Prelude to Death by Elinor Mordaunt (1936)

Review by Sylvia D:

Prelude to Death is unusual in that it starts with an Epilogue which is continued at intervals throughout the narrative.  However, as the author explains in her Foreword, the Epilogue ‘seems the only way in which she can express her own sense of one’s entire life being nothing more than a prelude to death . . .’

The Epilogue starts with the arrival, at a hotel full of invalids escaping the English winter in the Canary Islands, of the elegant, upright, proud and aloof and seemingly not unwell Mrs (Anna) Carruthers and her lady’s maid.  Prelude to Death is the story of her life.

The narrative divides into five sections.   Anna is the youngest of the five children of Mr and Mrs Shelton who live in a Queen Anne period house with black and white marble flooring in the hall and four tennis courts, a house that is always alive with family, visitors, staff and Nurse and an incompetent governess who gets nominated to a ‘Home for Indigent Governesses and Decayed Gentlewomen’ – (p 60).  It was a house where ‘You never so much as thought of being pitied’ – (p 42).

With four older brothers who were always playing wild games and tricks on each other and giving her dares, Anna grows up something of a tomboy and is forever getting into trouble, so much so that the adults who knew her ‘did not like having her about; she saw too much, asked too many questions, feared no one. “A terrible child, that Shelton brat,” they said’ – (p 30).   Needless to say, people didn’t understand her and as for her own mother, ‘What [Anna] didn’t know was that her mother was frightened of her: her sudden outbreak of temper, her loves and hates, the emotions stirred in her by cruelty . . . “So unlike a child.”’ – (p 52).

Mordaunt draws a picture of a child growing up in a nineteenth-century, middle-class household who, as a result of her childhood experiences, is rather lonely, (she has no real girl-friends), and self-sufficient with a tendency to daydream and with a penchant for dressing up and misleading people.  She could also be very compassionate and helped nurse the under-keeper’s wife who was dying of cancer.  Having been allowed whilst on holiday in Scarborough to drive a coach and four and experienced the sense of power it gave her, ‘Always, always to the end of her life Anna believed that she could do anything that anyone else did – ‘ – (p 69).  In the year she comes out, she turns down a proposal of marriage from the animal-loving son of the Rural Dean.

The second part starts with the sudden death of her impoverished father.  Anna goes out as companion to her cousin, wife of the new Assistant Colonial Governor of one of the Indian Ocean islands, probably Mauritius.   Life could not be more different from her childhood home, with massive blue-black mountains of rock as a backdrop, lush, tropical vegetation, a hot, steamy climate and a vibrant multi-cultural community.  After a whirl of parties, balls, outings and young men dancing attention on her, Anna, with some misgivings, marries a French sugar plantation (Riviere Rouge) owner, Edmund D’Esterre who chooses her for her connections and the entrance she will give him to the English community.  She is quickly disillusioned when, driving from the service to the wedding breakfast, he declares: ‘You don’t suppose I married you because I loved you’ – (p 190).

D’Esterre abuses his wife both verbally and physically.  She has a miscarriage and a stillborn child and becomes so ill that she returns to England and never sees D’Esterre again.  This second section is very distasteful to the modern reader in its descriptions of colonial life and of domestic violence but there is also one very dramatic set piece describing the terror of a living through a hurricane and the stale, claustrophic atmosphere of being imprisoned for three days in a completely shuttered house with rain coming through the roof and only smelly paraffin lamps to give any light, ‘The wind was like a battering-ram crashing through and through the very centre of one’s being –  the great guns of the wind tremendous and stupidly wasteful, add to this the heavy shur-r-r of the rain, the noise alone left one with no sort of reasoning powers’ – (pp 130-131).

The third phase of Anna’s life is spent helping to run a farm in Devon.  The section too is in stark contrast to her colonial life as Mordaunt paints a picture of ‘the immortal life of the countryside’ (p 275) with its daily routines, its seasons, its two hundred year old farmhouse, its shire-horses and its dairy, ‘It was all something quite new to Anna, after the easy, haphazard, life of her childhood, the almost incredible slovenliness of Riviere Rouge . . .’ – (pp 276-277).

After a few years Anna is on her own again after Mrs Elwes who owned the farm and her son, Tom, a merchant seaman who wanted Anna to marry him, both die.  With the money she receives from selling the farm Anna embarks on a period of travel and short-lived relationships but with ‘an emptiness in her life, like an incandescent bubble or humming-top’ – (p 324).  Then she finally meets the love of her life, Dick Carruthers and they are married within a week.  And within a month it was over: Dick turns out to be the heir to a title and English law decreed that a woman’s husband is presumed dead if she has had no contact with him for more than seven years which allowed her to marry again but – ‘one of the hardest and most unjust laws the country has ever allowed to remain among its other statutes’ (p 360) – if she had children and the former husband then reappeared, those children would be illegitimate.

Anna, pregnant, is abandonned both by the laws of her own country and by her husband.  She finds refuge in the countryside again.  She reacquires the farm in Devon where she provides a settled home for her son, Piers.   After Dick’s death, Anna is reconciled with his father and becomes the elegant and fastidious hostess of his household before Piers, after a fling with the wife of his regimental colonel in India, commits suicide, the news of which kills his grandfather.  For Anna, ‘it seemed now as though the end of life had gone dead in her.  She was not even very unhappy, only dreadfully tired’ – (p 399).  Dying from cancer, Anna reflects on her life, ‘odd to think how it all meant nothing’ “mille-fleurs,” or a skein of mixed silken threads, that was all; lying close together, interwoven, inseparable, and all leading to nothing; cut in half, with an end and a beginning” (p 401).

Prelude to Death, with its themes of life, death and loneliness, is an interesting read.  There are touches of humour but the whole novel is tinged with sadness.  Mordaunt also has some strong feminist messages.  I particularly liked some of the descriptive passages with, for instance, the wall of the park of Anna’s childhood home appearing endless to her when she was young and as a prison when she was a rebellious young woman but the park itself becomes the thing she looked back on in old age, ‘remembering the lovely slopes, the lights and shadows, the innumerable beautiful trees, the lake, the stream, the little waterfalls which it enclosed, with longing and tenderness’ – (p 38).

2 thoughts on “Prelude to Death by Elinor Mordaunt (1936)

  1. Fascinating! From what Wikipedia says about her life, it sounds like this might be quite autobiographical, at least the early parts.

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