Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Sandwiches and Sphagnum Moss

I downloaded this from Girlebooks,
who got it from Project Gutenberg.
I'm still catching up on Early 20th Century Authors (I always was a bit of a slow-coach) so I've just read The War-Workers, by EM Delafield. Published in 1918, this was her second novel, written before she'd really honed her talents, and is not as entertaining as 'The Diary of a Provincial Lady'. I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to EM Delafield, but it is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Set in the First World War, it's a social satire, slow to take off, and a little laboured in places, but sharply observed. The central character is Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot, which provides supplies for hospitals, doctors, convalescent homes, and troop trains. She approves everything, from sandwiches for the soldiers, to bandages and bags of sphagnum moss. I looked this last item up, and discovered it was used to dress wounds. Apparently there was a factory on Dartmoor where the moss, which absorbs liquid (including blood) and has some kind of anti-bacterial properties, was dried, prepared and bagged. It was needed because cotton - used in the manufacture of ammunition as well as for bandages - was running out. See what I mean when I say I get sidetracked by books?

Anyway, Char is a monster – you will know exactly what she is like if you have ever met the kind of well-heeled committee chairwoman who is not receptive to new ideas (except her own), insists that everything has to be done by the book, and enjoys telling everyone else what to do, and how to do it, although she has no practical experience herself. Basically, she's a bully, with a forceful personality, who seems to have no vulnerable side whatsoever. She has no consideration for anyone else's feelings, puts her war work before everything else, and expects the staff and volunteers to do the same. She rarely has lunch, stays in her office until eight or nine at night, and the more work she does, the more there seems to be. The women in the office think Miss Vivian (she is only Char to her family) is wonderful, and admire the way she never spares herself – even when her father is ill she puts the job first. The women's view of her seems to be determined not just by her own manipulations, but also by the fact that her family are titled landed gentry. But is she really as selflessly dedicated as they think, or is she a control freak on an ego trip, enjoying the sense of power and self-importance she has created?

Her motives are called into question following the arrival of Grace Jones, a Welsh vicar's daughter, who is not pretty, but is sweet-natured, even-tempered, intelligent, capable, good at her job, and remarkably unimpressed by Miss Vivian. Char is just as unimpressed with Miss Jones (Gracie to her friends) but is forced to rely on the new-comer's help when she falls ill with flu, and her father has a stroke.

I thought the interplay between the women who work at the depot was good, and they were well drawn, especially in the scenes at the canteen where Char expects them to spend their spare time, and in the Hostel for Voluntary Workers where they cope more cheerfully than might be expected with the cold, the lack of hot water and the food shortages. They may have their differences, but they are very supportive (although no-one likes Miss Delmege, Char's snobbish, pretentious, sycophantic secretary).

EM Delafield
The various other characters were mostly very credible, especially Char's mother, Lady Joanna Vivian, who is everything Char is not – warm, humorous, interested in people – and wishes she had spanked her daughter when she was younger. You could argue that things might have been different if Char's mother had paid less attention to her husband, and more to her daughter, and that difficult relationship between them is not all Char's fault.

I thought Char would undergo some kind of magical transformation, but that particular fairytale ending would be too obvious and, perhaps, too unbelievable, and it's nice, kind, reliable Grace who (hopefully) lives happily ever after.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel was the fact that it is set on 'the home front' during WWI. Many novels of this period are much more involved with the war itself, with fighting, or life in a military hospital, and it's not often that you hear about the 'war-work' that went on, or the shortages and air -raids – there's a tendency to only think about them in connection with WW2.
Edited: I changed the title.

10 comments:

  1. I have downloaded this and tried to read it a couple of times, but simply not been grabbed by it. I have never read anything else by EMD and perhaps I should?

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    1. I've only read this (which I wouldn't start with, and I don't know how representative it is of her work), and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and The Provincial Lady Goes Further. They are very much of their time and class, but enormously funny, very witty, light-hearted, with excellent portrayals of people and family life, and I found it very easy to relate to her feelings and the things that happen.

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  2. Interesting review. I have this book downloaded to read too. I love the humour of the four Provincial Lady books by EMD but am curious to see whether I enjoy her other books as much.

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    1. Alex, it's not as humorous as the Provincial Lady. Enjoyable,but more as a curiosity perhaps, and not something I would return to time and time again. Try it, and let me know what you think!

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  3. Ever since watching Downton Abbey, I've been paying attention to books with the setting in and around WWI. Sounds like this one describes a vignette of what the 99% of people were like during that time. ;)

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    1. I get the impression that the Vivian family home is obviously large and posh, and there must be servants ans estate workers, but they don't come into the story, and it's nowhere near as grand as Downton. I thought the description of the women volunteers and life in the hostel was fascinating, especially the air raid.

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  4. I really enjoyed this although it's very different from the Provincial Lady books. Actually I think everything EMD wrote is different from the PL series. They were written for Time & Tide so more comic journalism than anything else. I love books set in WWI, especially written close to that period so I enjoyed this very much. Apparently EMD based her monster pretty closely on a real person & she was not amused!

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    1. I can imagine the real person would not have seen the funny side! It took me a little while to get into this, but I enjoyed it, and the WWI setting was interesting - it was so different to anything else I've read about the war.

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  5. Your review will be featured on War Through the Generations on Aug. 17. Thanks for participating in the challenge!

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