E.M. Delafield’s The War Workers is one of the best fictional accounts of civilian life during the Great War, and so when I found a copy of her 1918 novel The Pelicans at a very reasonable price in a second-hand bookshop last year, I automatically bought it, but since I knew it was not about the War, I put it aside until my thesis was written.
Last weekend I was looking for something to read on the train journeys to and from Huddersfield, and reckoned that The Pelicans might be what I needed.
It’s an odd book. The first half is satirical comedy. The story concerns the fate of two orphan girls, who are left at the mercy of the well-meaning and charitable. As always, Delafield is brilliant at presenting egotists, and getting the maximum entertainment from watching their egotisms collide; in this book we see how when people want the best for the girls, it is always on their own terms, not those of the objects of their care. Her caricatures of posers and self-deceivers are very funny indeed. The cleverest portraits are of a woman composer whose sentimentality disguises her practical craftiness, and her equally selfish son. The scenes in which these two play little power-games against each other are comedy of a high order. Then there is the wan female companion who speaks only in clichés, and Mrs Mulholland, a Catholic who has created a little empire for herself through the determined application of piety.
Half way through the book, though, the tone changes. One of the girls decides that she has the vocation to become a nun. It is another form of egotism, of course, about which the novel is intriguingly ambiguous.
Frances discovers happiness in obedience at the convent, but one senses the author’s sympathy with the other characters, who feel that this is a life wasted.
Delafield herself, of course, entered a convent in 1911, and stayed there for two years. Soon after The Pelicans she would write a fuller account of convent life in Consequences (recently republished by the ever-excellent Persephone Books).
We watch Frances committing herself to her life of abnegation through the horrified eyes of her sister, and we see the other characters change, too, as the various crises bring out the best in some that had previously seemed absurd, while others fail the challenges. The book, which had started off full of bright satirical energy, finishes in an atmosphere of gentle sadness.
At the end of the book, a pair of dates shows when and where the book was written:
EXETER, June 1916
LONDON, June 1917
Does the change in tone reflect the growing grimness of the times, as the optimism that preceded the Battle of the Somme became a grim recognition that the War would continue for a long time yet. Maybe this is a War book after all. But whether it is or not, it is highly recommended.