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Short Story Sunday: A Seaside Holiday

It’s Week Five of my Short Story Adventure, and I’m on the fourth tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Holiday Group, by the wonderful EM Delafield (of Provincial Lady fame, hereand here), shows how summer breaks, however eagerly anticipated they may be, do not always live up to expectations, especially for harassed mothers who face a whole heap of extra work and worry, with no help or consideration.
Sunbathing and sea air were considered beneficial. Trains were
 a popular method of travel. This London Midland  and Scottish
Railway poster for holidays  in Saltcoats  was produced in 1935,
a few years after Holiday Group was written.

A legacy enables the Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay to take a ‘real holiday’, a second honeymoon as he calls it – though his wife Julia is quick to point out that they will be accompanied by their three young children, Martin, Theodore and Constance. You quickly catch the flavour of relationships within the Rev H C-H household:

When twelve o’clock on the 15th of July came, the packing was done, the suitcase and portmanteau belonging to Herbert, and a small tin trunk containing the effects of Julia and the three children, were locked and labelled, the basket, with sandwiches and bananas in it, stood ready. The village Ford that was to take them to the station was due in twenty minutes – and Herbert, Julia and their two elder children waited anxiously for the infant Theodore to wake from his morning sleep, so that the pram could be put into its sacking and its label tied to the handle.
Midland & Glasgow & South Western
Railways used this poster, extolling the virtues
of holidays on the West Coast of Scotland
in 1910, 

Julia worries that if the baby is woken he will be cross all the way down; Herbert worries that they will miss the train, and Constance wants a spade. However, they reach their destination without mishap, and head for Eventide, which is to be their home for the next two weeks.  There plain buns (which sound very unexciting if I may say so) await them, and it appears that landlady Mrs Parker offers few services and no assistance, although she does provide early morning tea, which I think would be wonderful – having a cup of tea brought to you in bed is my idea of luxury, and should never be taken for granted.

Bathing belles on the beach at Shanklin on the Isle of White.
These are the outfits fashionable young women would have
worn in 1926 when Delefield’s short story was published, 

As the days pass poor tired Julia shops (there are always things to be bought for the children) and mends (there are always clothes to be repaired). She gets the children up, puts them to bed, supervises them on the beach and in the sea, and produces cold food and hot drinks – in defiance of the landlady’s ‘no cooking at night’ rule she has brought a spirit stove with them so they can boil water and be independent. She does all this without her usual help, since Ethel, the family’s servant, has been left behind to look after the house.

Julia was intolerably sleepy. She was often sleepy at home, too, since she had never been without a baby in her room after the firsty ear of her marriage, and was always awakened early in the morning…
Delafield mentions bathing machines, which had largely fallen out
of favour by the mid-20s, but perhaps she was thinking of
something like these stripey wheeled huts, pictured at
St Leonard’s-on-Sea in 1895.

And there’s not much in the way of practical support from Herbert although, as usual, he is ‘goodness itself’ and ‘as kind as ever’, always willing to offer Julia advice on what she should and shouldn’t do. He cannot understand why she is even more tired than usual, or why she finds it so difficult to get up in the morning when she is awake directly if one of the children so much as turns over in the night.

Julia wondered, but did not like to ask, if that was the reason she was so sleepy now. She said feebly that she thought there was an instinct which woke mothers on behalf of their children. ‘When we get home,’ she said hopefully, ‘and I know that Martin and Constance are in their nursery with Ethel next door, I shan’t wake so early in the mornings, and then I shan’t be so tired at night. Besides, it’s this wonderful sea air. It’s – doing – wonders.’
Julia may not be convinced that the holiday is a good thing, but her husband has no such doubts.
‘Now that we’ve got this legacy, Julia dearest, and that our debts are all paid, I want to afford a holiday every year,’ said the Reverend Herbert, adding with unwanted effusiveness, for was a reserved man, ‘You and I, and little Martin and Constance and the baby – and perhaps other little ones if we should be blessed with them. To get right away from home cares and worries and responsibilities, and have a thorough rest and change. I value it even more on your account than on my own.’
EM Delafield

Julia yearns for a good night’s sleep and is nostalgic for childhood, when she was still Julia and hadn’t become ‘Mamma’, and holidays were spent with her own Mamma and Papa in a nice hotel, where no-one was bothered about ‘extras’ on the bill, and they all enjoyed a real meal at the end of the day, rather than cold ham, bread and cheese, with cocoa made over the spirit lamp. However, she says nothing. Instead:

… her eyes – her tired eyes – filled with the easy tears of utter contentment. She thought, as she had often thought before, that she was a very fortunate woman. Her heart swelled with gratitude as she thought of her kind husband, her splendid children, and the wonderful holiday that they had all had together.
Mmm, I thought, who is she kidding? That’s self-delusion on a grand scale and, as with some other stories in this anthology, there’s a degree of ambiguity. I know this was written in 1926, when women’s roles and expectations were very different to what they are today, but even so Julia seems to be remarkably listless, apathetic, and thoroughly downtrodden, and is completely submerged by the children, her own personality sunk without a trace. I’m not even sure that she really likes them all that much: she seems to use them as a barrier to keep the rest of the world – and her husband – at a distance. She would be quite happy, I think, to let baby Theodore carry on sleeping, so the pram cannot be packed, and if she misses the train and can’t go on holiday it won’t be her fault.
I couldn’t decide if there’s an element of complicity in her acceptance of a role as domestic martyr, or whether married life has squashed the life out of her. Perhaps she’s simply decided that life is easier if she takes the line of least resistance, which is understandable, because Herbert is what I would call a steamroller man, trampling over other people’s dreams and aspirations without ever realising that they have hopes and fears, likes and dislikes which are very different to his own.
All the photos in this post, with the exception of the portrait of EM Delafield, came from Place and Leisure, Book 4, AA 100 The Arts Past and Present, published by the Open University.

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Author:

I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

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