I love the Provincial Lady series by E. M. Delafield. They are witty and clever and laugh out loud funny. Lately I have been trying some of her other novels. I read Consequences a while ago. I found it so depressing I had trouble judging whether it was good or not. (I know it was good, the internet tells me so, it was just so sad.) Last week I read Thank Heaven Fasting.
Thank Heaven Fasting is the story of Monica Ingram. When the book starts she is just about to "come out" in society with all that implies.
"She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman's failure or success in life depended entirely upon whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband."Really, that sums up the whole book right there. Monica knows she needs to find a husband, her mother knows it. Everyone knows that is the whole purpose of the rounds of balls and visits. The girls have been groomed from childhood to catch a man. They are taught to make the best of themselves, to look interested but not too desperate, and most of all to never do anything that might damage their reputation because then no man would look at them.
Monica falls in love with the wrong man and commits the sin of kissing him at a party. The book then becomes a story of quiet desperation. Monica returns to society the next season but she never is as successful again. With each succeeding year she and her mother become a little more anxious and Monica feels like more of a failure. In the end, she does find a man and blossoms again, feeling like she has fulfilled her purpose and regained her self-worth.
I found it an interesting portrait of life during that time. There was nothing available for women who didn't marry. Monica and her friends, Frederica and Cecily, were treated as children well into their adulthood because they hadn't married. They were stuck in a half life somewhere between childhood and adulthood. No wonder they were so desperate to marry. It was the only way to grow up at all.
My modern sensibilities wanted Monica to break away from the restrictions of the world she lived in and fill her life with meaning. But that isn't who or what she was. She was a product of her times, as was her mother. It would be easy to blame her for putting these expectations on Monica but what else did she know? In her eyes, she was doing what was best for her daughter and desperately trying to make sure her daughter had a place in life.
This was an interesting portrayal of a society where women's worth depended on their success in marriage. I suppose that applies to many time periods in history. I did wonder whether Monica would be happy with her husband after her marriage but I am not sure Monica thought that way. She spent her life hiding her feelings. Even her two friends were not people she would have picked, but she was friends with them because it was expected of her. She took care of her mother for a long time and submerged her own feelings. I think loving her husband didn't matter as much. She had achieved success according to the standards of her day, she had gained a position as a married woman, she would have children. She would be treated with respect instead of as a dependent child. Maybe for Monica those things balanced out what we would view as happiness.
I enjoyed this book. It made me think a lot about what is expected of women. Obviously the society I live in has progressed, for the most part, beyond a time period where a woman's worth depends solely on marriage. However, I think sometimes the world has gone to the opposite extreme. A woman's worth frequently depends on her career and her success in it. I recently read some comments directed at a woman who has chosen to focus on her marriage and children at this time. The clear implication was that she was wasting her life. Not necessarily because she wanted to be with her children but because she was happy with that. She wasn't yearning for a big career. The term housewife was used to scathing affect. I think that is sad. I don't want to live in a world where a woman's value depends on her marital status but I also don't want to live in a world where if a woman chooses to stay home with her children she is somehow less successful. A little balance is needed and a little empathy for other women's choices and the circumstances that are thrust upon them. We live in a society that provides more opportunities for women but at the same time, just as with Monica, a woman's self-worth can depend on how people perceive her and how she is living her life. Society's expectations can be a heavy weight to carry in our day just as they were for Monica.
I think Thank Heaven Fasting is worth reading. It was an interesting insight into a mindset of the past. For me, it did raise some interesting thoughts about the value put on women and the choices or lack thereof that women have.