Today I'm kicking off the blog tour for one of two new titles in the British Library's Women Writers series. Tension is one of E.M Delafield's earlier novels, and after reading and enjoying The Diary of a Provincial Lady last year I was really excited to be asked to be part of the blog tour. Find the rest of the participants here.
If you've not heard me rave about this series before, let me just take a minute to say again how much I love it. Every book in the series so far is like a perfectly captured little moment in time, and there is such a range of writers included.
"Miss Pauline Marchrose arrives at the Commercial and Technical College of South-West England as the new Lady Superintendent. But Lady Edna Rossiter, the wife of the college director, Sir Julian, recognises her name as the woman who broke off an engagement with her cousin. She starts a whispering campaign against Miss Marchrose that casts doubt on her character and undermines her position at the college, which is further fuelled by Miss Marchrose's growing attachment to Sir Julian's agent, Mark Easter, who is married. Tension examines reputation and the persistence of gossip in relation to a woman's choice of work and domestic arrangements with a light touch of humour. The two main female characters represent the different roles of women in public life. Lady Rossiter uses her social position to influence college matters, while Miss Marchrose is a professional woman who brings qualifications and experience to her role."
Tension is a story with a very apt title, as the feeling of tension in the atmosphere is carried strongly throughout the novel, which is told from the perspectives of Sir Julian and Lady Rossiter. I loved the duality of this, and the way that Sir Julian's very reasonable, hands-off-none-of-my-business approach directly contradicts his wife.
Edna Rossiter is the accelerator for the story, though, and it's been a long time (I actually can't remember the last time) since I read a character of her type so realistically drawn. It's not often that I absolutely cannot stand a fictional character, because generally there is something redeeming about them to like or at least to understand, but I have to say that I really, strongly disliked Lady Rossiter. She is a well-off woman who believes her position in life to be far superior to everyone around her, but sees herself as the generous benefactor and sometimes saviour of the 'poor working' people around her. She is obsessed with this image of herself, and is constantly sticking her nose into the business of the college where she tramples all over the opinions of people who actually are involved in the day to day running of the place. She also has taken on the role of protector of Mark Easter and his children, and seems to see it as her job to make sure he doesn't make any questionable decisions, or have any experiences she considers to be unsuitable. This only works because Mark himself is an incredibly laid back man, and does his best to avoid conflict with everyone. Mostly his perspective comes through conversations with other characters, and we don't ever get to hear what his real feelings are about the situation at any point, despite him being used as an excuse for almost all of Lady Rossiter's gossiping and generally 'do-goodery'.
The strength of Tension is in its exploration of the different ways in which events and relationships can be viewed depending on whose side of the story you are hearing. The novel doesn't contain a huge amount in the way of action, but is absolutely packed with emotions, misunderstandings (both unconscious and deliberate), and the huge differences in understanding caused by those who take the time to listen to people (Sir Julian) and those who don't (Lady Rossiter). The interpersonal aspects of the story are what give it its charm, and what made it an intriguing story of how gossip and personal motivations can combine to affect the trajectory of people's lives and sometimes cause real harm.
The tension is from time to time alleviated by the presence of Mark's children, Ruthie and Ambrose. They are without a mother for reasons which are explained fairly early on in the book, and are vaguely managed by Sarah, the housekeeper, but Ruthie spends most of her time running wild, getting stuck up trees, performing for any available adult, and generally asking awkward questions, and Ambrose, who is affectionately known by his sister as Peekaboo, generally responds to everything anyone asks him by saying 'Eh?', which is sometimes just the relief a tense situation needs.
I very much enjoyed reading Tension, in spite of my (shall I just say it?) hatred of Lady Rossiter. Sir Julian, who she is incredibly dismissive of, is the voice of reason in the story, and through his careful conversations with some of the central characters, including the much talked about Lady Superintendent, Miss Marchrose, we get to see much more of what is really going on and the effects of Lady Rossiter's constant 'concerns' on not just everyone around her, but also on her marriage. If you're looking for an interesting and enjoyable story with engaging characters you should definitely pick up Tension, which you can order from the British Library directly here.