|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.