The War Workers

I’m re-reading one of my favourite wartime novels, E.M.Delafield’s The War Workers. Delafield (when she was still Esmee de la Pasture) went to work for the Red Cross Society at Exeter as a V.A.D. worker. This establishment was run by a remarkable and forceful woman, Georgiana Buller, daughter of Sir Redvers Buller, the Boer War general. Miss Buller went on to become the only female administrator of a large wartime hospital, and was awarded the D.B.E for her services in 1920.

According to the ODNB, Georgiana Buller’s later career was even more creditable, including a great deal of work to help the disabled. But The War Workers gives us a different angle, and shows us the view from below, how a woman like this looked to the other women that she controlled and bullied. The central character of the book, Miss Vivian, is closely based on Georgiana Buller. The novel has a disclaimer that “The ‘Midland Supply Depot’ of The War Workers has no counterpart in real life, and the scenes and characters desribed are purely imaginary.” but nobody could have believed this. According to Violet Powell, Delafield’s not very satisfactory biographer:

Elizabeth admitted that she had got into trouble over The War Workers, and, even more candidly, that she deserved to do so.

but Powell doesn’t reveal what this trouble was – except that the Buller family were still wary of E.M.D when they met socially years later.

The portrait given in the book is scathing. Miss Vivian works tirelessly in a good cause, but has a taste for power that is analysed with precision. We are shown how she uses the wartime emergency for her own ends, and avoids more personal responsibilities. The novel explores what must have been a key question during the war years – How do we balance the claims of public wartime duty against the claims of the private, family and social world?

The sexual politics of the novel are not simple – Miss Vivian is a strong woman achieving in a man’s world, and the book knocks her down to size. But looked at another way, the novel can be seen as arguing that the priorities of the world of women are as important as those of the men’s world that Miss Vivian has invaded; it’s one of the few novels written during the war that firmly suggests that there are limits to one’s wartime duty. Maybe it’s the tension between these possible interpretations that makes it such an interesting book.

Fair or unfair to its central character, The War Workers is one of those books that justifies the claim sometimes made for Delafield as a novelist in the Jane Austen tradition. The only books of hers still in print are the very funny  Provincial Lady books and the Persephone  reprint of her harrowing novel about her convent experiences, Consequences. Maybe I’ll write to Persephone Books (that marvellous firm) and suggest that they reprint The War Workers.

Here’s a picture of E.M.Delafield.

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