Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The War-Workers by E M Delafield

EMD's second novel, published in 1918, concerns the Midland Supply Depôt (EMD always uses the circumflex), a war support effort managed by its Director, Charmian Vivian. The daughter of the local squire, Charmian runs the operation (and, apparently, other operations that may not be her concern) with a combination of ruthless autocracy and cult of personality; her manifest self-sacrifice in working long hours and missing meals excites the admiration of the women who work for her. These women, mostly young and middle-class, live near the Depôt in a rather uncomfortable hostel, sharing bedrooms and providing each other with early morning tea. Charmian is joined by a new secretary, Grace Jones, who turns out to be the daughter of a Welsh Dean and of Charmian's own class. Grace is good at her job, and popular with the other hostel-dwellers, but does not participate in the mass admiration of martyred Miss Vivian. When Charmian's father is gravely ill after a stroke, she is beset by the conflicting duties of home and war-work; Grace, in the mean time, grows closer to Char's charismatic mother, Lady Joanna, and her cousin John Trevellyan, recovering from a war injury.

The book is a fascinating portrayal of women working and living together. It discounts the clichés of squabbling and bitching among women forced into close proximity; the war-workers of the hostel are mutually supportive and kind-hearted, covering work duty for sick colleagues, for example, sharing treats, and entertaining each other with music and chat. The rather different Grace Jones, possessor of a blunt frankness as well as an upper-class background, is accepted by the group and her characteristics accounted for by the term "originality". There are sometimes High Words. Miss Delmege, Charmian's other secretary, more than once attempts to assert her status and greater gentility and gives offence; and occasionally the workers simply get on each others' nerves, but on the whole this is an endearing picture of women working together and enjoying it. Charmian, for all she is admired by her staff at the start of the novel, is no feminist heroine, however. We are told that it is "part of Char's policy to always disparage her own sex. It threw into greater relief the contrast which she knew to exist between herself and the majority of women-workers" (141). The narrative is faintly admiring of her powers of stamina, direction and organisation, but the plot and other characters are critical of her motives: Char loves the limelight more than the cause. Char's mother, in a lesser way, also creates a cult of personality around herself, although this is presented as a benign and positive influence on those who admire her.

EMD uses an objective third-person narrative throughout the text, and the multiplicity of characters, and the use of their views and opinions to construct plot and character, approach modernist effect. There is no single protagonist: key plot developments revolve equally around Char, Lady Vivian and Grace, and the minor characters are well-described and characterised, although these characterisations are occasionally repetitive. EMD was a Voluntary Aid Detachment worker in Exeter, and it seems likely that she drew on this experience - perhaps her first encounter with girls not from her class - to inform the work. Char Vivian is said to be a rather unflattering portrait of Dame Georgina Buller, the only woman appointed to the post of Administrator of a military hospital in World War 1; there is more about this in Violet Powell's biography of EMD.

Kessinger Books publish a facsimile edition of The War-Workers. If you succumb to a copy, be warned that pages 284 and 285 are missing, presumably in a scanning error - Kessinger do warn of this possibility in the front of the book, to be fair. You can fill in the gaps, or read the whole thing, at www.archive.org.


  1. This was an interesting review. Thank you for putting it up. I am reading the book now and was wondering how it would go.


  2. Thanks, Tulip. I hope you enjoy the book - the more I think about it, the more interesting I find it.

  3. Random Jottings has just reviewed The War Workers:


  4. I'd forgotten (I must have known once, because I've read Powell's biog) that Char Vivian was based on an actual person... poor person! It really is a wonderful portrait, both likely and horribly irritating.

  5. Yes, Violet Powell refers to unspecified "trouble" after the publication of The War Workers. Georgiana Buller lived the rest of her life in Devon and was a very active citizen - JP, involved in the Guides, support of St John Ambulance as well as developing her orthopaedic hospitals and homes for children - so I can't believe their paths never crossed again. This might explain some careful statements in EMD's other writings about the fictitious nature of Char Vivian ...