E. M. Delafield Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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

The Bazalgettes [published anonymously] (novel) 1935

The Brontës: Their Lives Recorded by Their Contemporaries [editor] (biography) 1935

As Others Hear Us: A Miscellany (sketches) 1937

Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction (criticism) 1937

Straw without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (journalism and essays) 1937; also published as I Visit the Soviets: The Provincial Lady Looks at Russia, 1937

When Women Love (short stories) 1938; also published as Three Marriages, 1939

Love Has No Resurrection, and Other Stories (short stories) 1939

The Provincial Lady in War-Time (novel) 1940

No One Now Will Know (novel) 1941

Late and Soon (novel) 1943


R. Brimley Johnson (essay date 1920)

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 Zella affords the most striking example of this tendency: not quite so intense as Miss Dane's studies, but equally subtle.

"Zella," indeed, "sees herself" clearly at all times; and the comparative indifference of other people about this fascinating topic constitutes her main grudge against life. For she is fascinating (therein lies the triumph of Miss Delafield) and, in reality, quite astonishingly dependent upon public opinion. In fact, the type of egoism is very original, and most exceptionally attractive. Zella is governed—not only in action but even in thought—by a very passion for adaptability. She demands always to be in the "centre of the picture"; but she expects to find this position by absolutely conforming to type; doing and thinking just exactly what people wish, and expect, her to do. The effort leads, naturally, to failure and confusion, because no two people expect at all the same thing: and, in her case, the difficulty is to emerge with emphasis through the dramatically opposed standards and tastes of her nearest relations and her most intimate friends. It may seem a strange thing to say of a confirmed egotist: but the real difficulty about Zella is to discover whether she has any individuality at all, really her own.

Treating, as many of our contemporary women seem to prefer, only the beginnings of life; Miss Delafield leaves Zella "still on the threshold" echoing "the question of ages: what is Truth?" and yet the girl-heroine has, after all, a clearly defined, easily recognised character, humourously portrayed. She "gets at" the reader; so that we utterly sympathise with her childlike eagerness to impose herself upon her surroundings, to enter into the realities, to be somebody. She possesses one side of the artistic temperament (which is always attractive, if difficult): being a born actress, an inveterate poseur, more or less self-conscious: and just because, superficially, one can "see through her" so easily, we cannot avoid loving the real Zella under the pathos of her most naive affectations, and sympathising with every one of her most ridiculous, but quite serious, attempts at asserting herself. The key of the position lies here: that whereas most of us are, at least fairly often and at our best moments, content with being what God made us: she is perpetually engaged in the quite hopeless task of trying to make herself into something she was never intended to be.

All this is, obviously, an extreme case of the romance-craving common to all young people—an almost inevitable phase in the development of character: but if one can accept the paradox—Zella charms one because she is always sincere. She has the gift of all true artists, that she does really enter into the self-imposed mood, actually feels and is—for the...

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J. W. Krutch (essay date 1922)

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...

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Robert H. Hull (essay date 1932)

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...

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Henry Seidel Canby (essay date 1933)

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...

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Margaret Lawrence (essay date 1936)

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...

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Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda (essay date 1947)

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...

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J. B. Priestley (essay date 1976)

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...

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Maurice L. McCullen (essay date 1985)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 170 words.)