Tension by E.M. Delafield

E.M. Delafield is synonymous with Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) and it always comes as a surprise that her other novels are so different. Consequences (1919) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) are terribly bleak indictments of the Edwardian marriage market that remind me of a less ornate Edith Wharton. Tension (1920), an early and highly accomplished novel, is also very different to the Diary in tone but it’s similar in milieu. I could imagine the events of this novel taking place in a neighbouring town and the Provincial Lady hearing about it during one of the ghastly Lady Boxe’s interminable visits. The Provincial Lady’s undemonstrative husband Robert is estate manager to Lady B (are we supposed to assume she’s a widow? I don’t think her husband is ever mentioned) and he and his fellow estate manager Mark Easter might occasionally meet for a drink to pick over whether Lady Boxe or Lady Rossiter is the biggest nightmare to work for.

Sir Julian and Lady Rossiter are lord and lady of the manor in a small Devon town and are closely involved with the local business college. When Miss Pauline Marchrose from London is appointed as ‘lady supervisor’, Lady Rossiter becomes obsessed with whether she is the same Miss Marchrose who jilted her cousin after he had an accident and was expected to be paralysed for life. Miss Marchrose’s isn’t interested in Lady R’s gracious condescensions and becomes close to Mark. Mark’s wife has been permanently committed to a home for alcoholics and his feral children Ruthie and Ambrose (‘Peekaboo’) run riot (they’re so amusing to read about but I’d run a mile from them in real life). The romantic tension between Pauline and Mark can’t go anywhere because Mark is too weak-willed and can’t possibly stand up to the status quo when he can’t even control his own children.

Edna, Lady Rossiter is such a piece of work, the boss’s wife from hell, and her type is utterly timeless. The way in which she conceals her venom within honeyed homilies is so recognisable amongst the great ladies of my pretentious neighbourhood (and any number of individuals on social media). She thinks she’s giving the college staff a delightful treat by hosting Sunday afternoon tea parties and organising nature walks (not such a wholesome pursuit when they’re designed to control her social inferiors) and can’t understand why they no longer show the expected deference. Sir Julian is to all intents and purposes the ideal benevolent squire, sympathetic towards those he respects and uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism when dealing with his wife (series consultant Simon Thomas compares them to Mr and Mrs Bennet – I don’t think Mrs Bennet would have been above making trouble for Charlotte Lucas if Mr Bingley had taken a liking to her). Weak men who have influence but are too ineffectual to use it   they can make mistakes without it having any impact on their careers and social status, while any hint of wrong-doing is fatal for women.

Pauline Marchrose has become a professional woman out of necessity rather than making a feminist stance and finds teaching shorthand and typing more congenial than being a secretary in an office. Curiously, (some) women had only had the vote for two years when this novel was published, yet women’s rights is seen as the previous generation’s battle and the Great War isn’t mentioned. A different kind of ‘modern’ woman can be found in the subplot involving Mark’s rather obnoxious sister Iris, author of a daring and experimental novel titled Why, Ben! A Story of the Sexes  (a very good title, though perhaps not quite as good as Symphony in Three Sexes). Despite being ambivalent towards marriage, Iris automatically gains an elevated status and authority over single women when she becomes engaged (it’s still the case today, if you ask me – though you don’t necessarily have to be married or engaged, just having a boyfriend is enough).

Delafield is so bleak on the subject of marriage. Iris and her fiancé Douglas provide much of the novel’s light relief but I don’t think they will be happy, especially as he’ll lose his allowance on their marriage (and he isn’t as bohemian or as Scottish as he seems). Sir Julian proposed because he was lonely and because he felt sorry for Edna being single at 28 and Mark’s failed marriage was also contracted out of pity. The ending involves a proposal that might not be for love but it is sensible, honest and respectful and it’s just about possible to feel cautiously optimistic about its outcome. This isn’t a comic novel but it cleverly demonstrates how comic happenings can coexist with tragedy. Like life, I suppose?

I received a review copy from British Library Publishing, with many thanks. Have you read anything by E.M. Delafield?