I’ve been meaning to read E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady for a while now, but never actually got around to it. So I’m glad I got the chance to read Tension, one of Delafield’s earlier novels published in 1920, even though Tension‘s self-righteous female lead, Lady Edna Rossiter, is nothing like the charming and delightful Provincial Lady readers seem to love.
Set in Southwest England, Tension revolves around a Commercial and Technical College founded by Edna’s husband, Sir Julian. This venture, aimed at making its students more employable, offers various classes like shorthand scribbling and typing. With Julian as the Head of Directors in the college, Lady Edna has a courtesy appointment in management, although neither Julian nor the college’s Supervisor, Fairfax Fuller, are enthusiastic about it. They both seem to view Edna’s “benevolent attempts at keeping in touch with the staff of the college” as an annoyance (rightly so, I might add), even though they humor Edna. Edna is condescending and, as I came to realize, someone who seriously lacks self-awareness. Despite her supposedly prescribing to the maxim “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true” in everyday conversation, it is clear Edna often manages to offend those around her by her ‘well-intentioned’ behavior, so Julian and Fuller both yearn for less meddling by Edna, albeit in vain!
The tension in the story arises when Pauline Marchrose, a young woman of twenty-eight, arrives at the college to be its Lady Superintendent. Even though Pauline is a diligent worker, Edna disapproves of this appointment as some years ago Pauline had broken off her engagement with Edna’s distant cousin, Clarence, when he became paralyzed after an accident. Clarence has since recovered and is happily married to an aristocrat like him, but Edna is not ready to move on. For all her claims about wanting to help others, championing women, and high ideals about loving all, Edna is determined to get rid of Pauline. Edna’s need to see the back of Pauline gets only hastened by the possibility of a budding mutual attraction between Pauline and Mark Easter, Rossiter’s estate agent/ neighbor!
Mark is an attractive young man who has married an older woman with whom he has two children. But Mrs. Easter is not in the picture as she has been committed to a home for inebriates seven years ago. Edna has come to fancy herself the only woman in Mark’s life who can guide him in the matters of his household. This aligns well with Edna’s self-image of being an ‘ever-so-generous’ person, and she doesn’t take her status being threatened by Pauline lightly! According to Edna, “A friendship with a good, true woman is often a man’s best safeguard,” and she is ready to ‘save’ Mark from the ‘clutches of Pauline’ by whatever means possible, even if it means she’ll have stoop to waging a whisper-campaign against Pauline.
Throughout the novel, I couldn’t help but feel horrified by Edna’s actions. Edna is a hypocrite – the whole time she keeps insisting she could never cast the first stone, even though she always does. What is more pitiable is her ignorance – Edna truly thinks she is helping others and believes she understands love and passion, when, in reality, her life is devoid of both. Even Julian’s proposal to Edna many years ago had been an act of chivalry, as it was a time when a woman’s worth was tied to her marital status – when Julian met Edna, she had been a spinster of twenty-nine, living with her mother who constantly chided her for not being married. So Julian’s proposal had rather been a suggestion of “a mutual companionship, likely to prove of solace to both, and to release her from a situation which had become intolerable to her.” But to me, their marriage didn’t seem like a companionship either – they are really very different people, united only by their mutual dislike towards Mark’s children! Despite their obvious differences, somehow, it felt like Edna was oblivious to the true status of her marriage, as “she reflected complacently sometimes that they had never had a quarrel – and remained unaware that the fact admirably measured the extent of their estrangement.”
Next to Edna, one can’t stop admiring Pauline’s guts. Instead of trying to fix her situation by marrying up and entering into a loveless marriage, Pauline had followed her heart during the Clarence episode. It is the same kind of bravery (and disregard for the status quo) Pauline shows when it comes to Mark. Even if it is only on paper, Mark is still a married man, but Pauline would have taken the risk to be with him if Mark wasn’t trying to hide behind societal norms (This was a time when divorce was quite scandalous, and even according to the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act, which was introduced three years after the publication of Tension, adultery was the sole ground for divorce in England).
One aspect I thought interesting about this novel is its portrayal of male characters. Save for Fuller, who knows how to put his foot down when it comes to Edna’s endless interfering (hence unfairly dubbed a “misogynist” by Edna), the other men in this story are infuriatingly weak! Although I felt sympathy towards Julian – he is an understanding man who deems meddling as “the crying sin of the age” – I really wished he’d grow a spine, instead of meekly opting to maintain marital accord!
This is a very well done satire. 4 stars.
Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of Tension.