nothing amusing in The Suburban Young Man.