E. M. Delafield

E. M. Delafield (pen name of Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture; 09 June 1890 – 02 December 1943) was an English author.

She was the eldest daughter of Count Henry du Carel de la Pasture, descendant of an aristocratic French Catholic family, and the novelist Elizabeth Lydia Rosabelle Bonham, known as Mrs. Henry de la Pasture.

Delafield had a French teacher and a governess, and was educated at home as well as at school. She grew up in London, Devon, and Monmouthshire, and attended convent schools in England and Belgium, until her social debut in London, at seventeen years old, in 1907.

Her father died a year later, in 1908, and Mrs Henry de la Pasture married her second husband, Sir Hugh Clifford, a colonial administrator in Gold Coast, Nigeria, Ceylon, and Malaysia, in 1910. Delafield was told of the marriage only after the wedding, which took place while she was staying with an aunt.

Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

She had a difficult relationship with her mother, whom she described, as reported in Maurice L. McCullen’s biography, as an “emotionally loving, terribly possessive” woman, determined to ensure “that I should grow up to be nothing but an extension of her own personality”.

To escape her mother and her own sense failure for being single at 21, Delafield entered a convent as a postulant nun, in Belgium, in 1911. As she recorded in The Brides of Heaven (written in 1931 and published in Violet Powell’s biography): “I had, in common with the great majority of my contemporaries, been brought up to believe that it was something between a minor tragedy and a major disgrace, for a girl to remain unsought in marriage after her twentieth birthday […] I was acutely conscious of being a failure.”

After eight months as a postulant, already doubting her own vocation, she learned that her sister Yoé was planning to join another order. Delafield later wrote that “the thought of the utter and complete earthly separation that must necessarily take place between us was more than I could bear“. After having her letter to her sister torn for ‘showing too much sisterly affection’, and after being threatened by a Jesuit priest ‘with the wrath of God and the terrors of Hell’, Delafield left the convent. She would later write, in The Brides of Heaven, that the religious life requires “the absolute destruction of the ‘self’”. For the rest of her life, she had nightmares of being unable to escape the convent.

From 1914 to 1917, Delafield worked as a nurse for the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) at the Exeter Voluntary Aid Hospital. She finally found a sense of purpose in life, and felt work liberating: “It was independence […] it was emancipation of the most delirious kind, it was occupation, it was self-respect – above all, it was freedom”, she reported in the collection Beginnings, edited by L.A.G. Strong (1935).

In 1916, while working as a nurse, she started writing her first novel, Zella Sees Herself, which was published in 1917. To distinguish her work from her mother’s, the book was published under pseudonym, Delafield, which was a translation of her surname, de la Pasture. That same year, she started working for the South West Region of the Ministry of National Service in Bristol.

In 1919, Delafield met Paul Dashwood, a civil engineer who had written her a letter praising her books. Their courtship progressed quickly and they married on 17 July 1919. The couple left three months later for the Far East, where they lived for two years, in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. Their son Lionel was born in Singapore, in 1920. In 1922, the family returned to England. Dashwood became the steward of the Bradfield Estate and their daughter Rosamund was born in 1924. Parallel to her literary career, Delafield also worked as president of Kentisbeare’s Women’s Association.

Delafield started to write book reviews and articles for the Time and Tide, a magazine strongly associated with the feminist organisation Six Point Group, created in 1921 to campaign for legislation on ‘six key points’ that would promote gender equality.

By the 1920’s, Delafield’s literary work significantly contributed to the family’s income, and her involvement with Time and Tide brought her into contact with many important women writers of the time who were also contributors to the periodical, such as Rebecca West, Rose Macaulay, Cicely Hamilton, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Naomi Mitchison, and Kate O’Brien.

Delafield’s friendship with Kate O’Brien, in particular, became a close relationship by the 1940’s, and Kate O’Brien’s biographer Eibhear Walshe argues that Elizabeth and Kate were lovers.

Also through her work at Time and Tide, Delafield met Virginia Woolf, which led to the publication by the Hogarth Press of two books edited by her: The Brontes Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries, in 1935; and Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction, in 1937, a reference book for lesser-known Victorian writers, such as Rhoda Broughton, Mrs. Henry Wood, Elizabeth Wetherell, Anna Sewell, and Charlotte Mary Yonge (whom was one of Delafield’s favourite authors). She also contributed the introduction to Georgina Battiscombe’s biography of Charlotte Yonge, published in 1943.

Delafield’s literary reputation and popularity increased after the publication of the Provincial Lady series, which first appeared as a column in Time and Tide. In 1932, she made a reading tour to the United States and Canada, and in 1936 she visited the Soviet Union, where she also worked at a collective farm – an experience she would describe in the book Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (1937).

Delafield wrote three plays: To See Ourselves (1930), The Glass Wall (1933), and The Mulberry Bush (1935). Following the success of To See Ourselves, Delafield started a career as a writer for radio, in the 1930’s, and produced a number of original dramas, radio plays, and adaptations from her own and others’ work. She also wrote the film script of Crime on the Hill (1933), with Vera Allinson, and the film script  of Moonlight Sonata (1938), with Edward Knoblock.

Her son died in 1940, during a military exercise, in what was suspected to be suicide, according to McCullen’s biography. Delafield never recovered from this loss, and felt unable to write more of the Provincial Lady’s diaries.

Shortly afterwards, in 1941, she became ill with bowel cancer. That same year, she underwent surgery, resulting in a colostomy, and later, in 1942, underwent X-ray treatment in London. Kate O’Brien assisted her during the last months of her life.

Delafield published two more novels before her death, at 53 years old, in 1943. After her death, her novels were forgotten, and only recently have gained new attention. Delafield’s epitaph was: ‘a Clear Shining after Rain’.

Books

  • Zella Sees Herself (1915)
  • The War Workers (1918)
  • The Pelicans (1918)
  • Consequences (1919)
  • Tension (1920)
  • The Heel of Achilles (1920)
  • Humbug (1921)
  • The Optimist (1922)
  • A Reversion to Type (1923)
  • The Sincerest Form… (1924, a series of parodies of novelists H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Eleanor Smith, GB Stern, Evelyn Waugh & Rosamund Lehmann)
  • Messalina of the Suburbs (1924)
  • Mrs Harter (1924)
  • The Chip and the Block (1925)
  • Jill (1926)
  • The Entertainment (1927, short stories)
  • The Way Things Are (1927)
  • The Suburban Young Man (1928)
  • What is Love? (1928, published in the USA as First Love)
  • Women are Like That (1929, short stories)
  • To See Ourselves (1930, play)
  • Turn Back the Leaves (1930)
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)
  • Challenge to Clarissa (1931)
  • The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932)
  • Thank Heaven Fasting (1932)
  • Gay Life (1933)
  • The Glass Wall (1933, play)
  • General Impressions (1933, a series of humorous articles published in Time and Tide)
  • The Provincial Lady in America (1934)
  • The Brontes, their lives recorded by their contemporaries (1935, nonfiction)
  • The Mulberry Bush (1935, play)
  • The Bazalgettes (1936, a spoof anonymous novel of 1870-6)
  • Faster! Faster! (1936)
  • As Others Hear Us: A Miscellany (1937, a collection of humorous sketches published in Punch and Time and Tide)
  • Nothing is Safe (1937)
  • Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction (1937, nonfiction)
  • Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (1937, published in the U.S. as I visit the Soviets)
  • Three Marriages (1939, three short stories)
  • Love Has No Resurrection (1939)
  • The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940)
  • No One Now Will Know (1941)
  • Late and Soon (1943)
  • The Brides of Heaven (written in 1931 and published in Violet Powell’s biography The life of a provincial lady in 1988)

About her

  • Beginnings, edited by L. A. G. Strong (1935)
  • E. M. Delafield, by Maurice L. McCullen (1985)
  • The life of a provincial lady, by Violet Powell (1988)
  • The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers, edited by Joanne Shattock (1994)
  • The heirs of Jane Austen: twentieth-century writers of the comedy of manners, by Rachel R. Mather (1996)
  • The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, edited by Lorna Sage (1999)
  • The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, by Nicola Humble (2001)

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