Delafield’s “The Optimist”

Violet Powell, in her rather perfunctory biography of E.M.Delafield, calls The Optimist “the oddest of her books” and dismisses it in half-a-page or so, but it seems to me to be one of the most thought-provoking novels of the 1920s.

Owen Quintillian has spent two years fighting on the Western Front and “ many months in hospital with shell-shock”1. After a further stretch of active service in Mesopotamia, he returns to England, and the home of his old tutor, Canon Morchard. Morchard is revealed as a monster of selfishness, manipulating his family by a form of moral blackmail – they are terrified of inspiring the pain he expresses when they cross him in the slightest particular. For example, when two adult daughters stay up later than usual, talking together, he admonishes them:

The Canon’s voice, subdued but distinct, came to them from without.

My dear, go to your room. This is not right, You are acting in defiance of my known wishes, although, no doubt, thoughtlessly. Bid your sister goodnight and go.”
Val did not even wait to carry out the first half of the Canon’s injunction. She caught up her brush and comb and left the room.

Are my wishes so little to you, Valeria? Said her father, standing on the stairs. “It costs so small an act of self-sacrifice to be faithful to that which is least.”
I’m sorry, father. We both forgot the time.”
Thoughtless Valeria! Are you always to be my madcap daughter?”
His tone was very fond, and he kissed her and blessed her once more.
Valeria went to her own room.
She sat upon the side of her bed and cried a little.

Members of the family respond to their overpowering father in different ways. David and Valeria escape; Flora retreats into the negativity of self-abnegation; Adrian slides weakly into dishonesty; Only Lucilla, the eldest daughter, is able to respond with calm practicality – though at a cost.

Owen is horrified by what he sees, but is powerless to act. He is a writer, but produces only magazine articles, in a modern style, filled with “slight, cynical epigrams” expressing a “terse, essentially unsentimental rationalism”.(239-40) In an embarrassing (and very funny) scene he watches Morchard reading an article of his, on “The Myth of Self-Sacrifice”, and has to defend himself against the Victorian’s preference for the noble and optimistic by saying, “The only value that any point of view of mine can lay claim to, must lie in its sincerity.”

Delafield links both Morchard’s optimism and Owen’s negativity to the War:

But for England’s optimism there would be no England today. It was the spirit of optimism that won the war, Owen.”

A sick recollection of men, armed and disciplined, taking steady aim at other men, standing against a wall to be shot for cowardice or treason, of grey-faced commanders leading those who followed them into certain death, all surged into Quintillian’s rebellious mind. They, the men who had been there, had known better than to prate of optimism.

The novel’s subtlety comes from the fact that at first we see the Canon and his family almost entirely through Owen’s eyes. Morchard seems absurd and monstrous, and Owen’s decision to rescue Valeria through marriage seems completely right, until Valeria herself rebels against it, and chooses, instead of Owen, a man whom she would be comfortable with, another with whom life would be a struggle, but an exciting one. As the years go by, Morchard remains imperviously himself, but, as Lucilla points out to Owen, his children have each finally attained a life, however unsatisfactory, that expresses their personalities. Only Owen, she is too polite to point out, with his sceptical detachment from life, remains unfulfilled, a critic of life rather than a participant.

Increasingly, as his children protect him from any facts that might upset him, Morchard’s life becomes based on illusions. Flora, his youngest daughter, deeply unsatisfied, decides to join a convent. Morchard sees this as a triumph of spirituality; Owen sees it as neurotic self -immolation. Delafield, whose own early decision to join a convent, and her rejection of that decision had been analysed in her autobiographical novel Consequences (1919) cannot see self-abnegation in either of these simple ways, and leaves the decision as richly ambiguous.

Morchard’s death scene, with its perfectly phrased blessings, could have been copied directly from the the climactic moment of the three-volume biography of some noble Victorian clergyman – but it is made ironic by his ignorance of the children whom be blesses. Towards the end, however, Owen admits, despite himself, that the Canon is, in a way , “wonderful”, if only for his consistency and the strength of his feelings. Morchard is self-deluding and manipulative, but he still represents values that Owen has lost sight of.

That acknowledgment is the first sign that Owen can move beyond a merely critical attitude to life, into an emotional engagement that goes against his sceptical intelligence. Then at the end he discovers a love that is more than companionship.

For the first time,perhaps,since his childhood, Quintillian found himself unable to analyse his feelings or to translate them into tersely sententious periods.
In the long silence that fell between them, there began a process by which he slowly reversed certain judgments, and eliminated certain axioms, which hitherto had stood him for wisdom.

As a novel, I think this one is even better than Delafield’s The War Workers. It deserves a reprint.

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  1. […] life out of his family, but not in a violent or ogreish way. Rather, as George Simmers wrote in his excellent review on Great War Fiction back in 2007, ‘Morchard is revealed as a monster of selfishness, […]

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