Written in 1920, Tension is set in the Commercial and Technical College for the South-West of England and about the appointment of a new Lady Superintendent, Miss Marchrose. Mark Easter whose wife is in a ‘home for inebriates’ , also works at the college and lives with his two unruly children in a villa near Sir Julian, the chairman of the college and his wife Lady Edna Rossiter. Mark is a handsome, sociable, easy going sort and quickly befriends Miss Marchrose, but Lady Rossiter is sure that this is the same Miss Marchrose that some years ago, jilted her invalided cousin.
Mark Easter’s children are wonderfully real. Squabbling, crying and always sticky they interrupt and disturb without a thought and the book opens with the exasperation of Sir and Lady Rossiter as they try to manage the two urchins who burst in on their breakfast to declare that their aunt has written a book: ‘Why Ben! A Story of the Sexes.’ The scene is fun, farcical and full of humour but from this light beginning the tension grows until I wasn’t squirming (as the preface said I might) but tied in a tight knot of outrage at the gossip and bullying, incredulous to what was being said and aghast at what wasn’t.
Lady Rossiter believes she’s a creature of nature, in touch with her feelings and those of the dear little people that work for a living at the college, living by the maxim ‘is it kind, is it wise, is it true?’ She is utterly appalling. When Aunt Iris Easter arrives on the scene fresh from the publication of her book, she is shocking and modern in her views on free love, but happily arranging her very traditional wedding. When her fiancee asks her about her next book, which will be written with the maturity of a women with ‘deeper experience’ Iris looks
‘as though she were undecided whether to blush or to look extremely modern and detached’
I expect she blushed, because like Lady Rossiter tradition is everything. And that’s the problem with Miss Marchrose, she really is a modern, and prepared to upset the apple cart.
Edna Rossiter has a keen sense of proprietary over the college, ‘her little family’ , and in particular kind, jovial Mark who she calls by his christian name, touching his arm in conversation. That Miss Marchrose, who is popular with the staff and works successfully for her living might be in a position to have an affair with Mark offends her to her core. This is a different approach to relationships and it undermines her belief that reputation and society are everything. And she’s incredibly jealous, she always thought Mark was hers – she can even admire his chivalry while Miss Marchrose is ‘that unfortunate courtesan’ . It takes Sir Rossiter to point out that it takes two to have an affair!
I hadn’t read anything by Delafield before this and I’m so glad to have finally made the discovery. I completely believed in her characters and while the humour was always present (and I laughed a lot!) it didn’t mask the cruelty of office gossip and slander. This was also my first read from the British Library Women Writers series, which I’ve been wanting to read for ages and it didn’t disappoint. Having some factual notes on the 1920″s and the literary notes from Simon Thomas in the afterword added to my understanding of the era and made it easier to see Tension as a novel of its time.