Tag Archives: Devon

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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Black History and Slave Owners in Devon

About half a century ago I was privileged to attend an East Coast college in Pennsylvania, as part of an exchange programme from the University of Warwick. Students of history got to spend a semester at an American university.

I shared a college room with two other women: one was a Finnish-American a little younger than me, and the other was from Brooklyn on a programme. Cheryl was black and at first as outsiders we had bonded. But soon she joined the black activists on campus and in our discussions blamed the English for slavery and the suffering of the black population. I felt no guilt since the trade had been undertaken by people who lived 200 years before I was born. 

Nowadays, I am not so quick to reject the idea that I am implicated in the enslavement of African peoples. As far as I can tell, my family were not among the many British people who were compensated for the ‘emancipation’ of the enslaved peoples held on their plantations, carefully noted in the legers of 1834. 

So, I do not appear to have ancestors involved in enslavement. But to ignore the financial benefits brought by the slave traders to the ports of England, the ship owners and crews who undertook the notorious Middle Passage, to ignore the economic results of the cotton industry – workers and investors – and those who benefited from cheap cotton goods, especially sugar produced on the plantations and made possible the economic prosperity of England would be wilful blindness. So much of the British prosperity of the 19th and to a certain extent the 20th centuries was built on the back of the enslaved Africans, shipped in their hundreds of thousands across the Atlantic.

I recently read Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016). It is a long read and at times distressing. To read the racist beliefs about black Africans is uncomfortable. To read of the arguments made by those who opposed the abolition, first of the slave trade and then of enslavement itself, is eyewatering. It was argued by some that it was every free Englishman’s right to trade and own enslaved people. The attitude persisted that blackness implied inferiority, that white people were superior. And it was argued that this superiority of white people justified enslavement of Africans. 

These beliefs took a long time to weaken. There was strong resistance to Africans and black Caribbeans joining the British Army to fight the Germans in the First World War. It was argued that for black men to kill Europeans would challenge the idea of the superiority of Europeans. While we may have pride in the resistance to the US ideas of segregation that the US troops brought with them in the Second World Wat, it was only 20 years since a black sailor, Charles Wootton who had served in the Royal Navy, had been killed in Liverpool in what can only be described as a lynching.

Perhaps the most significant ‘forgotten’ history concerns the enslavement of millions of Africans. While the trade might have been established by the Spanish and Portuguese, as soon as British ships were able to break the monopoly they engaged in the very lucrative trading in human lives: buying humans on the West Coast and transporting them in terrible conditions and selling them in the New World.

We pride ourselves on the British campaign to abolish the slave trade. This was achieved, despite much opposition, in 1807. Many believed that enslavement would gradually die away. It took another campaign to end it in the colonies of the British Empire, and to achieve this the biggest compensation ever was paid out. But it was not to the enslaved people that compensation was paid, but to those who had owned them. And while they were not deemed to be slaves after emancipation they were required to continue in a form of apprenticeship which lasted for six more years.

What was Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans?

And who were the slaveowners in Britain in the 1830s? This is a difficult part of history, one which some would rather leave alone. But historians chase after the details to build stories from the ground up. In Devon we are lucky enough to have a historian who has looked at Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans. 

Devon and the Slave Trade by Todd Gray provides documentary evidence of the connection. It is true that the first voyages across the Atlantic were by that famous Devonian John Hawkins. He made three voyages between 1562 and 1568. The difficulties were quite daunting (economic and political) and little involvement was seen again until the 18th century. Even then ships from Devon did not contribute substantial portion of African people making the Middle Passage crossing.

When in the 1790s the campaigns to end slavery were launched Devon people played their part. 

When he turned his attention again to the issue, during Lockdowns, and wrote Devon’s Last Slave-Owners Todd Gray had the digitized records of the compensation paid to reveal the names of the slave owners, their birth places, their place of residence and where their enslaved peoples resided. These records were compiled from the legers of the time by a team from University College London. You can find the database here.

His book seeks to answer the question: to what extent did Devonians own enslaved people at the time of Emancipation on 1st August 1834?

43 people, 39 of them men, many of them members of the clergy, owned over 7000 enslaved people, mostly in the West Indies. By examining the records of their lives Gray is able to conclude

Devon’s mid-nineteenth century slaveholders were not a homogenous group. Some were Devon born and bred but they were outnumbered by retirees from the West Indies and other parts of Great Britain: most were former owners who largely favoured the new seaside resorts over Exeter or Plymouth or the countryside. (240)

That is not the extent of Devon’s association with enslavement as Gray reminds us.

Ownership was merely one of the ways in which individuals were associated with slavery. In its widest sense, it could be assumed that any consumer of slave-produced goods, including sugar, rum, coffee and cotton, directly benefitted from enslavement. In 1834 thus would have defined some 16,564,138 people, the entire population of the country. (1)

The difficulties, the awkwardness of our country’s history must not be dodged because it is difficult and awkward, not the country’s finest achievement. What these three books have told me is that we are all bound up with enslavement, through our family histories, and through the wealth that it provided, which made this country one of the richest in the 19th century in the world. 

It also tells the story of the individuals, who suffered and who benefited from enslavement. Here is Princess, who testified in court in 1823 in her complaint about Robert Semple’s treatment of her:

That this morning she saw a woman of the name of Cuba sitting down asleep; she said to her: What were you doing last night that you did not sleep? At the same time Mr Semple came out of his bedroom and asked me what I said. I told him. He said You always have something to say. Better shut your mouth. I answered him again. Master, I don’t speak with you. I speak with Cuba and then I came downstairs and into the kitchen. Master followed me into the kitchen and told me I had better go to my work than meddle my tongue. I answered him I am doing my work, and you come to trouble me. I was not speaking to you. Then he went to the store and took a horsewhip and began to flog me. I asked him for what he flogged me. He said for badness. I told him: So long as you flog me for nothing, I shall go to the Fiscal and I came away. (235-6)

The lives in this account, from one county, reveal in detail the great variety of people living in Devon and their connection to the enslavement of black people. Both books of local history are also generously illustrated. Cheryl spoke near to the truth: we all have responsibilities in this sad history. It’s black history month, so it’s time to acknowledge that.

Books referred to:

Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016), Pan Books. 602pp
Associated with the BBC programme, and winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

Devon and the Slave Trade: documents on African enslavement, abolition and emancipation from 1562 to 1867 by Todd Gray (2007)Mint Press 2nd ed 2020 134pp

Devon’s Last Slave-Owners by Todd Gray, (2021), Mint Press. 298pp

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Devon Voices in World War One

There has been an abundance of tributes to those who made sacrifices during the First World War to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice on 11thNovember. In this post I draw attention to a local project that focuses on the everyday impact of that war upon Devon; and acknowledges the 11,000 local people who died in the hostilities.

There is a bookish connection.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

We honour and remember the fallen soldiers, airmen, seamen and medical staff who gave their lives in the First World War. Our dominant image of the war is of the infantryman, in the trenches on the Western Front, with his round helmet. Somewhere in this picture there will be poppies.

We must also remember the effects of the war on other people. I have been admiring the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It has involved ordinary people (that is, not historians), supporting their research into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. There have been about 30 projects. In addition there has been an arts programme, some events and other notable outcomes, such as an exhibition and a book. I like the idea of citizen history

Devon During the First World War

Many of the projects have been written up in the book Devon During the First World War. Sadly this book will only have a single print run, but it is available from Devon Libraries.

Devon is predominately rural and projects have explored farming and food production, including in-shore fisheries. The German blockade made it important for Britain to develop more home grown produce, and Devon people responded by finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for their allotments. In-shore fisheries were affected immediately by restrictions but Stephen Reynolds, who had come to live in Devon, worked tirelessly to ensure the work continued and the fish were harvested and fishermen did not loose their livelihood.

Exeter became a hospital centre for the South, taking wounded men from the trains via Southampton, who were cared for in no less than eight hospitals in the city. Some of those affected by shell shock were cared for at Seale-Hayne. Ordinary households in Exeter provided accommodation for the sick and wounded and they received treatment at the local clinics.

Plymouth has always had a central role in defending the country and in maintaining the naval fleet. Some very young midshipmen from Dartmouth were involved in action, sometimes fatally.

Industries all over Devon were affected by the shortage of labour and materials, and filling the gap meant that women and young people were recruited into new roles. An addition the refugee population, especially from Belgium, was welcomed by local people.

In Ottery St Mary, for example, the Verschoren family arrived with three children. The father had suffered a gas attack on the Front and been sent to Britain for treatment. Mrs Verschoren led the three children to safety, and they were settled in Devon. They were liked and well known in the area, and the whole family stayed on after the war. (see p43-44 Ciaran Stoker: Belgian Refugees in Devon)

Women took up roles previously denied them, and I especially warmed to the ambulance driver who was responsible for the transport of patients in Devon, as well as the maintenance of her vehicle. Sometimes her task was to return an injured soldier to his home when no more could be done to help him. (Devon Voices exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Devon writers, workers, the Jewish community and Canadian lumberjacks also made a substantial contribution to the war effort in Devon and have been researched by the citizen historians.

Here is an account of a notable act of bravery by 20-year old Ella Trout in September 1917.

Ella was rowing beyond Start Point with her 10-year old nephew, Willie Trout, when she heard a loud explosion from a torpedoed ship. Ignoring the risk of a submarine surfacing, Ella rowed for more than a mile through dangerous cross-currents, arriving in time to rescue a seaman clinging to a piece of wreckage. She hauled him on board, but unable to row back again against the strong current, started to drift further out into the Channel. Fortunately a nearby fishing boat had rescued the eight other seamen from the ship. The skipper took Ella’s rescued seaman onto his boat and towed her boat to safer waters where a naval patrol boat took the crew of the sunken ship to Dartmouth. Ella was awarded the OBE for bravery. (p99-100 Tom Reeves: Lifesaving at sea)

You can find details of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project on their website here: https://www.devonremembersheritage.org

I visited the Devon Voices and the Canadians in Devon War Photographs exhibitions at RAMM, Exeter in October. Both were moving and instructive.

My own choice of object to honour those whose lives were so affected by the war is made by Clare Read, Little Burrow Designs and called We Will Remember Them.

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Puffins or Bookword on Lundy Island

There’s a loose association here and I’m going to work it. Bookword and grandson went to Lundy Island towards the end of August. Where is Lundy? Everyone who listens to late night radio in Britain (and beyond) has heard of Lundy: Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea … These names are from the famous incantation of the Shipping Forecast. Lundy is a small island, 3 miles long and less than 1 mile wide, about 11 miles off the coast of Devon. Most of its landmass occupies a plateau at about 90 – 130 metres. It’s like a little bit of Dartmoor dropped in the sea.

Puffins

The name of the island, in one explanation, comes from the Old Norse. Lundi is Old Norse for puffin and ey means island. Putting them together we get Lundy, or Puffin Island. Puffins are what Lundy is famous for. Here’s the invisible join: Puffins.

Penguin books were introduced by Allen Lane. I wrote about the important revolution by Allen Lane, establishing quality paperbacks in 1936 after waiting on Exeter Station. Just four years later he added Puffin Books with Noel Carrington, the first editor.

Since the 1960s Puffin has been one of the most industrious and successful publishers of children’s books. The first in 1941 was Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd, (who also also wrote Miss Ranskill Comes Home which I reviewed here.)

My own childhood tastes in reading were encouraged by the annual pre-holiday family trip to WH Smiths to buy two Puffins each. In this way I read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett all the Narnia series by CS Lewis along with many others. I think I owe my love of reading to those endless days in campsites and on beaches in France, lying on a campbed, the grass or sand with a Puffin Book. Once my two choices had been devoured I would begin on the books chosen by my brother and sister. Here’s my 8 year old grandson, on Lundy Island, following the tradition:

A colourful history

Lundy lies where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean. Administratively it is part of Devon. There is evidence of occupation or visitation from the Neolithic period onwards. There are Bronze Age burial mounds.

It has a lively history, owned by the Knights Templar, disputed by the Marisco family. The duke was implicated in the murder of one of Henry II’s household, and the king sent troops to the island. Henry III built the castle in an attempt to restore order. It was occupied by Barbary Pirates, supported the Royalist side in the Civil War, went through a period of lawlessness before being sold more than once. It was given to the National Trust in 1969 and is now leased to and managed by the Landmark Trust.

Over to you

I have great affection for these Puffin titles. As you can see from the photo of those I still own, many of them are historical novels. I loved those by Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff in particular. I don’t know what happened to the other Puffin books I once devoured. They were probably handed down to the younger brothers and sisters – we were a large family. Do you have favourite books from childhood? Do they stand the test of time?

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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