‘Oh, Alex.’ I suspect many readers of E. M. Delafield’s fourth novel, Consequences (1919), have said this aloud at least once. They may have said it in sorrowful sympathy; they may have chuckled it knowingly; they may have shrieked it in exasperation. They may have varied its emphasis: ‘Oh, Alex.’ But they will have said it – probably – as I have, in a range of tones and volumes. Consequences is one of the most frustrating books I know.
It wasn’t always like this. At first, it was all pleasure. Is there anything better than an unexpected book? A dear friend posted me Consequences for my birthday. Wandering in Bloomsbury she’d come across a bookshop heaped with beautiful dove-grey paperbacks which, when opened, revealed a flash of bright endpapers, with a different design for each title. Since 1999 Persephone Books have been reissuing neglected classics ‘by women, for women and about women’. I think my friend’s choice of book had less to do with the publisher’s admirable principles and rather more to do with the Liberty print she found inside, where chartreuse thistles scratch their way across the endpapers. Persephone admit that this particular endpaper was deliberately chosen to warn the reader of the book’s spiky contents. Foolishly perhaps, I ignored the warning.
It probably says something damning about me that I read this novel at least once a year. I am in good company, however, as the introduction to my edition notes that Consequences was Delafield’s favourite. A photograph of her in the 1930s reveals a seated but determined-looking figure sporting the most fabulous Homburg hat with a fur flung over her right shoulder. The resonance between this quietly certain figure and her complicated, tentative book is not immediately obvious, but in the figure of Alex the author created something extraordinary. To read Consequences is to give yourself over to a series
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