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.
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 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 magazine. She 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
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.