Monday, 2 December 2013

E.M. Delafield

It is 70 years ago today that E.M. Delafield died, much too young, at her home in Devon.  She had been ill for some time, enduring the rather primitive treatments for cancer that were available in the 1940s, but had kept up her cheerful spirits almost until the end - Kate O'Brien remembers her climbing a fig tree in the garden in September 1943, and according to Maurice McCullen she was giving a lecture in Oxford just days before her death.  I had the great privilege of visiting the Delafield archive at the University of British Columbia earlier this year, and of reading the opening chapter of the novel she never finished, an appetising combination of marital disharmony and intergenerational conflict spiced with wartime tensions.  It was impossible not to imagine the witty and moving book this could have made, and the picture of wartime Britain that it would have left us, and then all the other novels that EMD might have written.  By the late 1930s she was really in her stride as a writer; where would her work have gone next?

EMD has been the topic of my PhD thesis and I've spent the last four years reading her novels, short stories, journalism and plays.  When I started the thesis I was slightly nervous of focusing it on her work, wondering if I would get sick of it after several years' intimate acquaintance.  Thankfully, I haven't at all; sometimes I find her work frustrating, sometimes challenging, but always and endlessly interesting.  Middlebrow fiction is supposed to be slight and amusing, but Delafield's work repays re-reading with a careful eye; there can be an awful lot going on in her most frivolous works.  One of the things that is usually going on, of course, is humour, and her jokes also stand up to repeated scrutiny.  The more I read, the more I find to admire, and the more of her journalism I read the more I am amazed by her work ethic.  How on earth did she find the time to write all that?

One of the reasons that I love EMD and the women writers of her generation is that really, they weren't supposed to be there.  A whole generation of women - Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, the list goes on and on  - who were brought up in the vague expectation that they would probably marry, who scraped up what education they could get, often against the wishes of their parents, and who somehow transformed themselves into writers, critics and campaigners.  Instead of disappearing from view into respectable matrimony, they left us their books. Anyone who has suffered from impostor syndrome (probably nearly everyone) can take heart from their lives.

There is a particular significance to the seventieth anniversary of a writer's death; in the UK at least, their works come out of copyright in the following year.  I expect we'll see a lot more new editions of Delafield next year, which is good news for her fans.  But I really wish she'd made it to her eighties, and written the novels she probably had planned.