The War Workers – E. M. Delafield (1918)

A fast-reading story which describes the life and times of working under a rather despotic leader at a local supply depot in early twentieth century England.  Miss Vivian (Char to her family) lives and breathes her work as Director of the Midland Supply Depot, and tends to rule her staff with an iron stick until out of the blue, Miss Grace Jones, arrives and Miss Vivian meets her match.

It’s during WWI, and England is busy dealing with munitions factories, women working outside the home, and changes in perception for all. Miss Vivian’s staff all adore her, and would do anything for her, and she knows this, setting high standards for herself and for them in the office. Her office is in charge of numerous organizations, and of meeting incoming troop trains, feeding the soldiers, and helping the local hospital get its necessary supplies. This is a big job, but Miss Vivian seems to do it well and with thoroughness. However, she works very long hours, refuses to take breaks for meals, and goes to bed late, all because she views her war work as more important than anything personal, family or otherwise. She expects this attitude from her staff, and for the most part, they fulfill their duties with pride. However, there is an element of martyrism for Miss Vivian.

Her staff, mostly single young women from middle class families, all live in a hostel close to the office, and due to lack of space, end up sharing bedrooms and their supplies in a communal and mutually supportive approach. There are not many situations where the women do not get on with each other, but occasional spats come up every now and then. Everyone is all Jolly Hockey Sticks and Crikey and Rather, which is rather amusing at times.

However, when the Welsh Miss Jones arrives, the fine balance between staff and boss is upset when the incoming worker is not as impressed by Miss Vivian as the others were. Instead, Miss Jones see Miss Vivian as just a normal human with faults, and the boss picks up on this. Delafield does an excellent job of describing each character’s foibles so that they are clear in the reader’s mind. Miss Delmage is Miss Vivian’s personal secretary and she sees her boss as on a pedestal and who can do no wrong. The others have a similar perspective, but theirs is more motivated by fear than anything. Miss Jones’s arrival upsets the balance and creates cracks in the tableau as the book progresses.

At the same time, we are introduced to Miss Vivian’s family who live nearby and who are determined to not really acknowledge the war (or Miss Vivian’s work related to that) as her father is deemed fragile and ends up getting very ill. Even before he was ill, he disapproved of his daughter’s working, and so his younger more resilient wife (and Miss Vivian’s mother) ends up playing referee between them.

Since this was my first Delafield book to read, I knew that she was rumoured to have a good sense of humor from reading various reviews of “Diary of a Provincial Lady” et al, and this humor was displayed in the remarks said by Miss Vivian’s mother and others. Very dry and subtle, but actually quite funny in places.

Another character in the book, it could be argued, was the ongoing war in France. It affects everything: the roles of the women (who would not be working otherwise), the shortages of petrol/gas, food, medical supplies, the incoming troop trains… It’s a common thread throughout the whole novel, and it would not have been the same story without it.

Funnily enough, when E. M. Delafield first started writing professionally, her sister suggested her using a nom de plume (Delafield) instead of her actual last name of “de la Pasture” which just makes me smile.

A good read from girlebooks website, and now very much looking forward to reading other Delafield work.

2 thoughts on “The War Workers – E. M. Delafield (1918)

    • I think if you like British domestic fiction, then you will enjoy this one. If not, there are quite a few other Delafields to get your teeth into..!

      Thanks for popping by,
      liz

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