Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: The War Workers by E.M. Delafield

The War Workers
E.M. Delafield

'But it was characteristic of Char Vivian that she did not make up her mind then and there to order the car around and arrive at Plessing in time for eight o'clock dinner and early bed, much as she needed both. To do so would have jarred with her own and her staff's conception of her self-sacrificing, untiring energy, her devotion to an immense and indispensable task, just as surely as would a trivial, easy interruption to the day's work in the shape of John Trevellyan and his new car, or an hour consecrated to fresh air and luncheon.'

E.M. Delafield is best known for her classic portrayal of British domesticity in Dairy of a Provincial Lady, published in 1930. She was in fact the author of over thirty novels, including Consequences (1919) which, along with Diary, has since been published by Persephone Books. As she is now out of copyright, there are a multitude of ebook versions of her books floating around the internet. I discovered (maybe rediscovered would be a better word) Delafield through one of these ebooks and I only wish that it had been available when I was writing my dissertation on women's war work as it is such a perfect example. Alas it was not, but I'm thrilled to have finally been able to read it.

The War Workers gives us a glimpse of life at the Midland Supply Depot under the uncompromising control of Charmain Vivian, a woman of good fortune bent on being the most patriotic and hard working female around. I loved the way Delafield slowly introduced Char to us by letting us almost eavesdrop on the conversations of those around her. The novel starts with her subordinates discussing the wonderful Miss Vivian who does her duty until late into the evening and rarely stops for lunch (a certain Miss Delmege is her greatest admirer who enjoys collecting 'Glimpses into Miss Vivian's Real Self'). Then we're shown a different perspective, that of Char's mother Lady Vivian, who is far less impressed by Char's apparent patriotism as she sarcastically rebuffs any notion of the wonderful Miss Vivian.

The focus of this novel is everyday life and everyday relationships, particularly those between groups of women. Though the war plays a large part I found it to be something of an extra - it does crash into the plot on occasion and we're aware that it's always there lurking in the background, but it seems to be something that's just happening whilst the women carry on. It feels wrong almost to say that given that the women have been drawn together by their war work, but there is a different attitude towards war in this novel compared to many others written during the period. We understand throughout that the war is a terrible thing, but I think what makes it different is that Delafield does not try too hard to show this. She focuses on the lives that must go on as usual in the most unusual circumstances and in doing so, she provides us with a startling portrayal of humanity in war.

What I particularly loved about The War Workers is how character driven it is and how much the dialogue dominates the text. Each character is given a voice - an individual, recognisable one at that - and it is hard not to form attachments and opinions. Miss Delmege and Mrs Willoughby are two of the most memorable characters in my mind. Delmege is so unfailingly loyal to Miss Vivian that she is  often tiresome and her habit of saying things that she doesn't understand or agree with are 'strange' began to verge on the comic at times. Then we have Mrs Willoughby, a violently patriotic childhood friend of Lady Vivian who speaks in a high pitched voice to her long-suffering pekinese (aptly named Puff). She is quickly set up as the woman whose lavish patriotism and exuberance make her an irritant, but in actuality she is one of the first to tell Char how it is - 'Simply because you enjoy making a martyr of yourself!'

'You can't send us to the cellar? My dear boy, I, for one, refuse to go. We're not children, and we're not afraid. We're Englishwomen!'

I could so easily give you a rundown of the whole character list for this novel, but I won't. I think I'll leave you to discover the ladies of the Midland Supply Depot for yourself. I could also easily write an awful lot more about the novel, but again I won't. Instead I'm just going to urge you to read it because I think, no matter what genre usually appeals to you, this is a heartwarming, hilarious, subtly observed and beautifully detailed character study that will brighten your day. 

I'm so glad I finally managed to read The War Workers, and I don't think it will be long before I start discovering what else E.M. Delafield has to offer.

Have you read The War Workers or any of Delafield's other novels?


1 comment

  1. Sounds very interesting, I will have to have a look as I am still looking at WW I books.


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