This month we have been reading books about women in war…
I was looking things up for this review and found:
‘…those who knew her books…were astonished at her power to detect and expose humbug, self-importance, careerism and conceit. The woman who by self-imposed martyrdom inflicts constant trouble and annoyance on her family and friends, the fussy, the foolish and the vain were the constant targets of her wit.’
There’s my work done for me then. The sadness is that these perceptive words come from Punch’s obituary for E M Delafield (1890-1943). She died at the relatively early age of 53, leaving behind over 20 novels, some plays and short stories and a lot of journalism, written over 25 years from the end of the WWI.
The War-Workers is EMD’s second published novel, written during the war and presumably drawing upon her experiences as a VAD worker in Exeter. Little happens: this is all about the close observation of character through everyday life. It is set in the Midlands Supply Depot, which oversees hospitals and other services. In charge is Charmian Vivian, only daughter of the local gentry. Charmian dominates local efforts until her father has a stroke. His illness puts at risk her already difficult relationship with her parents and also that with her large staff, whom she has previously held in thrall.
The novel is all about women: Charmian herself; her fawning secretary, Miss Delmege, and the other young women workers; her uneasy mother, Joanna, and an old acquaintance, Lesbia Willoughby; and Grace Jones who, alone at the depot, is not charmed by Charmian. There are few men: we see Charmian’s father and her soldier cousin, who are at best mild, at worst ineffectual; and the local doctor, who recognises Charmian’s harmful impact.
For Charmian, the centre of the novel, is a monster. She is intelligent, competent and confident, and has seized the opportunity the war gives her. Under her control, the depot is all-powerful. Charmian makes a point of working longer than anyone else, of missing meals because she is far too busy, of insisting that every decision, every letter, every meeting is in her hands alone. She manipulates and bullies her staff into veneration:
Miss Delmege several times ventured to exclaim, with a sort of respectful despair, that Miss Vivian would kill herself, and Char knew that the rest of the staff was saying much the same thing behind her back. (chapter 7).
Charmian has huge energy but it is inefficiently expended, as she will not delegate. In effect, she makes extra work for her own glory (and for everyone else):
Necessity compelled Char to work twelve hours a day some two evenings a week, in order that [tasks] might be duly accomplished; but on the remaining days, when work was comparatively light and over early in the evening, she did not choose to spoil the picture…of the indefatigable and overtaxed Director. (chapter 4)
EMD has the local doctor sum it up:
It’s not the work you want to get back to, young lady; it’s the excitement, and the official position, and the right it gives you to interfere with people who knew how to run a hospital and everything connected with it some twenty years or so before you came into the world. That’s what you want. I can’t tell you that it will bring on a second stroke, if you vex and disappoint your good father by monkeying about in a becoming uniform and a bit of gold braid on an office stool while he desires you to stay at home; but I can and I do tell you that you’re playing as heartless a trick as any I ever saw, making patriotism the excuse for bullying a lot of women who work themselves to death for you because you’re of a better class, and have more personality than themselves, and pretending to yourself that it’s the work you’re after, when it’s just because you want to get somewhere where you’ll be in the limelight all the time. (chapter 8)
He is right, but there’s chauvinism here too.
Charmian then is full of Punch’s ‘humbug, self-importance, careerism and conceit’. Is she aware of this? Not very, I think. She knows she is playing a part but believes her own propaganda – what she does for the greater good, not for her own good and only she can do it.
Why? At home Charmian is not lauded as at work, and frequently quarrels with her parents. Joanna and her husband, absorbed in each other, may have rather neglected their daughter, although no doubt her strong personality made her difficult to manage even in childhood. Her mother several times says:
Oh, why in Heaven’s name didn’t I whip Char when she was younger? (chapter 8).
Whip? ‘Autre temps, autres moeurs’ of course, and Joanna is presented throughout as gracious, warm and right-minded, and in time she forms a closer bond with Grace than with Charmian. (Mother and daughter relationships are a favourite theme in EMD’s novels, and EMD herself had a strong-minded mother, also a successful novelist.)
The Times Literary Supplement, quoted by Violet Powell in her biography, The Life of a Provincial Lady (Heinemann, 1988) (p.36), said: ‘inarticulate VADs’ would thank EMD ‘for the portrait of Miss Vivian’. She is supposedly based on Miss Georgiana Buller (1884-1953), the only female head of a Central Military Hospital and EMD’s wartime boss. It is noticeable that EMD emphasises that the book is fiction at the beginning and, according to Violet Powell, there was apprehension about the two women meeting in later years. Looking back over a century of change, you see that Charmian, for all her faults, is a woman better suited to a career than domesticity. Her desperation not to be the conventional good daughter is clear, and one sympathises, even as she abandons her parents in a time of need. And of course it is still not unusual to hear successful women criticised as strident, interfering, masculine etc.
The principal women in the novel can be placed along a continuum. On one side of Charmian is another monster – Lesbia Willoughby, in this case silly, self-absorbed and self-deluded and thinking, like Charmian, that she is adored and essential. On the other side, Joanna, strong-minded and competent like her daughter and perhaps a little selfish too but also warm and loving. And then Grace, confident, competent, clear-sighted and imperturbable like Charmian but also warm and generous like Joanna.
This review is as dominated by Charmian as the novel is. But there is much more to enjoy and admire. It would be unfair not to mention life in the staff hostel. The workers rub along, coming from across the social scale, mostly supporting each other but also bickering, admiring Charmian (like schoolgirls with a ‘pash’), grumbling about the conditions in which they live and work, but also excited, like Charmian, by breaking through conventions in wartime. If we cannot now be sure how much of Charmian is drawn from real life, we can at least be sure that the hostel is.
For a novel about war, written during war, there is surprisingly little about war. But that’s to see war as about men in battle. EMD has her one soldier character express the horror of battle, but The War-Workers examines the home front, the women whose lives are not in danger but are nevertheless disrupted, changed and sometimes damaged by violence.
* The War-Workers is available online from the excellent Girlebooks.