I love the Alice illustrations so much that I’m a bit reluctant to move on from them… but I suppose they’re still there for me and anyone else to look at. And if my copy of the Alice books weren’t in Somerset, I’d have definitely re-read it by now… as it is, I have instead finished a book I’ve been dipping in and out of for quite a while now. One of those books to read at bedtime – it’s EM Delafield’s Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia.
The astute among you will notice that this isn’t the title in the little picture accompanying this post… blame latterday publishers. Straw Without Bricks is an account of EM Delafield’s experience after her American publishers asked her to visit Russia and ‘write a funny book about it’. She does so as herself and, though her voice is often quite similar to that of the Provincial Lady’s in other books, there is no suggestion that this is one of the Provincial Lady series… in fact, it’s not even written as a diary. The Provincial Lady tag was just added in reprints to sell more copies. Tsk.
Violet Powell’s so-so biography of EMD makes little mention of this book, except to say that it wasn’t very successful, and generally judged to have been a bad idea (and EMD may have shared this opinion). I imagine that was largely because at the time of publication, 1937, the world wasn’t quite ready for an honest appraisal of life as a tourist in Soviet Russia. For readers of 2009, it is a fascinating book – EMD does write in quite a light style, but this is certainly not the ‘funny book’ that her publisher was hoping for. Delafield’s own political leanings were to the left, though not as far as Communism, and she treats the country and its inhabitants seriously. Much of this is with a subdued horror – at the indoctrination, the lack of freedom, the systematic removal of beauty and individualism – but she never makes Communism’s adherents appear ridiculous. The humour is often directed towards her fellow tourists, or such quintessentially British anxieties as having to wait around for something to happen, or wondering how to pass someone one is keen not to engage in trivial conversation.
Her accounts of visiting factories, maternity wards, farms are all deeply interesting – a very true version (one assumes) of a little-accessed situation, without being dry or documentary-style. In the end, it is the absence of a moderate reaction to Soviet Russia which frustrates and baffles EMD:
‘My fellow travellers all have opinions of their own which they regard, rightly or wrongly, as being of more value than mine. Most of them are pessimistic, and declare that they don’t ever want to come back again, and that the Crimea was lovely but the plugs in the hotels wouldn’t pull, and Moscow was interesting but very depressing.
Some, on the other hand – like Mrs. Pansy Baker – are wholly enthusiastic. (There is no juste milieu where the Soviet is concerned.) How splendid it all is, they cry, and how fine to see everybody busy, happy and cared-for. As for the institutions – the creches, the schools, the public parks and the prisons – all, without any qualification whatsoever, are perfect. Russia has nothing left to learn.’
As I said, Straw Without Bricks isn’t written in a diary format – in fact, the format confuses me a little. I don’t know the publication history (perhaps, like the PL books, this appeared in Time and Tide?), but most the book seems to be organised in separate but linked articles – sketches or anecdotes centred around certain events or people which vaguely follow on from each other, but could be read individually. The first eighty pages, though, are all about a Soviet Commune EMD lived in – a section followed, anachronistically, by an essay about sailing out to Russia. Odd. But easy enough to cope with, so long as temporal logic isn’t sought to join these sections!
This book isn’t as good as the Provincial Lady books proper, or rather it’s different. Those are some of the warmest, funniest, truest books I’ve ever read, and I will read and re-read them for the rest of my life – Straw Without Bricks performs a wholly different task, and is in its own right an important, touching, sensible and informative book with many sparks of humour which is recognisably EMD. Occasionally I found myself wishing she’d simply written the ‘funny book’ her publisher asked for; in the end I realised how much more sensitively she’d approached the task, and the result is much more appropriate, even if somewhat less immortal.