Tag Archives: British LIbrary Women Writers

Tension by EM Delafield

Charmed, as so many readers have been, by the provincial lady, I went to visit EM Delafield’s home village of Kentisbeare near Exeter. Diary of a Provincial Lady was narrated with wit and perception as she does her best to manage her household while fending off the advice of Lady Boxe. The village was delightful, and I was helped to find her grave by a local man, who later returned with a book that EM Delafield, as Mrs Dashwood, had given his mother inside which was a letter written in January 1940 about WI business and her plans to fly to Paris. Her handwriting was very small and very neat. I felt sure that I would have enjoyed her company.

I feel sure that I would not have liked Lady Rossiter from Tension. The lady of the house at the centre of the novel, a little like Lady Boxe, is completely lacking in self-awareness, full of her own importance and really just not very nice. Lady Rossiter is the cause of the tension of the title and the unhappiness of many people.

Tension

The plot of Tension is rather thin. The main pleasure to be had from reading this novel is from the characters, and particularly from the importance that many of the characters assume for themselves on very flimsy grounds.

A new lady supervisor is appointed to the adult education institute for which Sir Julian Rossiter serves as chairman. His wife, Lady Edna, likes to involve herself in the lives of the teaching staff, believing she brings a bit of colour and class to their lives. She recognises Miss Marchrose’s name and believes that she was once engaged to her cousin but broke the engagement when he was wounded. Outraged by this she makes it her business to make life difficult for the new lady supervisor.

Miss Marchrose turns out to be very efficient and very honest. As she settles in she becomes attracted to Mark Easter, the Rossiter’s agent. He is a married man, but his wife is in a home for dipsomaniacs and has not been seen for many years. 

Lady Rossiter has claimed that she is the confidante of poor Mark Easter, although nothing in the story supports this. Perhaps she is jealous of Miss Marchrose, or perhaps she doesn’t like efficient women or perhaps she enjoys outrage on behalf of her cousin who has since fully recovered and married another woman. Lady Rossiter stokes the gossip about Miss Marchrose and makes life very difficult at the college.

The supporting cast are beautifully observed; the two Easter children, Ruthie in particular, are nightmare creations, who terrorise everyone by their intrusive behaviour. Iris Easter is Mark’s half-sister who has written a book called Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes. She is so empty-headed that her novel is sure to impress few people and fade away almost immediately. She is followed to the village by an admirer, Mr Garrett, who likes to boast of his Celtic connections. His father appears at the wedding:

The representative of the Clan appeared in the guise of a stout, handsome old man, with waxed moustache, in rather smart, tight, black clothes, wearing a top hat, a white carnation buttonhole, and white spats, and speaking with an accent that, though exceedingly pronounced was not to be recognised as that of any known part of Scotland. (160)

Mr Garrett senior is a business man from Swindon, the stationery business, not a Scottish laird.

Sir Julian is often the lens through which the reader observes the behaviours of the people in this novel. His comments to himself are frequently rather dry and when spoken pass over the head of his wife. He does not seek to modify his wife’s behaviour, revealing himself to be weak. He is, however, an excellent listener.

Many of the characters have mannerisms in their way of talking: one of the teachers provides a running commentary on what he is doing. Another calms himself in conversation by reading any words that are before him, including the label on a pot of plumb jam. Lady Rossiter has a little mantra that she claims helps her decide what to say: ‘Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?’ She is so sure of the correctness of her attitudes, of her understanding of people, of the right way to proceed that she consistently misses being kind, wise or true. Indeed, she is all gracious malevolence in black furs. 

Tension is everywhere in this novel: between the Rossiters, at the college, whenever the children appear. More is provided by the suggestiveness of the book written by Iris, Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes and the contrast between Sir Julian’s attitudes to fluffy blonde Iris and the ass, her fiancé. The worst tension results from Lady Rossiter’s ill-judged interference with the social lives and the business of the college. It does not end happily, or almost unhappily.

EM Delafield

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

EM Delafield was a pen name. She was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69h June 1890. She spent some time in a convent before the First World War, before 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. There are 49 works listed on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works such as biography, and short stories. Her most well-known book was Diary of a Provincial Lady, serialised for Time and Tide magazineShe died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943 grief-stricken at the death of her son.

Tension by EM Delafield, first published in 1920. Reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2021. 214pp

Related posts

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield (April 2018 on Bookword)

Heaven Ali reviewed Tension and called it ‘an absolute winner’

Kate Vane also reviewed it on her blog.

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Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.

For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.

Father

Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?

Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.

Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London. 

Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)

James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.

Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)

Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.

While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again. 

The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her. 

Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true  freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)

There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.

The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father. 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father has been reviewed by two bloggers I respect: Heavenali, who says it is glorious, and Stuck in a Book, who also wrote the helpful Afterword which illuminates the plight of ‘surplus women’.

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