Delafield, E. M.
E. M. Delafield 1890-1943
(Full name Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture Dashwood) English novelist, essayist, playwright, and journalist.
Delafield is best known as the author of satiric fiction and humorous essays, particularly the "Provincial Lady" series of novels, which comprises social commentary in the form of fictionalized diaries. She also wrote historical fiction set in the Victorian and Edwardian periods of English history and produced such crime novels as Messalina of the Suburbs (1923), an examination of the motivations of a woman accused of murder. Although Delafield's works fell out of print soon after her death, her reputation has been maintained by such critics as J. B. Priestley, who favorably appraised her ability to reveal common human pretensions through irony, and by feminist critics who have praised her realistic presentation of domestic issues.
Delafield was descended from French nobility who settled in England at the time of the French Revolution. Her mother, Elizabeth Lydia Rosabelle Bonham, was a novelist who specialized in sentimental fiction and Victorian drawing room comedies. Delafield herself published four novels before she married Major Arthur Paul Dashwood, OBE, in 1919. Themes in her early novels seem to have been drawn from her youthful experiences with minor European royalty, as a postulant for Catholic sisterhood, and later in service to the British government during World War I. After her marriage Delafield's literary interests turned towards domestic issues of education, child-rearing, and the emotional dramas of lost romantic love, divorces, and arranged marriages. She died following a brief illness in 1943.
Delafield is best remembered for the semiautobiographical series of "Provincial Lady" sketches commissioned by the feminist publication Time and Tide. The first of these works, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), put a comedic spin on the domestic pressures facing rural nobility during the Great Depression. Other titles in the series include Further Diary of a Provincial Lady (1932) and The Provincial Lady in America (1934). While Delafield often drew inspiration from everyday life, she also pursued an interest in crime fiction, most notably in Messalina of the Suburbs, a novelization of a murder case involving a married couple and the wife's lover. In the work Delafield explored the moral and psychological vapidity of the central female character rather than the more sensational aspects of the crime and subsequent execution. Despite such forays into crime fiction, Delafield was better known for amusing anecdotes that she contributed to such periodicals as Punch and for such literary studies as The Brontes: Their Lives Recorded by Their Contemporaries (1935) and Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction (1937). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Delafield wrote in a variety of genres, exploring her most prominent themes, including issues of child-rearing and complacency in marriage, competition among women in the workplace, fads in education, medicine, and politics, and the mannerisms of life in high society. The last installment of her famous alter-ego, The Provincial Lady in War-Time (1940), returned to the civilian follies first depicted in her novel The War-Workers (1918). Delafield's final works include the historical novels No One Now Will Know (1941) and Late and Soon (1943).
Delafield's works were widely popular among both English and North American audiences during her lifetime. In 1947, Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, the editor of Time and Tide, wrote a reconsideration of Delafield's subjects and approach, praising the tone and style of her novels while noting that they address timeless concerns of domestic life. Later commentators have noted a resemblance between her humorous depiction of common human pretensions and that of the nineteenth-century English novelist Jane Austen and have praised Delafield's use of irony in the presentation of everyday life.
Zella Sees Herself (novel) 1917
The Pelicans (novel) 1918
The War-Workers (novel) 1918
Consequences (novel) 1919
Tension (novel) 1920
The Heel of Achilles (novel) 1921
Humbug (novel) 1921
The Optimist (novel) 1922
Messalina of the Suburbs (novel) 1923
The Chip and the Block (novel) 1925
The Entertainment, and Other Stories (short stories) 1927
The Way Things Are (novel) 1927
Women Are Like That (short stories) 1929
Diary of a Provincial Lady (novel) 1930
To See Ourselves: A Domestic Comedy (drama) 1930
Turn Back the Leaves (novel) 1930
Challenge to Clarissa (novel) 1931
Further Diary of a Provincial Lady (novel) 1932; also published as The Provincial Lady Goes Further, 1932, and as The Provincial Lady in London, 1933
Thank Heaven Fasting (novel) 1932; also published as A Good Man's Love, 1932
General Impressions (journalism) 1933
The Glass Wall (drama) 1933
The Provincial Lady in America (novel) 1934...
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SOURCE: "E. M. Delafield," in Some Contemporary Novelists (Women), Leonard Parsons, 1920, pp. 177-84.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses egoism and the sense of self portrayed in Delafield's female protagonists.]
There is a certain competent serenity about Miss Delafield's work which excludes her, perhaps, from the ranks of those who are—rather aggressively "new" in their manner. Though actually a "war-product" and, in one novel at least, humourously intent upon the lighter psychology of war, she does not—like most of her contemporaries—write with the new subtlety of analysis, from the soul outwards. Like the conventional novelist she relates, while they speak. Her four stories are observed, composed, and presented in the normal manner of fiction: where the author permits herself to see inside all her characters—as one cannot in real life. They are not the actual utterances of one tortured soul, who can only interpret life through her own experience: but, on the other hand, she is—like the others—most frankly feminine: always revealing the woman's outlook, gently satirical upon the fact that "gentlemen"—as Aunt Marianne so naively expresses it—"do not always think quite as we do about these things"; i.e. about anything.
It has been noticed already that in women-novelists, the analysing habit is very frequently devoted to the study of egoism; and Miss Delafield's...
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SOURCE: "Slaying the Slain," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXV, No. 2998, December 20, 1922, pp. 694-95.
[Krutch was one of America's most respected literary and drama critics. Noteworthy among his works are The American Drama since 1918 (1939), in which he analysed the most important dramas of the 1920s and 1930s, and "Modernism" in Modern Drama (1953), in which he stressed the need for twentieth-century playwrights to infuse their works with traditional humanistic values. In the following review, Krutch compares The Optimist to Hamilton Fyfe's The Fruit of the Tree.]
Neither [Hamilton Fyfe's The Fruit of the Tree or E. M. Delafield's The Optimist] is initially promising, for both threaten to do what novel after novel does—fight brilliantly a battle which has already been won. The Fruit of the Tree tells humorously but with a good deal of stress upon argument the story of two young women who kicked over the restraints formerly supposed to be proper to their sex. The Optimist pokes away with the rapier of accomplished irony at a terribly benign old Canon who is ever ready, like Strachey's Dr. Arnold, to rise and explain "the general principles both of his own conduct and that of the Almighty." Both are more seriously concerned than a contemporary writer need be with the education of the reader, and if there remain any Victorians among us they can hardly...
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SOURCE: "E. M. Delafield as a Novelist," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXXXII, No. 491, August, 1932, pp. 240-41.
[In the following essay, Hull surveys Delafield's novels from Zella Sees Herself through Thank Heaven Fasting.]
The publication of Miss E. M. Delafield's latest novel, Thank Heaven Fasting, affords a welcome pretext briefly to review a range of achievements placing this author among the most accomplished fiction-writers of our time. Although the present survey is necessarily confined to aspects of Miss Delafield's art as revealed through her novels, readers will recall for themselves the exceptional talent illuminating numerous short stories from her pen, no less than dramatic capabilities ensuring unqualified success for that delightful comedy, To See Ourselves, produced at the Ambassadors Theatre in December, 1929.
When Zella Sees Herself appeared in 1917, Miss Delafield was immediately acclaimed for those powers of witty and devastating portraiture with which to-day she is extensively associated. It is a misfortune, perhaps, that critics have too often expected her to preserve a similar vein throughout the score of novels written since that date. As a satirist Miss Delafield has eminent gifts, but she may be credited, on the evidence of more recent volumes, with the increasing realisation that among aspects of life meriting discussion, some, at...
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SOURCE: "Charm with Irony," in The Saturday Review of Literature (New York), Vol. IX, No. 26, January 14, 1933, p. 376.
[Canby was a professor of English at Yale University and one of the founders of the Saturday Review of Literature, where he served as editor in chief from 1924 to 1936. He was the author of many books, including The Short Story in English (1909), a history of that genre which was long considered the standard text for college students. In the following review, Canby favorably appraises the Further Diary of a Provincial Lady.]
Readers of the first Diary of a Provincial Lady will not be disappointed in this sequel. These apparently random and artless notes upon the difficulties in being literary in Devonshire with a family on your back, and upon the trials of playing up to a literary reputation amidst the professional sophistry of London, are not so artless and so random as they seem, although their informality is an excellent medium for the witty charm of the book. Miss Delafield has made a self-portrait here, and a family portrait, and a portrait of that strange assemblage which buzzes about a new literary reputation, which are indeed more evidence that she is one of the really skilful novelists of manners in our day. Why has she not had the resounding critical success which so many English women writers less excellent than she have grown great upon? Because,...
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SOURCE: "Sophisticated Ladies," in The School of Femininity: A Book for and about Women as They Are Interpreted through Feminine Writers of Yesterday and Today, 1936. Reprint by Kennikat Press, Inc., 1966, pp. 281-310.
[In the following excerpt, Lawrence praises simplicity and humor in the Diary of a Provincial Lady.]
E. M. Delafield has … self-sufficiency in her writing. In The Diary of a Provincial Lady she set the reading English world smiling about the funny slant of an ordinary woman's existence. She has written other stories which in their way are good pieces of experimental portraiture of women, but none of them has the ingenuous sparkle of the provincial lady's record of her affairs. She has no affairs. She has a husband who hides behind his newspapers when she wants to talk to him, and reaches for his hat when the question of more money for household expenses comes up. He is a nice husband, and does take an interest in the things that go on in his home. He is nice, too, about allowing his wife to write in her spare time, but he is only a man, and a woman has to have some outlet for her thoughts other than a man. The book is significant for all its slightness because it is possibly the first time a woman ever set down the doings of her day-to-day life in all their simplicity, and attached to them her own tentatively philosophical conclusions.
The writing might appear at...
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SOURCE: "E. M. Delafield," in Time and Tide, Vol. 28, No. 48, December 13, 1947, pp. 1346-48.
[Rhondda was the editor of Time and Tide. In the following essay, she comments on the lasting appeal of Delafield's semiautobiographical fiction.]
E. M. Delafield was the perfect provider of good 'lights'. And, as every editor knows, there is nothing so rare. It is as difficult to find the really right 'light' as it used to be in more spacious days, to find the perfect savoury for a good dinner. I doubt whether one should too often use short stories. Occasionally, no doubt, for variety is the most important thing. But the most perfect short story ever written is seldom in its absolutely right place in the pages of a weekly review. Indeed in one sense it may be said that the better the story the less suitable it is. For just as in choosing the savoury, one had to remember the food that went before, the wine, the company, the appetite of the guests, so in choosing the 'light' one must relate it to the mood in which the reader sits down on a Friday or Saturday to his weekly review. In what frame of mind will he come to it? What will his appetite demand? He will come to it to some extent in a work-a-day mood. He will find the 'light' bound up with the notes and the leaders, with the news of the latest books, pictures, plays, films, with the talk of the week in fact. He will not often probably want to make the...
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SOURCE: "Feminine Humour," in English Humour, Stein and Day Publishers, 1976, pp. 115-38.
[Priestley was the author of numerous popular novels that depict the world of everyday, middle-class England. His most notable critical work is Literature and Western Man (1960), a survey of Western literature from the invention of movable type through the mid-twentieth century. In the following excerpt, Priestley reflects on humor in Delafield's Provincial Lady series.]
[Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) and The Provincial Lady in War-Time (1940) (There were two other Provincial Lady diaries between these)] are now so far removed in time that they have acquired a social-historical interest, but they still succeed, it seems to me—and I have just reread them—as humour. I must admit they are spiced with irony that other readers may miss, simply because I knew E. M. Delafield fairly well as a firm strongish character, whereas her Provincial Lady is presented in terms of very feminine inadequacies, a frequent sense of inferiority, all manner of doubts and dubieties. Here, in 1930, she is at the bank hoping for an overdraft:
Am never much exhilarated at this prospect, and do not in the least find that it becomes less unpleasant with repetition, but rather the contrary. Experience customary difficulty in getting to the point, and Bank Manager and I...
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SOURCE: "Perspectives," in E. M. Delafield, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 115-29.
[In the following excerpt, McCullen examines the Victorian influences, feminist viewpoint, and comic strategy evident in Delafield's works.]
Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction ironically enough kept [E.M.] Delafield's name alive in academic circles all the while her fiction was dropping out of print. Its title defines her subject: the "social moralities" of the Victorian upper-middle-class as these were chronicled by a number of minor women writers like Rhoda Broughton, Elizabeth Jewell, and her beloved Charlotte Mary Yonge. These minor Victorians never ceased to give her pleasure. From the beginning to the end of her life, her one hobby of record was reading, and she had literally grown up on the English, American, and French romances which so colored her thinking. She wrote about them, corresponded and traded books with other addicts, and studied them in a scholarly way.
Delafield's interest, as always, resided in people—what the Victorians thought, how they acted, how they dealt with social problems. She found their manners quaintly charming in comparison with the relaxed manners and morals of a postwar world; and she took their minor fiction to be a kind of historical record similar to an album of old photographs. For she assumed that these writers, like herself, tried to present a...
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Powell, Violet. The Life of a Provincial Lady. A Study of E. M Delafield and Her Works. London: William Heinemann, 1988, 190 p.
Portrays Delafield as worldly and unlimited by the subgenre of comedic fiction.
Arrowsmith, J. E. S. Review of Diary of a Provincial Lady. The London Mercury XXIII, No. 136 (February 1931): 383-85.
Praises Delafield's humor. According to Arrowsmith, "Delafield's taste and tact are never at fault, she shows a masterly power of selection; over and over again in places where a less wise writer might have gone wrong, she says just the right thing.… The result is an exuberantly funny book."
Moran, Helen. Review of The Provincial Lady Goes Further. The London Mercury XXVII, No. 158 (December 1932): 170-72.
Favorable assessment that suggests the sequel surpasses the original "Provincial Lady" book.
Review of Humbug. The Nation CXIV, No. 2963 (19 April 1922): 472.
Judges Delafield as too brisk and businesslike to be profound.
Additional coverage of Delafield's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 34.
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