Saturday, October 31, 2015

Delafield's Devon Double-Scapes

       Also   See Women Write in the Devon Landscape
Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, where EM Delafield wrote her first novels, in 1915.

         Almost a year ago, as the last day of the past year fast approached, aware that 2015 was to be a special time of commemoration for past war events, I'd decided I should also give particular attention to Devon women writers during World War One. Somewhat un-enthusiastically, I'd downloaded E. M.Delafield's The War Workers on my Kindle, and with the start of the first day of the New Year, began to flick over the pages. It might be a cliché but, within a few page-swipes and a rare occasion nowadays, this was a book I could not put down. As yet, my fastest Kindle read.
        I knew that this year, 2015, was to be the 125th anniversary of E M Delafield's birth; this was part of my reason for catching up on her novels. She'd completed her first novel Zella Sees Herself, in 1915, just a year after she'd moved to Exeter as V.A.D. worker. Zella quickly gained public acclaim and whilst she was in Exeter Delafield was prompted to draft her second novel, The War Workers, which was also soon much admired.
         A quick plot resume of the second book may help here:

Published in EMD's second novel, The War Workers, centres on a community of female war workers, in particular a triangle of women: Charmian Vivian, upper-class daughter of the squire of the local country estate, 'Plessing'; Grace Jones, daughter of a Welsh clergyman and a new recruit to the Midland Supply Depôt, of which Charmian is Director; and Lady Joanna Vivian, the squire's wife. Charmian controls the operation of the depot; she is ruthless, an  autocrat and her apparent self-sacrifice as she works all the hours God has provided attracts admiration from all those who work for her. These women, mostly young and middle-class, live near the Depôt in a rather uncomfortable hostel, sharing bedrooms and providing each other with early morning tea. Grace Jones is kindly, charming, excellent at her job, and soon becomes popular with all the other women; however, she does not join in the adulation of martyred Miss Vivian. Charmian's father suffers a stroke, and eventually dies;  Charmian is conflicted with her double duties of war work and  home. Grace, meanwhile is drawn into the orbit of Char's ostensibly charismatic mother, Lady Joanna; she also becomes close to Char's cousin John Trevellyan, who's recovering from his war experience and injury.

       Even in these early novels, EMD was adroit at portraying slight alterations of emotional perception and nuance in person to person inter-relationships. During the opening chapters Charmian Vivian, female protagonist in the The War Workers, and autocratic Director of the Midland Supply Depot (rumoured to be cast as an unflattering portrait of the real Dame Georgina Buller), sits up and takes notice of her new recruit, Grace Jones; the realisation gradually dawns on Char that her newly recruited Welsh secretary, unlike all the other fawning staff who surround her, providing her with the adulation her self-martyring, attention craving persona demands, is not necessarily going to be at her beck and call. The mirroring and gradual reversal of situational roles in the two women's awareness of each other is captured in a series of subtle conversations. The novel's narrative closely pursues the playing out of the dynamic between Char and Grace, gradually drawing into its orbit Char's own fraught relationship with her mother, Lady Joanna Vivian.

"Who is the little dark-haired girl I've been working with, Char? The one at that table..."
"Oh, a Miss-er-Jones," said Char languidly.
"You never told me you had any one of her sort here. I want to ask her out to Plessing. Couldn't we take her back in the car tonight?"
"My dear mother!" Char opened her eyes in an expression of exaggerated horror.

      The resulting denouement between the three women unfolds throughout the book, providing the novel's emotional crux; set against a background context of war, it gradually reaches its culmination after Char's father's stroke and eventual death:

"Excellent!" said Joanna callously. "I shall be delighted to see Miss Jones. I wanted to ask her here, but Char nearly had a fit at the idea. She'll certainly think I've done it out of malice prepense, as it is. She's got a most pigheaded prejudice against that nice Miss Jones."
"Lady Vivian!"
Lady Vivian laughed.
You'll have to break if to her, Miss Bruce, that it's Miss Jones who is coming. And don't let her think I did it on purpose!"
"I am sure she would never think anything of the sort."
"Perhaps not. But Char does get very odd ideas into her head, when she thinks there's any risk of lėse-majesté, to her Directorship. I must say," observed Joanna thoughtfully preparing to go upstairs for her night watch, I often wish that when Char was younger I'd smacked some of the nonsense out-"
But before this well-worn aspiration of Miss Vivian's parent, Miss Bruce took her indignant departure.

        As I read I find myself thinking of character duplications and splittings, of landscape and place-swaps in fiction. I'm also remembering my own three idyllic months spent here, in the midst of the Devon capital, some 45 or so years ago.

       A few weeks later, early Spring, I go to Exeter to wander up near the castle ruins, at Northernhay gardens, where EMD is said to have written the manuscripts of her first novels.

      'Double-Take' is the expression that comes to mind.

      Today is the day I've been aware of a coming to terms with that long ago time. Around every corner and in every street, this city brings up places, endlessly self reflecting mises en abeyne, halls of distorted mirrors. A site then; a site now. They are the same; yet utterly different.

       E.M. Delafield's time in Exeter during WW1 was just over fifty years before my adult life began there. At that time I was light-years away from considering myself as writer. But looking back at those few months I can see how for a young author the bildungsroman is an ideal genre. A way of burying the hatchet of one's pre-adult years. Both of EMD's early books seem replete with doubled and redoubled character or personality re-inventions and deliberately, deliciously encoded name twists. The writer is evidently writing out her own past in her fictional recreations of Zella, in Zella Sees Herself and perhaps of Grace, in The War Workers. Both novels are peopled with a panoply of real characters EMD knew commingled with those she created, who were apparently based on them.

       Delafield references her own concern with real versus imaginary characters, when in the Foreword to The War Workers she states a disclaimer:

The Midland Supply Depot of The War Workers has no counterpart in real life, and the scenes and characters described are also purely imaginary.

          We can take EMD's statements with a large dose of salt. From the onset of first publication of War Workers there were rumours that Char was the real larger than life Dame Georgiana Buller, the only woman appointed as Administrator in a military hospital during World War I. EMD's biographer, Violet Powell commented, 'Elizabeth admitted that she had got into trouble over The War Workers, and, even more candidly, that she deserved to do so'. Powell adds that even years later, faced with meeting Delafield at social occasions, the Buller family were still uneasy. That might account for the prefacing waiver at the opening to The Way Things Are, a novel written twelve years later, when, the author, now writing in her prime, was able to view her own writing peccadilloes with a certain wry detachment:

A good many of the characters in this novel have been drawn, as usual, from persons now living; but the author hopes very much that they will only recognise one another.

          Although ultimately, to do so raises more question than answers, it is fascinating to consider the splittings and doublings of character and place which frequent this novel, and that of the earlier Zella Sees Herself, with regard, both to the author's own personal life, and in terms of the fictional echoes or reflections apropos real events of live war-time Exeter. One local war event which the novel appears to pick up on is the handing of food bags to soldiers on a troop-trainpassing through Exeter station. By February 1915, the then new mayoress, who, like Georgiana Buller, became known as a formidable woman organiser and fund-raiser, had raised £400. Accompanied by 4 other women the mayoress doled out, to every soldier, a large sandwich, two pieces of cake, an orange or banana, and a pack of cigarettes. In the novel, this scene's fictional transference zones in on Char, who, suffering from an extreme bout of influenza, still revels being in the limelight as the object of mass adoration:

Char moved up and down the length of the train.
She never carried any of the laden trays herself, but she saw to it that no man missed his mug of steaming tea and supply of sandwiches and cake, and she exerted all the affability and charm of which she held the secret, in talking to the soldiers. The packets of cigarettes with which she was always laden added to her popularity and when the train steamed slowly out of the station again the men raised a cheer.
"Three cheers for Miss Vivian!"

           If we explore the doubled or duplicated fictional/real lives hinted at in fiction we can often open up lost links and connections that once existed between individuals and families of the past. Both of Delafield's early novels apparently sail close to the autobiographical winds of her early years. In the first, Zella's childhood home, Villetswood, 'where there is not another house in miles', is sited somewhere in Devon; was the author picturing the house at Butterleigh, where she had spent many happy childhood summers? Boscastle, the novel's other unspecified family house, home of her aunt and uncle might be based on her real-life aunt's home at Penstowe, near Bude, on the Devon Cornwall border. Zella also sets a literary Devonshire context, as, in an early conversation with her cousin, Zella, the girl heroine, who 'sometimes thought of herself as a Devonshire maid', soon establishes Lorna Doone as 'the Devonshire story' whilst declaring her own loyalties that, 'of course I am from Devonshire'.
           In the second novel, Charmaine's fictional ancestral family home, in War Workers, named Plessing, is likely to be based on Downes near Crediton, the real-life estate of the Buller family and Dame Georgiana's actual childhood home. Was EMD so taken with Georgiana, that she found herself inscribing her contemporary in her early fiction? Indeed, the first stirrings of text may have made its first appearance because of the author's initial fascination with this striking and powerful woman, possibly, to such an extent that the real person could not really be separated from that of the fictional character. The doublings of real and imaginary split selves in this novel replicate phantasmagorically, for it is not only Char, but also, her fictional mother Lady Vivian, who appears as an embodiment of her real-self model, Charmaine's mother, Lady Audrey Buller. One commentator describes that

In various archival references Lady Audrey Jane Charlotte Buller, Georgiana's mother is always referred to as an exemplary woman who certainly on the surface level seems to mirror exactly the fictional Lady Vivian.

       In the novel, as war-fever crescendos and Char's displaced work-ethic effort increases, her already complicated relationship with her mother Lady Joanna Vivian decidedly worsens, whilst, in a neatly plotted change-over, Grace's bond with Joanna grows in warmth and intensity. By the time the novel finishes, Grace has supplanted Char and become Lady Vivian's substitute daughter.
         I have no way of knowing if Audrey Buller's relationship with her daughter, the real Georgiana, was as difficult and negative as the pair's fictional counterparts in War Workers, but it is possible they were, and that if so during her early weeks and months as VAD in Exeter there may have been occasions in which could observe EMD mother and daughter together. Given the problems she had with an overbearing mother herself, she may have been drawn to and susceptible to the signals of such a relationship and what it might reflect back to her of her own. EMD's interest in Buller mother and daughter may have been even more likely because of similarities between their and her own social status, backgrounds and life-events.
         The women also had a formidable family military man in common. Although there is no obvious link between Sir Piers Vivian and his fictional counterpart in the novel, Lady Audrey's real-life husband, Sir Redvers Buller, was one of Devon's and the country's most famous, exemplary war heroes, whilst EMD's (step) uncle, Colonel Algernon Thynne, became a prominent World War One army figure. Her step-father, Sir Hugh Clifford, also had a distinguished diplomatic record; all three were eminent men who must have created quite a stir in the lives of the women to whom they were related.
       The most puzzling and fascinating of all the possible doublings in EMD's first novels however is that of Grace Jones, the other main female character, in The War Workers. Does Grace represent another facet of the author's own personality? Grace is also from an upper class background and is Welsh (Delafield's childhood included several years in Llandogo, in Wales). Grace's main achievement in War Workers is her deployment of a dose of inner integrity, which gives her the strength to disrupt and disarm Char's control freak nature. Did EMD, newly arrived in Exeter, similarly, and really, manage to challenge the authoritative Georgiana Buller? Or, as she observed the dominating Director steam-rollering her way through the cowering other workers at the War Depot, was she projecting, harbouring a fantasy of wishful thinking through the creation of her own imagined character? Of course, we shall never know, but the possible interconnections between real-life and fictional-lives in these Devon-set novels provides us with a kaleidoscope of new material upon which we can mull ...

At Northernhay Gardens, Exeter

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