It would be easy write off EM Delafield as a one-hit wonder. Her most famous work is Diary of a Provincial Lady and it is very funny and very to the point. First published in instalments in the feminist periodical Time & Tide, it has been republished by both Persephone and Virago Books.
EM Delafield is another neglected and underappreciated woman writer. She deserves more recognition especially as she wrote so much more. Consequences is also republished by Persephone Books, and the short story Holiday Group was included in the Persephone Book of Short Stories. This writer still has a great deal to say to us.
Let’s celebrate her 138thbirthday on 9thJune.
Consequences by EM Delafield
I chose to read this book because I did not know this writer well enough. It is the earliest of her works that I have now read, published in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. This was the moment when women’s lives were changing, when expectations for women were widening. Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a feminist novel as well as a tragedy.
Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and is the oldest child of 5. She is required to be obedient to Nurse and her parents who hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.
But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, not given at home, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. Throughout her life Alex fastens onto people as objects of desire, wanting only their affection. This brings her up against the nuns when she has a ‘pash’ for Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.
She tries to get it right, but receives no guidance. Her sisters Barbara and Pamela learn to do what’s expected and embrace it with enthusiasm. Alex does not enjoy the debutante scene in London, resolves her discomfort by becoming engaged, realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right, but runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude.
After 10 years as a nun the Mother Superior is posted to South America and Alex comes to see that again her life has been fixed on the approval of one person. She revokes her vows and returns to London, but is quite incapable of managing for herself. She is 27 years old, has no understanding of what an independent life could or should be.
While one may wish that the wretched and miserable girl had taken some responsibility for her life and for changing it for the better, we are in no doubt that Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.
Consequences by EM Delafield, first published in 1919. Republished by Persephone Books in 2006. 421pp
Holiday Group by EM Delafield
Holiday Group is short story, first published in 1926. Again we read of women’s restricted lives. The Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay comes into a modest legacy and takes his wife and three young children on holiday. It is a holiday for everyone except his wife, who is exhausted by ensuring that her husband’s ambitions for this rest time are realised. Her name is Constance. He has no idea that it is so bad for her, and indeed EM Delafield deftly shows this, does not tell us.
The Persephone Book of Short Stories, published by Persephone Books in 2012. 427pp
Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
In this lively, funny and well-known novel some of the same themes emerge. The protagonist, the provincial lady, has wit, perception and skill as a writer, but the life she portrays is every bit as limited as Alex’s in Consequences or Constance in the short story. Here is a middle class lady living in the provinces (Devon) whose spirit clashes with expectations of social deference and behaviour and rebels against the mundaneness of her domestic life. Here is no self-pity or sentimentality, yet she manages to convey the limits of her life with lively self-deprecation. Here are the opening paragraphs.
Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed the bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? … (1)
Published in 1930, there were further novels in the sequence.
Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, first published in 1930 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2014. The complete collection of Diaries has also been published by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.
EM Delafield was a pen name. The writer was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69hJune 1890. Like Alex she spent some time in a convent before the First World War. However at the start of the war she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. I counted 49 works on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works, such as biography, and short stories. She died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943.
Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors which caught my eye. This post represents my support for her celebration of the birthdays of the more neglected women writers.
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