I recently gave Rachel a copy of Passionate Kensington (1939) by Rachel Ferguson, because it seemed like it would be up her street. I only flicked through it myself, and now probably won’t be able to afford my own copy if y’all go out and buy all the copies available online – but I photocopied a few pages. Although about a year in Kensington, Ferguson wanders on all sorts of lovely literary tangents – and I knew some of you would be interested in the excerpt below. (How lovely would it be to hear EM Delafield on the radio?!) I agree with almost everything Ferguson says – not where Provincial Lady in America is concerned – and wish I lived in a world where this sort of book was still published.
It was in Earl’s Court Road that Messrs. W. H. Smith once organized something of this nature and announced a lecture by E. M. Delafield. Nothing but my hatred of lectures kept me from her side, for she ranks high in my list of Delights, with certain reservations. Also, if her broadcast on current books is anything to go by, I am embarrassed and alienated by her voice which came through to my drawing-room not the Delafield I like and admire so well, but as a genteel and didactic governess, successfully flattening the interest from the morning lessons.
It may sound an odd comment upon so prosperous a writer, but I feel pretty sure that she does not, and probably never will, receive the recognition she deserves, and the reason, I think, for this is that she tends to present her material under a guise of flippancy which misleads all but the acutely perceptive. There are passages in The Diary of a Provincial Lady of absolute genius, and that is not a word one flings about lightly, and this book was an unmistakable success because it was earmarked as a frolic. But the good things and subtleties in her ‘straight’ novels are far worse submerged by this same general effect of flimsy treatment which, too often, is so fatally of the ‘light’ school of fiction undertaken by writers not fit to be mentioned school of fiction undertaken by writers not fit to be mentioned in the same breath with her that she is in danger of going through life self-cheated. She is, by those who seem to have missed the point of her, roughly rated as an agreeable rattle. These assessors would probably dismiss the works of Jane Austen as nice books for the beach, and do not perceive that petit point, though very small indeed, may be exquisite.
It was this agreeable rattle notice which resulted in Miss Delafield being invited to ‘go and be funny about Russia’, and gave us Straw Without Bricks. Now, Russia is a tragedy, not a comedy, and she is a comedy, not a tragedy. The result was neither good Leningrad nor good Delafield. A rather similar error occurred in Gay Life, which sought, if it sought anything, to rouse our pity and contempt for the wealthy-waster class in a Riviera resort. This novel, so to speak, agreeably rattled just enough to eliminate our social scorns, and was, on the other hand, just sufficiently bedroomy and cocktailed to put Miss Delafield herself under the table and alienate her following. Neither good adultery nor recogizable author, it was not her cup of tea or my gin and It. Let cheaper pens and brains, lacking her delicate inner resources, deal with this tiresome stuff. It is not for her and never will be.
The fact is that E. M. Delafield is essentially great enough to be the mouthpiece of the very small. She can, if she will, tell ordinary human nature about itself and for them render articulate that humiliating compromise which is the daily life of most of us – a fine and splendid gift, handsomely withheld from most writers of to-day. It is a trust she should respect, for it carries with it that balm we all need which is reassurance, the comforting knowledge that one we admire has also trudged through bogs of boredom, pettiness and disappointment.
Why was The Provincial Lady in America so unbelievably dull and inferior to its two predecessors? Because Miss Delafield had been false to her real metier, fobbed us off with what was barely more than a traveller’s note-book and perpetrated a type of work which has already been done ad nauseam (and better) by writers of not half her quality. And whether in Russia, France or America she fails us because she has no need to seek outside herself for what we want and she can give.
What do the critics think about her? The gist of two comments remains in my memory:
“I do not know what the standing of E. M. Delafield is, I only know I enjoy her work thoroughly.” The man who wrote this was evidently worried subconsciously by his dual perception that, with a strain in this author so unique, so individual, she should yet be in the ranks of those novelists for admiration of whose work you still have to shuffle your feet and look sheepish. It is possible that he does not know her completely perfect novel, The Way Things Are, about which I dare not let myself go. I have read it at least fifty times and shall read it fifty more; it satisfied on every count (save for some amazing culinary slips), and yet it is precisely this book which, to judge from the blank stares of my friends when I talk about it, is her least known.
The second critics said: “I know of no writer whose journalism is so uneven.” And here is a tangible grievance, easily stated and accountable. It is possible to write too much. Miss Delafield claims, I understand, to be able to “write anywhere”. But is this a real recommendation? Can it not be that she is confusing quantity with quality? The temptation I recognize to the full.
There comes a point in the career of many successful novelists when journals and magazines solicit them for articles ad stories, and they dash off this snippet and that before lunch; the result is, too often, laboured, mediocre and pot-boiling. It doesn’t matter from a practical point of view because the literary critics won’t see it, and the circulating library public will miss most of it, but it is sapping, and drains vitality from the novelist’s real work and justification for existence – his books. It may not ‘tell’ for years, but it will in the long run. A little journalism, by all means, but don’t make a hard-labour business of it if you can afford not to. Also, the muse of humour is a tricksy person, elusive, exacting, and by no means always at call, and if, as one definition runs, genius is ‘ calculation rapidly made’, the calculation made too rapidly through overwork is apt to be not greater genius but a slip in which the books won’t balance.
And it is because I have such a belief in E.M. Delafield, because I take such a keen, fighting interest in her work which I feel for few other writers to-day that I come down on her so hard. I value her because she is potentially qualified for that so rare class of novelist which to myself I have always called ‘the loved writer’, and which on the stage was represented by Hawtrey, Irving, Ellen and Fred Terry and John Martin Harvey. And when or if she can overcome that insubstantial element in her work – which is probably a defective style or ‘maner’, like a nervous laugh – I firmly believe that her humour and super-sensitive observation should make of her one of the best and most significant writers we possess, a comforting and timeless writer whose comments will delight a hundred years hence.