Tension by E. M. Delafield

The English writer E. M. Delafield is probably best known for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a largely autobiographical account of middle-class life in the early 1930s. Tension is an earlier book, first published in 1920 when Britain was still recovering from the impact of the First World War. It’s an interesting story about the damaging effects of gossip – how hard-won reputations can be destroyed by malicious rumours, especially when a manipulative person is involved. On another level, the novel also highlights the limited options available to single women with no husband or family to support them in financing their day-to-day existence.

The novel’s title refers to the tensions created by a new appointment at a Commercial and Technical College in the South West – the main setting for Delafield’s story. As an experienced teacher of shorthand and typing, twenty-eight-year-old Miss Marchrose is well qualified for the role of Lady Superintendent. However, her card is marked when the College Director’s wife – the poisonous Lady Edna Rossiter – recognises Miss Marchrose’s name from an unfortunate incident in the past. Some years earlier, Lady Rossiter’s cousin, Clarence Isbister, was jilted by his fiancée following a life-changing accident – an incident that caused both Clarence and Lady Rossiter considerable distress at the time. Given the unusual nature of Miss Marchrose’s name, Lady Rossiter is convinced that the new Superintendent is the woman who slighted her cousin, so she sets out to ruin her reputation in the most underhand of ways.

Nevertheless, Miss Marchrose proves herself to be hardworking, capable and well-organised – qualities appreciated by College Supervisor Fairfax Fuller, a blunt, plain-speaking man who dislikes any outside interference in his activities, especially from Lady R. Sir Julian Rossiter, the College Director, also takes kindly to Miss Marchrose, viewing her as a good addition to the institution’s staff. But when the new appointee develops a close friendship with Mark Easter, the agent for Sir Julian’s estate, Lady Rossiter sees her chance. As the friendship between Mark and Miss Marchrose blossoms, showing every potential to develop into a romance, Lady Rossiter begins to draw attention to it, dropping carefully-worded hints to other trustees and staff.

“Yes, poor Miss Marchrose. Don’t think that I would willingly say an unkind word about her, for indeed I could never cast the first stone. But I’ve been uneasy for some time, and this afternoon it gave me a little shock to see something—Oh, never mind what! A straw very often shows which way the wind blows.”

Having by this reticence left the simple-minded Alderman to infer the existence of a whole truss of straw at the very least, Lady Rossiter leant back and closed her eyes, as though in weary retrospect. (p. 145)

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mark Easter is already married; however, his wife is an alcoholic, incarnated in a home for inebriates, a fact he shares with Miss Marchrose at an early stage in their relationship.

As Lady Rossiter continues to sow the seeds of doubt about the nature of Miss Marchrose’s character, the reader can only watch as the rumours begin to circulate, giving rise to the uneasy atmosphere and tensions of the novel’s title. While Sir Julian knows full well what his wife is getting up to, he does little to nip her duplicitous behaviour in the bud – opting instead for a quiet existence, despite his disapproval.

Lady Rossiter, on the other hand, is a fascinating creation – a hypocritical, insensitive woman who lacks even the slightest hint of self-awareness. In living her life by the mantra “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?”, Lady R is convinced that her actions are for the moral good, misguided in the belief that she is a shining light to others. Moreover, the Rossiters’ marriage is a loveless one, a union of convenience and companionship – a point made clear by Sir Julian right from the very start. In fact, one wonders whether the lack of romantic love in her own life has made Lady Rossiter somewhat envious when she observes it in others, contributing perhaps to her ‘protection’ of Mark Easter from Miss Marchrose’s charms…

As the novel unfolds, we hear a little more of Miss Marchrose’s backstory as the young woman confides in Sir Julian Rossiter – a friendly presence in a somewhat hostile world. By delving into this in some detail, Delafield shows us how desperately lonely life can be for an unmarried woman in the city, with no husband or close family for support – the long, uneventful days stretching out ahead of her as hopelessness and resignation sets in.

“…But all the time I was more and more lonely, and I used to sit and think in the evenings, wondering how I could bear it if all my life was going to be like that—just working on and on and then becoming like one of the older women at that hostel—there were dozens of them—pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren’t two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to remember, nothing to look forward to—knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world. And they’d got used to it—that was the ghastly part of it—and yet they couldn’t always have been like that…” (p. 120)

In time, we also learn about the circumstances surrounding Miss Marchrose’s aborted engagement to Clarence Isbister – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re not quite as ruthless as Lady Rossiter has assumed.

In summary, then, Tension is an absorbing exploration of the challenges of life for working spinster in the interwar years, not least when there are poisonous women such as Lady Rossiter about. The latter may well have earned her place alongside other monstrous women in fiction – characters such as Flora in Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness and Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s School for Love – each one flawed in her own individual way. There are some good supporting characters here, too – not least Mark Easter’s rebellious children, Ruthie and Ambrose (aka Peekaboo), who provide a little light relief amidst the tensions in the college.

All in all, it’s another fine addition to the British Library’s Women Writers list, a series that continues to shine a light on society’s treatment of women in the early-mid 20th century. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

27 thoughts on “Tension by E. M. Delafield

  1. Simon T

    Lovely review Jacqui. I think Lady R is one of the most monstrous people in fiction – until I encountered Miss Maggie in Sally on the Rocks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I am seriously thinking of setting up a couple of new tags on the blog, one for ‘Monstrous Women’ including Tension, School for Love and Soul of Kindness, and another called ‘Pompous Ass’ tagging Chatterton Square, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners and…well, there must be several others. Any suggestions gratefully received!

      Reply
  2. Jane

    Such a great review Jacqui, I loved this when I read it. It’s so interesting to read a book set in an office in 1920, it must have been incredibly modern at the time – and a technical college! I think you should open a new tag and one that we can all add to when we find another Lady R! I did find her and Sir Julian quite funny as well, which is perhaps why I thought it was so good – every emotion ran through the pages, and unfortunately the malicious gossip seemed so current too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. I’m definitely going to set up those tags! It’s a very relatable story, isn’t it? All too believable, especially in today’s day and age when reputations can be trashed in a matter of minutes on social media etc.

      Reply
  3. Grier

    I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the novel but I suppose it’s reflective of the times. I enjoyed the book very much and am glad it is back in print. Delafield doesn’t disappoint! I like your idea of tagging Pompous Asses and Monstrous Women. I’ll have to give it some thought.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the ending definitely feels like something of a compromise for Miss Marchrose. Better perhaps than a life alone, but not the ideal outcome for sure. Still, as you say, that’s probably the best she could have hoped for back in the day…

      I’m definitely going to set up those tags, so if you do think of any examples feel free to let me know. :)

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds like an excellent read, Jacqui – I’ve got this one on the pile but haven’t got to it yet. Lady Rossiter sounds quite hideous, and I suspect I might be growling inwardly at her all the way through. I do love how these BLWW books shine a light on the lives and choices women had in the past.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s quite something. Not as ‘obvious’ or reckless as Jumping Jenny’s Ena Stratton, but a very dangerous woman nonetheless. I’ll be interested to see what you think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ll like it, I think. My one reservation concerns the prose which feels a little convoluted at times, but it’s a fairly small downside in the scheme of the things (particularly as the story itself is very good). Latchkey Ladies sounds great! I remember seeing it in the Handheld Press catalogue a little while ago…

      Reply
  5. Di McDougall

    I enjoyed this very much too! I am going to try and find Latchkey Ladies as well, have not come across it before . Thanks for the review !

    Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    I’ve only read Diary of a Provincial Lady by Delafield and I do want to read more by her. This sounds excellent, and I can imagine the monstrous Lady R really gets under the readers skin. That sort of insidious behaviour is infuriating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, insidious is just the right description for Lady R. Her stealthy, surreptitious undermining of Miss Marchrose is painful to watch, especially when Sir Julian turns a blind eye to his wife’s behaviour. You’d like this one, I think – something to look out for in that charity shop across the road!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I love a good literary monster, and Lady R is right up there. I found this one such an absorbing read, and I loved the glimpse of the college as a work place too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love that kind of detail in a novel. In some ways, it’s fairly progressive for its time. I kept having to remind myself that it was published in 1920 (not the 1930s or beyond).

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Lady Rossiter sounds like an exemplary Monstrous Woman. I’ll have to mull over who I’d add to your Pompous Ass and Monstrous Women tags. I’ve enjoyed the E.M. Delafield books I’ve read and this does look like an intriguing, if somewhat rage-inducing re-issue.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she definitely qualifies for the ‘Monstrous Woman’ tag, albeit in a subtle, stealthy way. Do let me know if you remember any other suitable candidates for these categories. I’ll have to do a proper trawl through my archive to see who comes to light…

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Liz Dexter

    Lady Rossiter is such a monster, isn’t she – I definitely think you should start that tag, too! I love a book about working life and/or schools and colleges, so this was a treat, I was so cross with Lord R though, not standing up to her. Grrr. It was so recognisably Delafield in the way she pinned Lady R down (I loved the quote I included in my review; I think I laughed out loud when I read it), and I think she controlled it all well so we could see all the sides and had things revealed at the right time in the plot. My review from last year here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2021/05/26/book-review-e-m-delafield-tension/ and I can’t wait to read the two new ones!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Sir Julian really ought to have stepped in to rescue Miss Marchrose, so his ‘anything for a quiet life’ attitude was very frustrating. I’m definitely going to set up those tags, hopefully sometime this week. :)

      Reply

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