Women Who Love by E M Delafield

This is a brilliant book of three stories by the ever wonderful and versatile E M Delafield, of Provincial Lady fame. I was contacted a while ago by the lovely and glamorous Marie from Prometheus Bound Books, who has collected all of E M Delafield’s books, and wondered whether I’d like to borrow a couple of the hard to find titles she owns in exchange for her borrowing my copy of Dorothy Whipple’s scarce first novel, Young Anne. Of course I agreed, and we met briefly to swap books. I came away with Women who Love (the American title of Three Marriages), and a collection of short stories, Love has no Resurrection, which I am yet to read.

From previous experience of Delafield, and knowing how widely differing her style can be (for example, Consequences is practically unrecognisable as a Delafield when compared to The Diary of a Provincial Lady), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but from the title and subject matter, I did presume that the three stories would be fairly witty and light hearted in tone. How wrong I was! Delafield’s ability to write across so many genres and swing from jovial social commentary to harrowing war correspondent within a matter of pages is awe inspiring and the first of the three stories, ‘The Wedding of Rose Barlow’, was particularly absorbing and powerfully written.

‘The Wedding of Rose Barlow’ is about a naïve, lovely sixteen year old girl whose mother, Lady Rosabel, asks her old friend, cousin, and true love Gilbert to marry her daughter so that she can be protected from the horror of an abusive marriage, like Rosabel has been subjected to. Rose, a romantic, inexperienced child who still plays with her dolls, marries Gilbert, presuming what she feels for him is love, and is then left to run his country home while Gilbert is sent to India with the army. Unexpectedly, the nephew of an eccentric house guest arrives shortly after Gilbert’s departure, and the young Rose realises what a colossal mistake she has made in marrying without understanding the true nature of love. She finds her soul mate in the handsome and sensitive Pierre, but they cannot be together, and Rose is left devastated at losing the opportunity to love truly and deeply with all of her heart. She is then summoned to join Gilbert in India, and on arrival the true extent of what she has done becomes apparent. She feels nothing but a fond affection for Gilbert, pines for Pierre, and feels hopelessly sad that she cannot muster the passionate devotion the other officer’s wives around her have for their husbands. It all looks set to be a tale of thwarted love, and an acceptance of a mediocre marriage, but then the story turns into a nightmare description of how Gilbert’s regiment and all of the women and children attached to it get caught up in an Indian mutiny against the British army. Forced to endure terrible hardships and witness the most awful atrocities, Rose returns to England a changed woman, unwilling to settle for a life of lovelorn frustration like her mother Lady Rosabel.

It’s a remarkable, powerful, compelling story that is much about  the horrors of war as it is about the horror of marrying someone you don’t love, and Rose’s experiences of the Indian mutiny and her journey of personal growth haunted me for several days after finishing the stories. The other two stories are also very good, but they didn’t quite capture my imagination like the first. The second, ‘Girl-of-the-Period’, is about Violet Cumberledge and her modern and practical attitude towards love and marriage (or so she thinks), and her eventual understanding that marriage is not the unemotional, sensible legal contract between two well disposed people she has always considered it to be. In this story Delafield is at her witty best, describing Violet and her self righteous, naive beliefs in such a witty, ironic tone that I laughed out loud in several places! It’s a very well done dig at young people and their misguided conviction that they are infinitely wiser than their parents and can do everything far better than the previous generation, and Delafield sets Violet up for a spectacular fall through demonstrating that the power of love is timeless, and it can never be reduced to two signatures on a piece of paper.

The final story, ‘We Meant to Be Happy’, is about the lovely Cathleen, a gentle soul who takes much joy in her life as the wife of a nice but dull man significantly older than her and the mother of three adored children, living in a nice house in a pleasant suburb. She is incredibly grateful for what she has, having grown up as an orphan and spent her twenties working hard with no serious prospects of marriage, and desires nothing more. That is, until she unintentionally falls passionately in love, and realises that she has missed the true meaning and joy of life by marrying someone she has never truly loved. What can she do, in an age where divorce meant a severance from society and a woman losing her children? Can she survive being forced to live within a passionless marriage, now she knows what true love is?

All of the stories feature women who stumble into marriage without understanding the true nature of love and what it really feels like when you are genuinely with the right person, and it did make me wonder about E M Delafield’s own marriage and romantic experiences. The protagonists of each story do eventually work it all out, and fall in true love, but the rather idealistic message that a life lived without finding your one, true, passionate soulmate is one of unfulfilled potential and unchannelled depths of joy caused me to question whether Delafield felt she had missed out on something within her own marriage. I am anxious to read a biography of E M Delafield and understand a little more about her life after reading these stories; does anyone know of any in existence? Did Delafield write her own?

29 comments

  1. There’s an old biography by Violet Powell, Rachel – I read it ages ago – which includes an account by EM herself of her time in a convent. If I remember rightly, she entered the convent – but didn’t take her vows – because she was rather adrift, having failed to nab a husband quickly enough after she left school. Her mother, who was a popular novelist, had remarried rather soon after being widowed and toddled off abroad with her new husband without making much provision for her teenage daughters. Who both decided they’d better be nuns, like you do when you can’t find a man (bit like Consequences … have you read it?) Anyway, both sisters escape the clutches of the convent and when EM finally marries and settles down, I got the impression that her husband was much like the Provincial Lady’s husband and they were unspectacularly happy … I don’t think she felt was missing out, she was probably grateful to him for rescuing her from the miserable time she had as a young woman.
    (Oh dear, I know you’re more romantic than I am , and you’d like her to have one, true passionate soulmate!)
    But do read the biography, great descriptions of nuns’ baggy underwear!

    1. Mary as ever you are a fount of information! I shall have to get my hands on this biography, nun’s baggy underwear is a must! Delafield certainly had an interesting and adventurous life by the sounds of it – I HAVE read Consequences and it was excellent – clearly she had a little bit of Alex in her. I wish Delafield had had a more romantic marriage though, you’re right!

  2. I only know Delafield from the Provincial Lady and hadn’t realised that there was such a different side to her writing. Thank you for alerting me to this. I shall have to see what else I can find locally.

    1. I’m glad you’re a Provincial Lady fan, but yes, there is much more to Delafield than that series. She wrote a fair few novels – thirty odd I should think. Persephone Books has reprinted Consequences, which is very good, and there are a couple of cheap to get hold of out of print Virago paperbacks available – The Way Things Are and Thank Heaven Fasting – but other than that, unless you buy those unattractive Print on Demand paperbacks, which have made quite a few of EMD’s books available on amazon, it’s an expensive trip to the second hand book shop!

  3. Ooh, this sounds interesting. I recently borrowed her novel The war workers which was very different from Consequences and Provinicial. How nice to have a book swap opportunity!

    1. It really is brilliant, Verity – I wish it was more widely available. The War Workers sounds interesting – I think it is available in POD but I do hate the covers they use for POD paperbacks!

    1. Yes I do, Hayley! I think it would go down well as a Persephone. The three stories are like mini novellas so you really would get your money’s worth! I never seem to find Delafield’s books in second hand bookshops, apart from Provincial Lady ones, and I already have those!

  4. Your review is quite intriguing and makes me want to run out and pick up a copy of Women who Love, especially to read “The Wedding of Rose Barlow”. The stories of India and its people is, I am sorry to say, so unfamiliar to me, and this seems to be one in which the horrors and the history play out on the page for a bit of history as well.

    E M Delafield sounds like a fascinating writer, made even more so by m’s comment above. It is interesting how bits and pieces of one’s soul and story often find their way into books. I am curious, Rachel, to where the picture of EM is from. It looks as if it is from Life Magazine and makes me think there might have been a rather interesting piece on her in the magazine.

    Great review.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Penny! Don’t worry, I had no idea about this period of history either in India, and it came as a real shock to me to read Delafield’s descriptions.

      I think you would really like the diary of a Provinical Lady series – when I send you your Whipple, I’ll pop a copy of that in for you too.

      She really is a fascinating and wonderful writer and a lot of her stuff is autobiographical so if you like that sort of thing you’ll really get on with her. The picture is from Life magazine online but they are very old, original photos from an edition back in the 40’s I should imagine – I can’t find an accompanying article online I’m afraid. It’s annoying that they seem to archive their photos but not their articles!

    1. Well that is fair enough, Nan! We all have our own preferences and I personally think that nothing will beat the Provincial Lady series.

      Thanks so much for the link – I’m off to explore!

  5. This sounds like a great one to help satisfy my insatiable hunger for things of India during the English period. : ) I’ll have to hunt my library for it. And like always, after reading a review by you I feel like I’ll be missing out entirely if I don’t rush and get it now!

    1. It does indeed, Traci, though beware – it is very descriptive and not for the faint at heart. Blood and gore is featured – it made me quite upset, but not so much so that I couldn’t read it.
      I hope you can get a copy through the library because I think you’d really enjoy it. You’re so sweet to me, Traci! I’m glad I give you bookish inspiration!

  6. Okay, you’ve convinced me to check Delafield out and since my library only has the Provincial Lady books (and her biography), I’ll start there. They do look fun.

  7. How lovely to see the more obscure EMD books mentioned on the blogosphere! I’m always wary of it, lest people get intrigued and then can’t find copies – but that’s what libraries are for!

    I thought I owned this, but LibraryThing tells me I don’t… hmm. Maybe I’m thinking of First Love (is this another variant title?!)

    You’re so right about EMD’s versatility – quite extraordinary. I recently read Nothing Is Safe, and it’s another great book – about the effects of a divorce upon two children. Oh, and The War Workers is both very funny and quite sad – quite similar characters to The Commandent in The Provincial Lady in Wartime. AND you must read Faster! Faster! for a similar character…

    Oh, I could witter about EMD all day, so I’ll shut up and just say – if you want to borrow any, let me know! And I’m happy to lend you The Life of a Provincial Lady by Violet Powell, if you like? Aside from that, EMD’s novel Humbug is very autobiographical.

    1. I know, I do feel a bit unfair in waxing lyrical about a book most people won’t be able to get hold of, but it might encourage them to try the more easy to find Delafields, so every cloud and all that.

      No it’s just the two titles – clearly Simon you just own too many books!!

      I do want to read all of these books! She was such a talented writer! I see someone with no taste has started printing candy striped editions on a POD basis – if only these books weren’t so ugly, I’d snap them up! You’re very generous – once I’ve finished the other one I’ve borrowed, I’ll be in touch. I love how knowledgable you are about writers of this period, Simon – you MUST let me read your PhD thesis when it’s done…I don’t mind waiting.😉

  8. I remember the first Persephone book group I attended in Oxford – by the end of it everyone LOATHED me, cos I kept getting over-excited whenever they mentioned an author I knew about…(!)

    Yeah, let me know whenever you want to borrow any or all of my EMD related books… well, maybe not all at once😉 – we can meet up in London sometime, or I’ll pop them in the post.

    You’ve made me want to read more of my EMD stockpile now… I think Gay Life might be next (which I have SIGNED by Delafield. Jealous??)

  9. This sounds intriguing. I’ve never purchased Consequences because I’ve had a few Provincial Lady-loving friends say the book was too hard to read, too frustrating and stark. These almost sound like they’d be a middle ground between the two. I hope you find a biography soon – selfishly, I’d like to know what you find out about her early life and marriage!

    1. Consequences is very different from PL BUT if you go into it not expecting PL wittiness then you will greatly enjoy it, as it’s brilliantly written. It’s a hard book to read because the main character is so unhappy, but I’d still encourage anyone to pick it up. These stories are a middle ground though, you’re right, so if you manage to find a copy, you’ll get an idea for what Consequences could be like. I will let you all know as soon as I get a copy of the biography – I’m going to see if my library has one.

  10. I’ve borrowed this book a couple of times from the library but thought really this is one book I should own: so off I went on Saturday to my local Waterstone’s and bought this book. I am so pleased because now I can just dip in and out as I please.

    By the way, this is the first time I have visited your blog which I came by A Work in Progress.I love your choice of books so I have now put you in my favourites so that I can visit you daily.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for reading, and I am so pleased you’ll be returning often. It’s lovely to see a new person!

      I am sure you will just love The Diary of a Provincial Lady – I hope you bought the Virago edition with all four Diaries in it – such a treat!

  11. Silly me, I forgot to mention the title of the book that I have jujst bought: ‘The Dairy of a Provisional Lady’.

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