Forgotten Authors: E M Delafield

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:55

Edmée Elizabeth Monica De La Pasture lived through two world wars, writing immensely popular novels, stories and non-fiction, could be as laugh-out-loud funny as PG Wodehouse, and numbered housewives and prime ministers among her fans. The Sussex-born daughter of a Count, she enlisted as a nurse in the First World War and as a lowly ARP worker in the second, and also worked on a Russian collective farm. In the UK, only a handful of her 30-plus publications can now be found on bookshelves.

Her five most famous books are largely autobiographical. The Diary of a Provincial Lady chronicles the author's daily life as she tries to balance the housekeeping books and run a family. Written in a deceptively relaxed shorthand, it's a Pooterish masterpiece of 20th-century humour that shows how easily Delafield could communicate unspoken feelings of embarrassment and annoyance. Here she is at tea:

"Lady B asks me how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am 'A Perfect Mother'. Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the teatable. Later on, Lady B tells us about the South of France. She quotes repartees made by herself in French, and then translates them. (Unavoidable query presents itself here: Would a verdict of Justifiable Homicide delivered against their mother affect future careers of children unfavourably?)" And here she is on the blackouts: "Serena alleges that anonymous friend of hers goes out in the dark with extra layer of chalk-white powder on her nose so as to be seen, and resembles the Dong With The Luminous Nose. (Query: Is it in any way true that war very often brings out the best in civil population? Answer: So far as I am concerned, Not at all.)"

Perhaps Delafield's gossamer charm is not suited to coarser times. Virago did her no favours by shoving four volumes into one dense paperback, prefaced with a peculiarly mean-spirited forward that they later had the good sense to remove. Provincial Lady was eventually serialised for radio in the UK, but Delafield's other novels remain virtually lost. The diaries are comedies of manners, but she also tackled lesbian feelings, real-life murder, alcoholism, all manner of family cruelties, adulteries and betrayals. Delafield's reasonable voice is currently out of favour, but thankfully she survives in the nation's second-hand bookshops, awaiting rediscovery.

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