What Is Love?

Date of publication
To Mary Kelly, who said she liked it.
"What is love? 'Tis not hereafter."
Published reviews
‘Books and Authors’. The Observer, 4 Nov. 1928, p. 8; Hartley, L. P. ‘New Fiction: What Is Love?’ Saturday Review, Nov. 1928, pp. 693–96; L, M. A. ‘Books of the Day: New Novels’. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 23 Nov. 1928, p. 7; Mais, S. P. B. ‘Fiction in 1928: Work of Younger Novelists’. Daily Telegraph, no. 22973, 28 Dec. 1928, p. 13; ‘Modern Youth and Love: Mrs Delafield’s Novel.’ Daily Mail, 15 Nov. 1928, p. 21; Murray, D. L. ‘What Is Love?’ The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1398, 15 Nov. 1928, p. 854; ‘New Fiction: What Is Love?’ Daily Telegraph, no. 22933, 9 Nov. 1928, p. 16; ‘What Is Love ?’ The Scotsman, 10 Jan. 1929, p. 2.
The story opens in about 1910. Ellie Carey is the child of a divorced couple; her mother, Fay, has left her husband for Lord Dallinger. As a child, Ellie is advised to keep her feelings about this private, but she still hears a lot about her mother's wickedness. Ellie is a clumsy, untidy, rather dreamy child and devoted to her older brother Lionel (Lal), now at Eton. Lionel explains that they will not be able to see their mother again, but can do so once they are grown up. Ellie constructs, from the little she knows about her mother's love affair, a highly romantic conception of love which is prepared to risk all. At their country house Milton Waters, Ellie is visited by her cousin Victoria, and a friend, Eglantine de la Riviere, who Victoria dislikes for her old-fashioned clothes, potential foreignness and clumsy ways. Ellie, however, feels sorry for Eglantine. At a party, Ellie meets handsome schoolboy Simon Lawless, and overhears gossip about her mother - and the genetic inheritance Ellie might have. The narrative moves on to 1927. Simon and Victoria meet at a dance. Lionel is now working at the Embassy in Madrid. Simon and Victoria are attracted to one another but neither has any money so they agree their romance is a non-starter. Victoria has met Robin Alistair, a plantation worker visiting England. Simon is working in London and has had a number of brief love affairs. At the next dance, Simon and Ellie, now 24, meet again. Ellie is very beautiful and Simon is immediately taken with her. Ellie is also attracted to him, in a dreamy, romantic way. He comes to stay at Milton Waters. Robin Alistair is also in the party, and is attracted to Victoria. Eglantine joins them for dinner; she is brow-beaten by her widowed mother, and socially awkward. Ellie feels more than ever that there is sympathy between her and Simon and is thrilled when he holds her hand during a game of hide and seek. Ellie's father tells her her mother has returned to England and wants to meet her. Her father is still angry about the divorce and clearly still in love with his ex-wife, and angry with Ellie when she says she wants to meet her mother. Ellie discusses this meeting with her Aunt Helena (her father's sister-in-law and mother of Victoria), who advises her not to expect too much of her mother. Ellie goes with Victoria and her father to join the others out shooting, in a great state of excitement at seeing Simon again. Robin Alistair attempts to propose marriage to Victoria, considering that she may accept him as she is not conventionally pretty and still unmarried at nearly 30, powerfully attracted to her but deterred by her modern ways. When he finally manages to stammer out an offer, she refuses him straight away on the grounds of their fundamental incompatibility and her unwillingness to change. He is shocked to discover that other men have kissed her and that she doesn't want children, and reflects that perhaps their marriage would be a mistake. The house party breaks up, and Ellie agrees that Simon can write to her and that they will meet in London. She and Lionel discuss their mother and whether it can ever be right to leave one's children for love; Ellie wonders whether real love means potentially giving up everything for one's lover. Ellie's father criticises her hostess skills, but Lionel sticks up for her. Helena goes to visit Fay Dallinger, Ellie's mother, still a beautiful woman and well-dressed, although a wearer of make-up. They discuss Ellie briefly; Fay is chiefly concerned whether her daughter is attractive or a good dancer, and then turns the conversation to herself. It is clear that she has had many affairs with other men since her second marriage. Helena tries not to listen to Fay's egotistical monologue and feels that her presence is somehow morally contagious. Leaving, she meets Lord Dallinger who has returned unexpectedly; Helena realises he has found out Fay's current affair and is trying to frustrate it. Ellie, Lionel and her father come up to their London house. Ellie has had two letters from Simon and is excited to see him again. She goes to see her mother at Claridge's; Fay's voice is familiar to Ellie, but not much else, and her mother is emotional about having to leave her children, but her mood changes quickly and Ellie cannot tell if she is being flippant or in earnest. Later, she goes with Simon, Victoria and Lionel to dinner and the theatre; Simon is attentive and Ellie is more aware than ever of the connection between them. At the theatre, they see Fay and talk to her briefly; she is introduced to Simon and Victoria, and enquires about Simon's background. It is Lionel's last night in London before returning to Madrid, but Fay leaves before he can make a proper farewell. The four go for coffee at Victoria's club, but Simon is restless, making Ellie uncomfortable. He drives her home and tells her how different she is from other girls her age. Lionel drives Victoria home, and Ellie realises that she has always known Lionel to be in love with Victoria. Robin is staying, unhappily, with his widowed mother and his unmarried sister, Maud in their dreary flat in Kensington. They take an excessive interest in his affairs; Maud, especially, prods away at his relationship with Victoria. He discovers that they have met Eglantine and her mother, who live in the flat downstairs. He realises that he has been wasting his time with Victoria - she would never have done as a planter's wife. He bumps into the de la Rivieres, and is invited to tea. Lionel Carey is mentioned and he realises Eglantine is keen on him. Victoria is discussed, critically, and Robin is suprised by Mrs de la Riviere's vehemence - he defends Victoria, mildly. He also realises that he and Eglantine have more in common than he thought. They meet again at church, and walk together in Hyde Park where he begins to see Eglantine's virtues - she seems prettier away from Ellie, and is intelligent and considerate. Later, he tells her about his rejection by Victoria, without naming her, and Eglantine is sympathetic. She tells him of her difficult relationship with her mother, and while he doesn't think her problems serious, he meets them kindly. He proposes to Eglantine and is accepted, although he has to return to his work alone; she will follow him and their wedding will take place there. Before his return, he receives a letter from Victoria congratulating him; when they meet by accident, she wishes him well and gives him a rather masculine send-off. Simon, who realises he is in love with Ellie, meets Victoria by chance and confides in her. He is concerned about marrying a woman much richer than him and living on her money, and also not sure if he is ready for marriage at all. Victoria points out the incompatibilities between him and Ellie, that he would be critical of her clumsiness and lack of style, and that she is too sensitive to be married to a man who would certainly have affairs. She also tells him not to make love to Ellie unless he intends to propose. He tells Victoria he could be in love with her, but they back away from this possibility. Simon discounts a lot of what she says, but realises it would be wrong to court Ellie with no thought of marriage. He meets Fay Dallinger, who questions him lightly about Ellie and tells him she hopes Ellie will marry a diplomat and be able to travel. He sees Ellie at a dance but does not dance with her although he notices she is not dancing, lying to her that he must dance with the women in his party. Ellie dances with another man, but Simon sees how sad she looks. Ellie returns alone to Milton Waters for Easter. She has attended a fancy-dress party at which Simon has paid much attention to Victoria (dressed as a pirate); he has not been in touch. Ellie is miserably in love and tries to comfort herself at the house, while waiting desperately for a letter. She even invites Eglantine and her mother to dinner as a welcome distraction. Eventually she goes out for a walk and gives herself over to her sadness, weeping openly. She has just recovered herself when Simon appears, takes her into his arms and proposes to her. Victoria and her mother have been in Paris, and return home to the news that Ellie and Simon are engaged. Neither thinks much of the match, Lady Helena pointing out Simon's middle-class origins and Victoria reassuring her that she herself is not in love with Simon, although she recognises that they are similar. George and Lionel Carey are equally disturbed about the engagement and George will not allow it to be announced yet. Victoria reflects on her own hyperrationality and inability to be swayed by her feelings, unlike Ellie. At the Careys' London house in Lower Belgrave Street, Victoria and her mother meet Simon, who is suffering from being scrutinised by the Careys and under George's disapproval. She has brought her Uncle George several copies of La Vie Parisienne, a mildly erotic magazine; Simon is mildly shocked. At lunch, they discuss Eglantine and Robin's engagement, and wonder whether Mrs de la Riviere will haunt their married life. After lunch, George and Aunt Helena discuss the engagement and later summon Victoria to tell George what she knows of Simon. George is minded to make them wait a year, and will ensure any settlement is tied up on Ellie and her future children. Simon is summoned, and Victoria takes the chance to talk to Ellie, who is radiantly happy. Ellie asks Victoria to go with her when she visits Lady Dallinger to break the news. Fay is no more enthusiastic about the match than George - who has forbidden them from announcing the engagement for six months - and tells Ellie that romantic love can never last, rather angrily. This only has the effect of making Ellie more obstinately determined. Fay outlines the more exciting life she thought Ellie would have, and Victoria points out that Ellie would not enjoy a lot of travel and fashionable clothes. Victoria dines with Simon, and gives him her views on the unsuitability of the match for what she decides is the final time. Lionel writes from Madrid that he has been promoted, and asks Victoria to marry him. Victoria is not in love with him, but is minded to accept on more rational grounds. That night, she has a nightmare in which Lionel and Ellie are swept out to sea, leaving her on the beach with Simon. Waking, she hears a noise, and goes to her mother's room to find her mother coming round from a faint; this has happened before, Victoria learns, although Lady Helena downplays it. The next morning, she tells Victoria that, on her mother's death, she will be reasonably well-off, because Lady Helena has saved for her: she will inherit their London house and £800 a year. Victoria tells her about Lionel's proposal and that this is probably her last chance. Her mother, Victoria knows, is in favour of the match (despite them being cousins) but does not seek to persuade her. Ellie is blissfully happy at first, but doubts begin to creep in. She allows Simon to take her to see his rooms, and is rather frightened by his passionate kissing there. He criticises her dancing, her clothes and even her flower-arranging, and she begins to feel that he is disappointed in her. He complains about his hectic social life but does not do anything to limit it, so their time together is restricted. Ellie is tormented by insecurity and the thought that Simon loves her less than she does him. When he strokes her hair perfunctorily, she tells him to stop; he leaves her alone for several days, claiming to be busy. She attempts to confide in Victoria, who suggests she should care a little less. Fay Dallinger invites Ellie and Simon to join her party for the Eton-Harrow cricket match. They meet Victoria there, and Ellie compares herself unfavourably with Victoria and Simon's relentless sociability. They bump into Eglantine, her mother and her future sister-in-law Maud, who Simon finds awful. He criticises Ellie for not being clear that she was there with her mother. Lady Dallinger tells her again that she should not marry Simon, who she recognises as a philanderer. Simon's evident interest in a pretty young woman he has just met merely bears this out. That evening, they dine and dance with the Dallingers, and Victoria witnesses Simon's anger with Ellie's poor dancing; she tells him off about it, and they agree to meet to talk it over. Ellie is more unhappy than ever. Lady Helena is taken ill, and moved to a nursing-home; she is not expected to recover. Lionel comes home on leave and Victoria tells him how concerned she is about Ellie, and how she should not marry Simon. After a tense dinner at Lower Belgrave Street, Simon arrives; Ellie speaks to him alone, shortly after he tells Victoria and Lionel that she has broken off their engagement. Alone with Simon, Victoria tells him what a cad he is and how he and Ellie's values are simply too different for a successful relationship. Simon plays on their old friendship and she responds to his evident attraction. Lionel surprises them kissing and is angry, but Victoria manages to calm him down with a rational explanation - and they are both relieved the engagement is over. George drives Victoria home and is furious with her, and also disappointed that she has let Ellie down and will not now marry Lionel. Simon comes to the nursing home, where Lady Helena is lingering, and takes Victoria out for a drive. Simon has made some successful investments at work and now has his own money behind him. He proposes marriage and she refuses him; they discuss his shortcomings in his relationship with Ellie and how he never really tried to understand her. He realises how he has let Ellie down; Victoria acknowledges that he could not really help doing so. Driving back, she realises she is changing her mind; they can be financially independent of each other, they understand each other and would like the same sort of lifestyle; outside the nursing home, she accepts his proposal. George tells Ellie about Simon kissing Victoria. Ellie goes to visit her mother, who is having a beauty treatment and has cotton-wool pads over her eyes. She is sympathetic with Ellie but brisk, and tells her not to dwell on her tragedy. When a male visitor comes, and Ellie will not go down and entertain him, she dismisses her. Lady Helena dies and the cousins meet again at her funeral. Ellie plans to return with Lionel to Spain. Ellie tells Victoria she knows about her and Simon kissing, and then realises that Simon and Victoria are to marry - and Victoria confirms it will be the day after tomorrow. Weeping, she tells Victoria that she loves her and she understands, but that she will not see her for a long time.
courtship marriage mother-daughter relationships