The War Workers (1918) Hardcover – 10 Sep 2010
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The War Workers was written in 1918 and when the story opens at the Hostel for Voluntary Workers 'Miss Vivian, Director of the Midland Supply Depot was under discussion'. By the time you have read a few pages I am sure you will immediately be struck with a deep loathing for this woman. I know I was. She appears to be tireless, hard working, noble, dashing and smart. She seems to have cast a spell over all the voluntary workers who regard her as akin to a saint, in particular her secretary Miss Delmege who constantly flaunts her position and her supposed inner knowledge of this Paragon.
"'She's most awfully human you know really. That's what I like about Miss Vivian. She's so frightfully human'
'Yes she is' said Miss Marsh 'Awfully human'
'Of course' said Miss Delmege with quiet emphasis 'working in her room, as I do, I suppose I see quite another side of her - the human side you know'
There was a silence. Nobody felt disposed to encourage Miss Vivian's secretary in her all too frequent recapitulations of the privileges which she enjoyed".
Within five minutes of starting this book, I spotted the similarities between Miss Vivian and the Commander of the Canteen which features in the Provincial Lady goes to War, my favorite of all the Provincial Lady books, and clear to me that she used the same characteristics. Miss Vivian, Charmian, is actually a rather unpleasant and selfish person who has swept all the local charities and hospitals under her wing and, despite her much vaunted protestations that she is doing it for the country, not for herself, it is pretty clear that she thoroughly enjoys the worship and admiration she receives.
A new secretary, Grace Jones, arrives to assist Miss Delmege and she does not seem to be quite so overcome with Miss Vivian's charms and fails to join in the admiring chorus when Miss Vivian refuses to eat lunch and says she is far too busy.
'The work comes before everything with Miss Vivian. I mean it really does' said Miss Plumtree solemnly.
Grace gave a little laugh and said 'Really I'm not so sure. I don't feel certain Miss Vivian would work quite so hard or keep such strenuous hours if she lived on a desert island for instance. My idea is that perhaps Miss Vivian does work so very hard because there are so many people looking on. If she was on a desert island she might - find time for luncheon'
Pretty clear that Grace has Miss Vivian summed up in no time at all and it goes without saying that a mutual dislike builds up between the two of them, particularly when Charmian's mother, Lady Vivian takes a liking to Grace and makes her a friend. Lady Vivian is a particularly interesting and likeable Em delafield in life 1925 character, has no illusions about her daughter at all and has an ironic and witty sense of humour that Charmian cannot understand. Her father is taken seriously ill and Miss Vivian is marooned at Plessings, their house, bored and fussing about the Depot and determined to go back to work despite her parents wishing her to remain as it is unlikely that her father will live much longer. In the end the decision whether she is needed or not is handed over to the local doctor, not a fan of Charmian at all and in the most masterly speech he puts her well and truly in her place:
'It's not the work you want to get back to, 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 some twenty years or so before you came into the world. That's what you want. I can't tell you that your return will bring on second stroke if you vex and disappoint your good father by monkeying about in a becoming uniform and a bit of gold braid on an office stool while he desires you to stay at home, but I can and do tell you that you're playing as heartless a trick as I ever saw, making patriotism the excuse for bullying a lot of women who work themselves to death for you because you're of a better class and have more personality then they, and pretending to yourself that it's the work you are after, when it's just because you want to get somewhere where you will be in the limelight all the time'
When I read this masterly put down, I nearly cheered but of course this barely impinges on Charmian's egotistical personality and she goes back to the Depot, though her mother forbids her to come backwards and forwards and she has to stay in the Hostel with the rest of the War Workers. Here reality sets in and when her selfish behavior becomes known after her father dies, she finds that she is not accorded the fulsome admiration she used to enjoy.
I find EM Delafield's writing just so spot on and incisive. Alongside Dorothy Whipple, Richmal Cormpton and other writers of this period, she has an unerring eye for the foibles and weaknesses of human nature. These authors, neglected for so long and regarded as rather boring and middle class have, of course, been resurrected by Persephone for which we should all give grateful thanks.
I gather that the books of this author are out of copyright in 1912 - let us hope some enterprising publisher takes note and reprints more by this wonderful writer.
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