E. M. Delafield Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.