The War-Workers is an early novel from E M Delafield, published about twelve years before her most famous work The Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I re-read recently). This is one of the titles on the list of books for the LibraryThing Great war theme read – it was actually one of the books for March and April – I’ll be playing catch up for the rest of the year I think, and I am rather surprised at just how much I loved it.
This novel is not one which takes us to the trenches of the Western Front – plenty of the other books we are reading this year do take us there – this is a home front WW1 novel, with an army of a wholly different kind. The army in question is an army of women, the women who ran the supply depots, met hundreds of men off troop trains late at night supplying them with sandwiches, cake and steaming cups of tea, and ran canteens. Women war-workers who were indefatigable in their approach to their duty, and who put their own lives on hold, and kept going even when ill.
E M Delafield’s wonderful wit and eye for the ridiculousness in people is quite evident in this early novel. I did chuckle over the marvellously dreadful Mrs Willoughby – who talks incessantly to her spoilt little Pekinese Puff, and the equally dreadful Miss Delmege – whose stubborn devotion to Miss Vivian blinds her to Char’s obvious faults, and who declares anything she doesn’t like or agree with to be strange.
“The new Canteen in Pollard Street was opened before Christmas. Lesbia Willoughby, in an immense overall of light blue-and-white check, stood behind a long buffet and demanded stridently whether she wasn’t too exactly like a barmaid for words, and Char’s consignment of helpers worked for the most part briskly and efficiently, only the unfortunate Miss Plumtree upsetting a mug of scalding tea over herself at the precise moment when Miss Vivian, trim and workmanlike in her dark uniform, entered the big hall and stood watching the scene with her arrogant, observant gaze. She did not ask Miss Plumtree whether her hand was scalded, but neither did she rebuke her very evident clumsiness. She moved slowly and imperially through the thick tobacco-laden atmosphere, speaking to several of the men, and silently observing the demeanour of her staff.”
Delafield’s ‘The War-Workers’ is centred around a Midlands supply depot run by domineering 29 year old Charmaine Vivian, the only daughter of Lady and Sir Percy Vivian, who struggle to understand her total absorption in her work. It is to their wonderfully comfortable rural estate Plessings – that Char returns later and later each evening – after a day of organising and managing her slavishly devoted underlings. At home Miss Bruce, another blindly devoted woman – once Char’s governess, now her mother’s secretary – fusses happily around Char upon her return each day. Char is blissfully unaware of how the little comforts she takes for granted are managed for her by other people. Her beloved Brucey and her maid, make sure she is warm and comfortable, her room lit by a wonderful fire, good food and hot water available upon her late return. Her office is always lit by a good fire when she arrives at ten o’ clock each morning – yet Char gives no thought to how it might have got there.
At the over-crowded hostel across the street from Char Vivian’s busy little office – live the squabbling exhausted women who work for Char. They share rooms, manage with limited hot water, and small kettles in their rooms, working ridiculously long hours for a woman who is barely aware of them as human beings. For Miss Vivian keeps her workers firmly at arm’s length, never entering into personal or friendly conversation, or considering their small discomforts and illnesses, irritated should one want to take time off. Miss Vivian is proud to put work before everything else, and declares herself puzzled should anyone think to do anything else. These women workers are a wonderfully drawn bunch of characters, gossipy, fretful, snobbish and highly entertaining. Into their midst comes Grace Jones, “a lady” Grace becomes Miss Vivian’s under-secretary, although quite obviously enormously capable – Miss Vivian stubbornly refuses to see her as being as capable as she is. When Grace meets Lady Vivian, Char’s mother immediately takes to her – much to Char’s enormous irritation.
When Char’s father is taken ill, Char’s mother requests that she should stay at home more – as her father is becoming distressed by the constant late night comings and goings. Char is outraged by the suggestion that the office could possibly manage without her constant attention – and after only a few days off because she herself is suffering from flu – she returns to her office in high dudgeon – her mother has insisted she move into her worker’s hostel.
There are those who recognise the monster within Char Vivian, Grace Jones not the least of them. John Trevellyan, her mother’s cousin, is annoyed and dismayed by Char’s behaviour, John is just one more thing Char takes for granted, and so she is a little uncomfortable when she sees him getting rather friendly with Grace. Dr Prince, the doctor who has known Char since childhood, thinks Char’s slavish obsession with her work has more to do with being seen to do it and the power and prestige it gives her than anything else.
“I’ll tell you something else. It’s not the work you want to get back to, young lady, it’s the excitement, and the official position, and the right it gives you to interfere with people who knew how to run a hospital and everything connected with it some twenty years or so before you came into the world”
Char is finally forced to make some changes to her organisation, and Grace finds herself to be deeply appreciated by others whose good opinion she is glad to have. I really loved this book; I really should have had more faith in it.