E. M. Delafield’s Debutantes, “Dreadful Young Ladies,” and “Emily of New Moon”

I intended to read E. M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are, a novel about a disenchanted housewife.  After fifty pages, however, I discovered I was  reading the wrong Delafield.

Virago covers look remarkably alike, and I had picked up Thank Heaven Fasting instead of The Way Things Are.   Although the former is a gripping story of debutante life, I kept wondering when the debutante would  become a housewife!

I think I’ll put Thank Heaven Fasting aside.  Although I adore Delafield’s Diary of a  Provincial Lady, a serial about domestic life that originally appeared in Time and Tide, I have never found equals among her other novels.  And I am not fond of debutantes.  Full disclosure:  I used to teach Latin to debutantes.  It was exasperating when they were excused from class to have their makeup done or take waltzing lessons.   N.B.  Many recovered from their debutante phase, I hear.

KELLY BARNHILL’S DREADFUL YOUNG LADIES AND OTHER STORIES.  If you admire Angela Carter’s twisted imagination, you will enjoy Kelly Barnhill’s superb collection of short stories, Dreadful Young Ladies.  In the first story, “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sessquatch,” Mrs. Sorenson shows up at Our Lady of the Snows for her husband’s funeral with mice in her pocket and followed by a dog, a raccoon, a cat, hawks, and an otter–the deer stays outside.  The priest is started, but the animals behave with perfect decorum.  The priest develops a crush on Mrs. Sorenson, and other men also admire her.  Later, when there are sightings of a Sasquatch (a Bigfoot), the priest discovers a surprise connection to Mrs. Sorenson.  All the stories are odd and enjoyable, peopled by ghosts, witches, pirates, and magicians.  Barnhill’s style is spare but poetic.  I love this book!

L. M. MONTGOMERY’S Emiy of New Moon.  Here’s how I discovered the Emily books:  in a column in Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life, Ellis is upset to discover her daughter reading Judy Blume.  (I’ve never read Blume, but I vaguely remember she was once considered controversial.)   Ellis visits the Daughter’s school library and ends up borrowing Montgomery’s three Emily books, Emily of New  Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

I just finished the first book in Montgomery’s trilogy,  Emily of New Moon.  Emily is quite a bit like Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables:  both Emily and Anne are orphans and aspiring writers.  When Emily’s father dies of consumption, no one wants to take Emily in.  Her relatives draw lots and it falls to strict Aunt Elizabeth, soft-hearted Aunt Laura, and whimsical Cousin Jimmy to take her home to New Moon farm.  Aunt Elizabeth does not like children, but Emily loves New Moon and Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy are fond of her.  It takes longer to win over Elizabeth.

I especially enjoyed Emily’s diary entries written in the form of letters to her dead father.  Her observations are delightful, and she befriends many eccentrics.   She records the colorful curses  of her best friend, Ilse, the neglected daughter of “an infidel” doctor.  The two girls constantly quarrel, and one night during a sleepover Ilse challenges Emily to sleep in the “haunted” attic, which Emily does because she cannot let Ilse get the better of her.  It ends in her committing a heroic act.  Emily also enjoys visits to Lofty John, a farmer who has feuded with the New Moon residents for decades.  Naturally the aunts don’t know about this friendship.   Emily eats more than a few of his apples, one of which she believes is poisoned.  The death letter she writes to Ilse is hilarious.

I kept laughing over the dialogue.  Aunt Elizabeth is frequently exasperated with Emily.

“Don’t  ever let me see you kissing a cat again,” she ordered.

“Oh, all right,” said Emily cheerfully.  “I’ll only kiss her when you don’t see me after this.”

“I don’t want any of your pertness, miss.  You are not to kiss cats at all.”

“But Autn Elizabeth, I didn’t kiss her on the mouth, of course.  I just kissed her between the ears.  It’s nice–won’t you just try it for once and see for yourself?”

I’m grateful to Alice Thomas Ellis for introducing me to Emily!

11 thoughts on “E. M. Delafield’s Debutantes, “Dreadful Young Ladies,” and “Emily of New Moon””

  1. Those covers do look similar. I tend to make similar mistakes.

    Dreadful Young Ladies sounds good. I have actually not read Angela Carter so I think that I would read her first. I think that I would like this style of story.

    1. I should probably say that Kelly Barnhill is spare and poetic while Carter is lush and baroque, but their imaginations are equally bizarre!

  2. Yay: you’ve met Emily and Aunts Elizabeth and Laura and Cousin Jimmy and Teddy and Dean and Ilsa and and and. Alice Munro was a bigger Emily fan than Anne (once she discovered them), so I’m curious where you’ll fall. Ironically, I didn’t enjoy the letters as much as you have (the pretend-bad spelling annoyed me where it was supposed to make me smile) but I love these books all the same!

  3. I’ve read the Prov Lady many times but never felt the urge to read her other novels. I like the layout and title of your new hangout!

    1. The writing is much better in the Prov Lady but there was something fascinating about the deb book. I did finish it after all, and it got better as the poor deb’s life got worse. Being a deb was hell for Delafield!

Leave a Reply