Friday, December 18, 2009

Sad December at Kentisbeare - E.M. Delafield's tragedies

Croyle seen across the fields

 E. M. Delafield, known to her friends as E.M.D., wrote almost 40 books - novels, plays, criticism and articles - but mostly when she is remembered at all, it is rather blandly or restrictively, as a writer with a 'reasonable voice'; (Christopher Fowler wrote in "Forgotten Writers" in 2008, "Delafield's reasonable voice is currently out of favour, but thankfully she survives in the nation's second-hand bookshops, awaiting rediscovery"). You can find an introduction to many of these books on the E.M.D. website. Those who know of Delafield and her writings are most likely to be familiar with the recently re-acclaimed Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequels and will consequently assess her talents as being those of a comic writer of social satire - although having said that, some recent reviewers are picking up on the book's more subtly stated sad undertones (see Savidge Reads). As with so many writers, this can lead to a very narrowed reading of the whole oeuvre; in Delafield's case the surface glitter - or as one critic called it, the 'gossamer charm' - of the Diary - and of some of her many other books - disguises the essential sadness, bitter irony and blatant fury which lies at the heart of her work.
           In the introduction to The Way Things Are

Nicola Beauman comments on the 'weary, accepting and ironic' tone of the book, but adds that is 'contains the undertone of tragedy that is the hallmark of all her books'. It's as an early C20 writer, whose work presents impassioned feminist views, cleverly dressed up in the guise of light, amusing stories, that Delafield should now be reassessed; in particular her deep links with Devon need to be more fully documented, so that her literary importance to the county can be understood from a wider perspective than is now the case. I have only recently begun to research the writer's life and begun to read her books, so at this stage these comments are to collate what is so far available - and, other than sites and blogs relishing Provincial Lady, there is apparently not much on the web.

A good place to begin, before going to the bookshops, is with the fact of Elizabeth Delafield's terribly sad death at the age of only 53. Though a somewhat gloomy introduction to the writer, this sets the tone for the underlying hints of disaffection, disillusion - even isolation - that infiltrate the fiction. It must have been a very dark Christmas for Delafield's family and friends in Kentisbeare, in 1942, a few weeks after her burial - alongside that of her son - under the great yew tree in the churchyard there, on 6th December. She had died on the 2nd December, after a fairly brief illness during the later stages of which she'd apparently handled severe bouts of pain with typical and unflinching bravery.
      I can't help wondering if Delafield was aware of her own impending fate, when she contributed the introduction to the biography of Charlotte Yonge by Georgina Battiscombe, which had been published earlier in the same year. Towards the end of that introduction Delafield quoted and adapted Longfellow: 'Art is long ... time is fleeting and paper, at this date, is rationed.' Elizabeth's epitaph, already carved on her son's grave at Kentisbeare, from The Book of Job, and previously used by her as a coda of her novella 'The Wedding of Rose Barlow', was 'a Clear Shining after Rain'.
       The writer first became ill not long after the devastating news of her son Lionel's sudden death in November 1940, which had happened whilst he was in the midst of military training, at the Infantry Training Centre. Elizabeth had battled through her grief with typical stoicism and completed her penultimate novel  No One Now Will Know, whose typically complicated plot Violet Powell notes, in her The Life of a Provincial Lady, took in 'seduction of a sister in law, a suggestion of incest, incipient lesbianism, and a fatal carriage accident'; she had also completed  pieces for Punch and the preparation of a talk for BBC, but had to cancel the latter because within a year, by the following November, she was in a nursing home undergoing a colostomy.

     There are some photos of Delafield taken during the 20's and 30's at her home on Life Images portraits and apparently a few at The Portrait Gallery. Here is the cover of the Persephone Books edition one of her most popular novels, Consequences, which was  first published in 1919. 

and that of another of her at the time well known novels, Thank Heaven Fasting with its first page:


       Edmee Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture's connections with the south-west and in particular with Devon, were lifelong. It was in 'a meadow, leant against a haystack' near East Butterleigh House in East Butterleigh - which her apparently nomadic family used for many years as a summer residence - that as a young child (she was born in 1890) she had first listened to her mother reading Pilgrim's Progress. According to Violet Powell it seemed to the young girl that the enchanted land of peace or 'Beulah' described in Progress  was a 'prevision' of that very meadow which happened to look across the fields and over the Culm valley to the house near Kenstisbeare, which two years after her marriage was to become the writer's home for the twenty or so years remaining in her life. The treasured recollection of her mother reading to her seems also to have become crystallised as 'a moment before innocent trust evaporated' (Powell); many of Delafield's novels focus on the 'blacking-out of confidence between growing girls and their mothers' (Powell). Her mother's influence on her life was paramount, not least as a writing role-model and mentor; their relationship seems to have been complicated and ambivalent and deserves a study on its own. Suffice it to say here that Mrs Henry de la Pasture, well-known as a novelist in her day, also had many links with Devon.
          As a child Elizabeth also spent time at Penstowe near Bude, in north Cornwall, apparently finding her Aunt Constance, her mother's sister, a 'refuge'. According to Violet Powell she was said to provide welcome respite from the overwhelming influence of the former; Powell comments that throughout her life Delafield retreated to Penstowe when she was in need of sustenance and sanctuary.
          During the first world war Elizabeth was based in Exeter, where she was a VAD worker at the Voluntary Aid Hospital, which was established and directed by Georgiana Buller. There, whilst off duty, 'perched on a bench high in Rougemont Park', Delafield wrote her first novel, Zella Sees Herself, which was published in 1917 (see extract on EMD Homepage here). The War Workers and The Pelicans - both at least partly written in Exeter - followed. They were both published by the end of the war. In his critical essay on Delafield Maurice McCullen, commented that in The Pelicans, 'Through [its heroine] Rosamund, Delafield examined another case of youthful romanticism at odds with life'. The writing of Pelicans was interrupted, so that the then topical The War Workers could be completed: a recent critic describes the latter as  'a satire of the cult of upper class personality and of the accompanying short sighted devotion to work of the lady volunteers' (See Women Writers of the First World War).
         Several of Delafield's later novels were, or were partly, set in Devon. Tension completed in 1919 just before her wedding to Paul Dashwood and dedicated  to her mother, was set in a 'commerical collage on the Devonshire coast' (Powell); in The Heel of Achilles - called by McCullen  'a negligible study of egotism' - the heroine Lydia goes with her clergyman husband 'downalong to Devonshire' (Powell). In Consequences the doomed heroine Alex Clare mostly enjoys her summer visit to 'Fiveapples farm', in Devonshire where the girls 'might run about the hay-fields and in the lanes'.
        Consequences, said to be her own favourite novel - typifies Delafield's fictional contradictions. On one hand, it is deceptively presented, with rather crisp and clipped paragraphs, plus easy-going dialogue, which make it very easily readable; but that light style is entirely dissonant with the dark content at the heart of the plot - and the mood is intensified by the discrepancy between style and content. Deeply feminist and angry the final, inevitable tragic conclusion (or 'consequence') is set in stone right from the first chapter, when Alex, inadvertently, nearly causes the death of her own sister. There is the precognition of darkness and death and the poor unfortunate Alex, the young 'heroine', from the beginning of the novel takes on the aura of the shadow which follows her: she is the augur of her own doomed failure and tragic fate.
          Many of Delafield's novels were written from Croyle, where the Dashwoods moved on 1 September 1923, just after their lease of a house nearby, at Westcott, also near Cullompton, which according to Powell had 'Victorian gothic windows' and where Elizabeth is said to have finished writing A Reversion to Type.
          I don't think Delafield was a solitary writer, even if her home was in a then rather remote Devonshire location only to be reached by driving across a field - she had  rich and wide networks of professional and personal friends; many of these according to Powell came and stayed with her and the Dashwood family. Several of these were themselves writers; Kate O'Brien became a close friend at the end of Delafield's life and before this Virginia Woolf had stayed several times at Croyle.          Elizabeth was described as ‘a witty, extremely soignée person, with a gift for laughter’ (Kunitz and Haycraft - see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Her friend Lady Rhondda ‘used to wonder how that frail looking creature could stand the strain of the unending round of never ceasing work. I suppose it would be true to say that in the end she did not’ (Time and Tide - ODNB).

         E.M.D's links with Devon were, and are rich. There are various and complicated archival traces concerning her life and literary work linked with the county as well as the diverse interpretative possibilities of the books themselves. There is much research yet to do.


  1. I've just come across your excellent account of an intriguing writer. Fascinating stuff. There's much more to Delafield than met the eye.

  2. Thank you for this. . .have just explored Delafield's 'stomping ground' and it has helped tie the the threads together

  3. Glad the blog helped you Helen. It's beautiful country too.


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