R. Brimley Johnson (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: "E. M. Delafield," in Some Contemporary Novelists (Women), Leonard Parsons, 1920, pp. 177-84.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses egoism and the sense of self portrayed in Delafield's female protagonists.]
There is a certain competent serenity about Miss Delafield's work which excludes her, perhaps, from the ranks of those who are—rather aggressively "new" in their manner. Though actually a "war-product" and, in one novel at least, humourously intent upon the lighter psychology of war, she does not—like most of her contemporaries—write with the new subtlety of analysis, from the soul outwards. Like the conventional novelist she relates, while they speak. Her four stories are observed, composed, and presented in the normal manner of fiction: where the author permits herself to see inside all her characters—as one cannot in real life. They are not the actual utterances of one tortured soul, who can only interpret life through her own experience: but, on the other hand, she is—like the others—most frankly feminine: always revealing the woman's outlook, gently satirical upon the fact that "gentlemen"—as Aunt Marianne so naively expresses it—"do not always think quite as we do about these things"; i.e. about anything.
It has been noticed already that in women-novelists, the analysing habit is very frequently devoted to the study of egoism; and Miss Delafield's Zella affords the most striking example of this tendency: not quite so intense as Miss Dane's studies, but equally subtle.
"Zella," indeed, "sees herself" clearly at all times; and the comparative indifference of other people about this fascinating topic constitutes her main grudge against life. For she is fascinating (therein lies the triumph of Miss Delafield) and, in reality, quite astonishingly dependent upon public opinion. In fact, the type of egoism is very original, and most exceptionally attractive. Zella is governed—not only in action but even in thought—by a very passion for adaptability. She demands always to be in the "centre of the picture"; but she expects to find this position by absolutely conforming to type; doing and thinking just exactly what people wish, and expect, her to do. The effort leads, naturally, to failure and confusion, because no two people expect at all the same thing: and, in her case, the difficulty is to emerge with emphasis through the dramatically opposed standards and tastes of her nearest relations and her most intimate friends. It may seem a strange thing to say of a confirmed egotist: but the real difficulty about Zella is to discover whether she has any individuality at all, really her own.
Treating, as many of our contemporary women seem to prefer, only the beginnings of life; Miss Delafield leaves Zella "still on the threshold" echoing "the question of ages: what is Truth?" and yet the girl-heroine has, after all, a clearly defined, easily recognised character, humourously portrayed. She "gets at" the reader; so that we utterly sympathise with her childlike eagerness to impose herself upon her surroundings, to enter into the realities, to be somebody. She possesses one side of the artistic temperament (which is always attractive, if difficult): being a born actress, an inveterate poseur, more or less self-conscious: and just because, superficially, one can "see through her" so easily, we cannot avoid loving the real Zella under the pathos of her most naive affectations, and sympathising with every one of her most ridiculous, but quite serious, attempts at asserting herself. The key of the position lies here: that whereas most of us are, at least fairly often and at our best moments, content with being what God made us: she is perpetually engaged in the quite hopeless task of trying to make herself into something she was never intended to be.
All this is, obviously, an extreme case of the romance-craving common to all young people—an almost inevitable phase in the development of character: but if one can accept the paradox—Zella charms one because she is always sincere. She has the gift of all true artists, that she does really enter into the self-imposed mood, actually feels and is—for the...
(The entire section is 1753 words.)