Tension by E.M. Delafield – an 1920 novel of tensions in a small community reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series
Tension by E. M Delafield
This is a novel from 1920, recently reprinted in the excellent British Library Women Writers series. Its simple title, Tension, reflects the atmosphere of the book which Delafield creates with a deftness which befits the author of the gently funny “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”, though much of the action and relationships in this novel are far more tense than amusing. It contains some marvelous characters including Lady Edna Rossiter, whose demeanor and behaviour reminded me of certain other characters for Delafield’s novels, as she is firmly of the opinion that she is a blessing to other people. Her husband, Sir Julian Rossiter, has more understanding of the people who his wife is negatively affecting, but chooses not to intervene. It is not only adults that Delafield populates her novel with; there are some unappealing children who rejoice in the names of Ruthie and Peekaboo (or Ambrose). The story revolves around an adult education college that most of the characters are associated with; the countryside and the seashore are other settings in which Delafield sets her story. This is a book of polite attack, where one character is so certain of her authority and moral correctness that she is able to ride roughshod over other people, justifying it by calling it “giving” and seeing her role as helping others in the way they should go. Her mantra of “Is it kind – is it wise -is it true?” being almost opposite to what she actually says.
The timing of the book is significant, just following the First World War when the numbers of women exceeded men following the losses of battle. Therefore there are characters like Miss Marchrose whose decisions about marriage can fix them in a situation for many years, when being married confers a certain status even if it is without love or even affection. The dialogue is so vivid that it really evokes strong emotions in the reader. I have enjoyed many of the books in this series, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.
The book begins with a morning in the Rossiter household, when Julian tells his wife about a new candidate to be Lady Superintendent at the college of which he is a senior director. Two things make this an unfortunate announcement; firstly because Edna assumes a proprietary interest in the staff of the college despite their reservations about her interference. Secondly, Edna’s acute antenna soon picks out that the name of the young woman reminds her of an unfortunate event in her family when Miss Pauline Marchrose was accused of abandoning a rather needy young man. This is the essential strength of the novel. No matter what the facts of the case, from that moment Edna is on a mission to discover if the young woman presents a challenge to the status quo. She claims to have concerns about Mark Easter, father of the challenging children and effectively single parent. As other characters become involved, tensions between the oblivious Edna and the hapless victims of her oppressive oversight is carefully drawn, and a certain black humour emerges.
This is a novel which underplays the drama but is excellent in the detail which conveys the personalities involved. It is the sort of book which makes the reader react strongly with visualising the effects of what is said, the destructive nature of pointed conversation and misogyny or at least the label of gender mistrust. I found it an enthralling and powerful book and the contrast between the characters to be brilliantly achieved. It is a book of its time, yet accurately conveys the way gossip and assumptions can be destructive in any context. It has much to say on the position of women early in the twentieth century, the nature of marriage, and is altogether an intense and powerful read from a skilled writer.