E M Delafield will be enduringly remembered for that most quintessential book of English humour: Diary of a Provincial Lady. It is a classic so beloved that it has remained in print since its first publication in 1930, and is one —or so Rachel Johnson wrote reviewing a recent reissue— that falls into “the incomparable canon of books alongside The Diary of a Nobody, Lucky Jim and Mapp and Lucia, that invite the English to laugh at themselves.”
What seldom appears in accounts of Delafield, however, which tend to focus almost entirely on her novels (particularly Diary and its three successors), was her prodigious output as a freelance contributor to periodicals and newspapers like Time and Tide (where the Provincial Lady first appeared), Woman’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, The Radio Times, The Sketch and The Times. Even rarer is any mention of her decade-long association with another English – Delafield would perhaps have wittily skewered the word ‘British’ – icon, Punch magazine. Yet Delafield contributed almost four hundred pieces to Punch from the end of 1932 until her untimely death in December 1943.
One memorial tribute that highlighted her work in Punch appeared (suitably) in English, the magazine of the English Association, to whose Plymouth branch Delafield had lectured. The article maintains that it was the four Provincial Lady books, combined with her contributions to the magazine, which made Delafield’s distinctive place in English literature, noting:
“Many Punch readers have realized since her death that it was the article by E. M. D. that instinctively they read first each week when Punch arrived, and they did not realize till now, when those articles have ceased, what a blank their absence would leave. That fact is typical of E. M. Delafield’s art: so exactly did she express the sense of humour of her age, so lifelike were the personified portraits she drew… that one was inclined to take her gifts for granted, and to mistake for photography what, in fact, amounted to genuine, if modest, genius.”
How did Delafield’s connection with Punch begin? The illustrator of the first book version of Diary of a Provincial Lady was Arthur Watts, at the time one of Punch’s most distinctive cartoonists, but Watts was an old friend – his wife Marjorie was the daughter of Catherine Amy Dawson Scott (Mrs Sappho), a mentor of Delafield’s since 1917. Marjorie recalled Delafield as “the one writer friend of Sappho’s whom we all liked and we thought her one of the most delightful, sympathetic and beautiful young women we had ever met – tall and dark and stately.” Dawson Scott was in the habit of writing encouraging letters to young authors whose work she particularly liked, and inviting them to tea. After the publication of her novel Zella Sees Herself, Delafield was the recipient of not only a warm review from Dawson Scott in Bookman, but an invitation to tea. Delafield accepted, and ‘Mrs Sappho’ remained a friend. The same year that Dawson Scott and Delafield met, ‘Mrs Sappho’ started the To-Morrow Club, aimed at bringing up-and-coming writers together with established authors and other important players in the industry, like literary agents and publishers. The most long-lasting of Dawson Scott’s efforts, however, was the PEN Club, still active today in supporting writers worldwide. Delafield was a member of both.
It is much more likely that Punch began publishing Delafield’s contributions through her connection with its advertising manager, Scots-born Marion Jean Lyon. The first woman advertising manager of a national magazine, Lyon began working at Punch in 1910. Highly regarded and influential in the world of periodical publishing, she was a founder and first president of the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL) in 1923. Like Delafield, Lyon was also a director of the feminist periodical Time and Tide. The redoubtable proprietor of Time and Tide, Margaret Mackworth (Lady Rhondda), a formidable businesswoman herself, had encountered Lyon at various initiatives to promote the role of women in business in the early 1920s, thought highly of her abilities, and headhunted her for her magazine’s board. By August 1926 Marion Jean Lyon was a director of Time and Tide, in the company of such authors as Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby, and, from 1927, E M Delafield herself, already a Time and Tide staff writer and a popular contributor. Apart from holding regular meetings, Lady Rhondda famously invited board members to dine at her Chelsea flat (not to mention accompany her on occasional weekends at her country house in Kent and summer jaunts to Agay, a seaside resort in the South of France). Not only that, until 1929 Time and Tide’s offices were at 88 Fleet Street, just a short walk from Punch at 10 Bouverie Street. There is little doubt that Delafield and Lyon would have met on many occasions.
In private life Lyon had married the veteran Punch illustrator Leonard Raven-Hill (after the death of his first wife) in 1923, and often went by her married surname and second given name, Jean. So in 1933, the year that Delafield began regularly contributing to Punch, we find the author ‘affectionately’ dedicating her book General Impressions to Marion Jean Lyon as Jean Raven-Hill. Scarcely an issue of Punch appeared for the next ten years without a contribution from Delafield, who would send in several pieces at once for its editor, E V Knox, to consider.
Delafield’s huge body of work for Punch has almost never been reprinted – though the pieces certainly deserve it. Perhaps the best and funniest sketches (over two hundred in number) are those which can be considered an alternative, non-diary-form version of Provincial Lady, taking place (apart from occasional forays to London) in the village of Little-Fiddle-on-the-Green. Through Delafield’s witty eye, we see the village and its assorted residents as it passes from peace (with alarming noises off) into war. The writer’s long-suffering husband Charles replaces Robert of Provincial Lady fame, while Rose becomes Laura, a cover for Delafield’s friend Lorna Lewis. A host of other strong characters also come to life in the stories, of whom the most unforgettable (and frankly, terrifying, in the mode of Trollope’s Mrs Proudie) must be Miss Littlemug and Mrs Battlegate, the wife of General Battlegate (retired) who feature in the stories reproduced here.--Helen Walasek
Three Little Fiddle-on-the-Green Sketches by E M Delafield
When Silence Reigned
Laura and Mrs. Battlegate have never, in the opinion of Little Fiddle-on-the-Green, quite brought out the best in one another. And since Laura’s return from London, and Mrs. Battlegate’s announcement that she has joined Britain’s Silent Column, they may almost be said to have brought out the worst. As Laura remarked — and it seems all too probable that the mot travelled as far as the Battlegate drawing-room — joining the Silent Column seemed to have rendered Mrs. Battlegate more eloquent than ever before. It also made it very difficult for Laura to tell her story about the shop in the Strand that was blazing with light at eleven o’clock at night. “The whole front window,” said Laura. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” Mrs. Battlegate, in a voice if anything louder and graver than usual, stopped her at once. “Not even before the war?” she said. Laura, after quite a pause of what was probably suspended animation, replied that before the war one wouldn’t have noticed it. “Exactly,” replied Mrs. Battlegate, and she put so much meaning into the word that Cousin Florence, always — as she says herself — very easily affected by atmosphere, looked at Laura and said “Really, dear!” in a reproachful way. Mrs. Battlegate then repeated her announcement about having joined Britain’s Silent Column and made a speech that lasted for some little while. “Part of my duty is to prevent others from talking unwisely,” she explained (and Miss Plum and Miss Dodge were not, it afterwards turned out, the only people across whose minds flashed the thought that this must be the part of her duty that undoubtedly came most readily to Mrs. B.). “Rumours lead only to confusion and to the giving away of valuable information to the enemy.” She would undoubtedly have said more than this but Laura interrupted her. “This was not a rumour. I saw it myself. It was in the Strand —” “Somewhere in London, dear.” “It was in a well-known London thoroughfare beginning with S and not a hundred miles from Charing Cross. And it was nearly midnight. And there was this one window, blazing with light.” Uncle Egbert, to whose habitoflistening with closed eyes one is well accustomed, inquired where the police were. “They were --” said Laura, and was again checked by the representative of Britain’s Silent Column. “Do not pass on information as tothe movements, positions, localities, or general activities of any of the Forces. I’m sorry, dear,” said Mrs. Battlegate, in whom sorrow seemed to take rather a forbidding form, “but what you are saying had better be left unsaid.” Laura replied that it was being left unsaid. Miss Pin, who has had a good deal of practical experience in connection with human nature at its most unmanageable owing to being secretary to an author, stepped into the breach. “Was there anything in the shop-window besides the blaze of light? Whatever it was,” she added rapidly, evidently forestalling Mrs. Battlegate, “can’t possibly be an official secret, if it was in the middle of the Str — of a public street.” “Boots and shoes,” said Laura sulkily. “But the point is that the light had been left on and the police were trying to get in and put it out.” Mrs. Battlegate, with the utmost resolution, turned to her hostess — Cousin Florence. “A pencil and a piece of paper, if you please. A very old envelope will do.” Cousin Florence answered rather wildly that she didn’t think she had a very old one. Certainly nothing much earlier than nineteen-twenty, because she’d had a small fire in the house that year, and many valuable papers and letters of great sentimental value had unhappily been destroyed. “One of the most effective methods of dealing with rumours is to write them down,” said Mrs. Battlegate, deliberately side-tracking the whole question of the old envelopes and taking up a copy of the Parish Magazine instead. “Another way is to make use of the cross question method.” “Don’t let’s do that,” said Charles. “It’s un-English. I mean, all this third degree stuff …” Mrs. Battlegate said she hadn’t had anything of that sort in mind, but she just wanted to trace Laura’s story to its source, as this was as good a way as any of putting an end to subversive rumours. Laura said afterwards that Mrs. Battlegate’s use of the word “subversive” annoyed her as much as anything, because she felt practically certain that Mrs. Battlegate didn’t really understand it any better than she did herself. But there can be no doubt that Mrs. Battlegate won the day, because Laura was quite unable to finish her story (which ended up with a very dramatic account of the police breaking in the door with a crowbar and — naturally — putting out the light) until after Mrs. Battlegate had gone home.
What This War is Doing
Aunt Emma, from Little Fiddle-on-the-Green, wrote to Laura in London and said that it was more than kind of dear Laura to have sent her a book-token for her birthday. She looked forward to choosing her book whenever Uncle Egbert had enough petrol to drive in to Fiddle Magna. Then she wrote a good deal about other things, approving the Greeks and saying that the Italians she well remembered at Sta. Margherita in 1903 had been quite unlike this present lot, and that Lord Halifax was the very man she had herself chosen, in her own mind, for America, and that she had heard on good authority that Mussolini was not at all pleased with the way things were going. The last page of the letter was concerned with the evacuees in the village, the evacuees in Aunt Emma’s own house, the evacuees at her sister’s house in Northumberland, and the first lot of evacuees, 'way, 'way back in 1939, long since gone to Wales. Across the top of the front pageAunt Emma made a rather illegible reference to some bomb or other. The postscript that one has quite come to look for in any letter of Aunt Emma’s was this time running horizontally along the side of the last page but two. “PS. — Do tell me of a book to choose. One that I shall like.” Laura, whose whole idea had been that Aunt Emma should do this part of the job herself, said that it would be difficult enough to find any book for Aunt Emma, and practically impossible when it came to one that she’d like. However, there were three rather thin Spring Publishing Season Catalogues in the paper-salvage bag, and these Laura recovered; and a more utterly discouraging lot, she said, she’d never met, because the publishing trade was simply not catering for people of Aunt Emma’s kind. One just knew she wouldn’t want Abominable Europeans or Capital: Whence and How? nor even Civilization Crumbles. What Aunt Emma needed was a novel with a love interest but no sex, a happy ending and yet a touch of realism, and, above all, nice people. As Laura said, Aunt Emma might just as well have asked for Hitler’s head on a charger at once. One couldn’t offer her a novel that the publishers themselves described as a bitter and outspoken indictment of the whole social system, or one that gave a poignant and entirely realistic description of the last Great Plague and a forecast of the next one that might shortly be expected to break out here. And she wouldn’t really care about the life-story of a sensitive, intelligent, artistic, idealistic, communistic boy and his slow but inevitable progress to the gallows through eight hundred and forty-seven pages of small print. Then what, Laura asked herself, about poetry? Not that Aunt Emma liked poetry, although apt to quote “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day” almost every time she does the black-out. But the poetry was very European too, and mostly about Capitalism (bad) and Communism (good), and Aunt Emma’s views are known to be in direct opposition to this. Besides, she would — Laura felt certain — disapprove of poetry that had no capital letters and no rhymes, but that had got words — especially some of them. Books on gardening, which would have been a safe choice before the war, now contained nothing about rare Alpine rock-plants or how to make a heath-garden in the shrubbery, but dwelt on potatoes and onions and the tremendous value of the sugar-content in beetroot. And Laura said that Aunt Emma could learn all about that practically every time she turned the wireless on, or else read about it in the Woman’s Page of any newspaper. Time, therefore, passed — the Blitzkrieg came and went, and came again, and the Italians just went — and still Laura hadn’t told Aunt Emma what book to choose. Then she got another letter from Aunt Emma, saying that she was sending no Christmas presents this year, but was enclosing a little cheque, and the evacuees were well, and so were the ones at Aunt Emma’s sister’s house in Northumberland, and the ones in the village; and the ones in Wales were reported to be well too. PS. — Laura would like to know that Aunt Emma had got a most interesting book with the book-token so kindly sent her for her birthday. It was called Hitler’s Cauldron and was all about the decay of humanity. And Laura said it simply shows how this war isn’t going to leave any of us where it found us. Not even Aunt Emma.
“Dear, there is a cleavage in the parish. Don’t attempt to deny it.” “Very well, Miss Littlemug, I won’t. Besides, I’ve always thought there were several cleavages. In a small way, you know.” “Then, dear, you were wrong. Don’t for a moment think I’m contradicting you, but you know my way — frank to a fault. And frank with you I must be. If there have been any little differences between us in the past, they no longer exist. They have been forgotten in this really vital issue. To be, as Shakespeare would have said, or not to be.” “To be or not to be what?” “Invaded, dear. General and Mrs. Battlegate — and, after all, both have military experience, and many’s the time I’ve wondered which of them really commanded the regiment in the old days — your Aunt Emma and Uncle Egbert, Miss Plum and one Miss Dodge — the elder and wiser of the two — and myself are all well aware that Hitlermeans to invade. Don’t ask me exactly when, dear.” “Very well, Miss Littlemug.” “On the other hand, Canon Pramm, Mr. and Mrs. Pledge, old Lady Flagge and Miss Pin hold the completely mistaken and positively dangerous theory: no invasion. Naturally, they have a perfect right to their own opinions and I hope I’m as broadminded as it’s possible to be. All I say is that they’re wrong — utterly wrong.” “You haven’t told me what the second Miss Dodge thinks.” “She hedges, dear, simply hedges. She says that he may invade, or again he may not — which takes us nowhere at all. Mr. Pancatto only says that he isn’t interested, and poor Miss Flagge I simply haven’t counted.” “Naturally.” “So there, as I told you, is this cleavage. But as I said at the meeting last week, one thing is certain. We’ve all got to prepare for the invasion, whether we really expect it, or are so idiotic as not to expect it. (I think, dear, that the Pledges would have shown a most unsporting spirit if they’d actually left the room, as they seemed to wish to do — but luckily they were well wedged into the middle of a bench.) ‘And do you,’ I said, ‘all realize what we may be called upon to do?’” “Shoot at sight?” “No, dear, that will be the Home Guards’ privilege, and I may say that it’s an aspect of the whole thing that makes me more uneasy than almost anything else. But that isn’t what I mean at all. Do you know what I mean by the Russians, dear?” “I think so. The people who live in Russia.” “Exactly. Now are we, or are we not, prepared to follow their example?” “Not in every way, Miss Littlemug.” “Dear, I’m not asking you to do it in every way. All I want to know, as I said at the meeting, is whether each one of us is ready to put a match to his or her own house.” “1 don’t think we can, Miss Littlemug. Matches are almost impossible to get now.” “Dear, I must ask you not to cavil. The principle remains the same. If no matches, high explosives. But somehow we must carry out the scorched-earth policy. And all I wished to know is whether we’re all ready to do it in a cheerful spirit. As I said to your Cousin Florence — who looked miserably depressed, I can’t think why: ‘What, Florence, have you to complain about? Thatch burns almost too easily, if anything, and your cottage looks to me, although so picturesque, thoroughly rickety, and if one chimney goes, it’s my belief that all the rest will follow in a moment. Now with Lady Flagge, and all that old Elizabethan brick, and the moat and everything, I do see that it’s going to be far harder.’” “Did old Lady Flagge see it too?” “I didn’t care for the line she took at all, dear. She simply said that Hitler would have to walk into her drawing-room over her dead body, but that personally she felt convinced he’d try the north coast of Scotland. Simply wishful thinking.” “What did the others say?” “Well, dear, I was a little disappointed. I can’t say there was any enthusiasm, which perhaps one can understand, but they all seemed to me sounconstructive. Miss Dodge and Miss Plum said they couldn’t burn down the house till they’d got everything out of it — which would take a long time, and where were they to put it all? -- and Miss Pin went on saying that, after all, she was only Mr. Pancatto’s secretary and would lose her job if she set fire to the Manor, especially with all his papers inside it.” “And what, Miss Littlemug, shall you do yourself?” “Well, dear, I thought I’d help the others, as they seem so very uncertain. Just run here and there, helping on this scorched-earth policy, and if at the end of the day it’s still necessary,I shall destroy the Bungalow with my own hands. But as I said at the meeting, I think we’d better keep it to the last.”