This is the second book in the wonderful British Library Women Writers series I’ve been fortunate enough to receive and I’m on the official Book Tour for this one – see the full blog tour listing for this and “Mamma” below my review. What a good read this one was, too.

E. M. Delafield – “Tension”

(21 April 2021

“For the last week or two I have been having a poor woman out from Culmouth in here to do some sewing […] I went in to talk to her for a minute or two, the first day she came. I hate them to feel as though they weren’t of the same flesh and blood as oneself – and I was struck by the sort of hard dreariness in her face, as though she had never known the meaning of love of gladness. I asked no questions, of course, but just laid my hand on her shoulder and said quietly, ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever read Browning – perhaps not – but there is a line of his that I want you to think about while you’re mending those curtains: God’s in His Heaven – all’s right with the world!’ And then I left her. Well, she didn’t make very much response, poor thing, but every time I saw her when she came here I’ve just, in my own thoughts, thrown a little Cloak of Love round her. It seemed to me all that I could do.” (p. 56)

I’ve always enjoyed fiction about jobs, especially in the past, like “High Wages” and “South Riding“, so this novel about the new Lady Superintendent at a private college, the other staff and the director and his wife was bound to appeal. Published in 1920, we have a novel both of its time and universal, describing in horrible detail what happens when a powerful woman takes against a less powerful one, wielding all the weapons in her armory available at the time.

We open with a scene of chaos as the rather sweet but ultimately ineffectual Mark Easter’s children descend upon Sir Julian and Lady Edna from their cottage down the road; being the author of the “Provincial Lady” books, Delafield is well set to describe both appallingly behaved children and monstrously self-unaware and hypocritical adults. Lady Rossiter IS a monster, far worse than anyone the Provincial Lady encounters, but she’s always been so and is not kept down by her husband, however sweet he actually is underneath. You do feel more and more sorry for Sir Julian as the novel progresses, trapped in a loveless and unhappy marriage, happy to deal with the college and his fellow directors but hating confidences and what he calls “officiousness” yet seemingly always encountering it. Yet, when it comes to the pass, will he stand firm and not waver? Hm.

The tension in the novel as Lady Rossiter clings on to her quarry with sharp teeth and shakes her environment up until she has nowhere to turn racks up gently and steadily, with skill and delicacy. There is an important scene near the middle of the book where Miss Marchrose and Sir Julian discuss how nothing end in violent action these days, but in an unbearable tension, and this foreshadows brilliantly what is about to happen.

The novel is full of great detail about this private college, turned around by the management of the Supervisor, Fairfax Fuller, a man of short temper who hates gossip and silliness and is the only decisive character of the men in the book. We see shorthand classes, clashes between staff, oddities which drive others into a perfect pitch of agony and fury (to be fair, Cooper, who narrates every single piece of his own action, is a rum do indeed) and gossip running wildfire and taking innocent people down with it.

There’s a side order of satire in Mark’s half-sister Iris’ terrible modern novel and upcoming wedding to a seemingly professional Scotsman with a secret background of his own. The sad details of Mark’s own marriage is used unkindly by Edna though she convinces herself she’s the only woman in his life and the only one who understands him. And you could almost feel sorry for Edna, except she insinuates and bullies, willfully misunderstanding a painful episode in Miss Marchrose’s earlier life, feeding information in nastily and having unpleasant confrontations. You do really ache for her nose to be put out of joint, or a sticky hand to be placed on her wallpaper at any rate.

Although it’s a comedy, there are really sad moments in this book. Sir Julian and Lady Rossiter carry on with their horrible marriage and you can see he will just become more entrenched in sardonic silence, she in her relentless, fixed-grin do-gooding. Iris’ marriage seems based on very little, Mark’s is destroyed and so you wonder if any marriage is actually happy. But that gives a depth to the novel which makes it very much just not a frivolous tale of two women set against each other.

There’s a timeline of the 1920s in the front of the book with a concentration on alcoholism and the laws around it, as well as the missing generation of men lost in the First World War which shadows this book written so soon afterwards. A biography of Delafield is followed by a Preface by Lucy Evans, Curtaor of the Printed Heritage Collections of the British Library which discusses the attitude of Delafield to men and gossip. The Afterword by Series Consultant Simon Thomas looks at the novels within the novel, and also the reading of “East Lynne” by Lady Rossiter’s servant (on whom she has tried to impose various other, improving books; this one is a sensation novel that in some ways echoes the plot of “Tension”) and free love, and ultimately what the “tension” in the book is about – not between modes of ethics but in the use of unstoppable hypocrisy to achieve a personal aim.

Don’t look to this novel for the neat ending of the romantic comedy. Reputation is what matters, and social institutions and maintaining the status quo. (Preface}

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review. Here’s the rest of the blog tour, for this one and “Mamma” (which I have also read myself) – and what a lot of lovely familiar names there are on there, too!