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.