The War Workers is the story of a group of women working in the Midland Supply Depot during WWI. The Depot is run by Charmian Vivian, an upper class young woman of about 30 who finds it impossible to delegate the smallest task & runs the Depot on a mixture of resigned martyrdom & the hero worship she receives from her staff. Char’s parents, Lady Joanna & Sir Piers Vivian live at Plessing, a country house about an hour from the Depot in Questerham. Char & her mother have never been close. Lady Vivian devotes all her energy & time to her much-older husband. She has a very realistic idea of her daughter’s nature & has an ironic, sometimes exasperated way of trying to burst Char’s bubble of self-importance. When Sir Piers has a stroke, Char reluctantly goes home for a time but she insists on having a secretary bring work out to her every day as no one else could possibly be left in complete charge,
At Plessing only the faithful Miss Bruce gave her work the consideration to which she had become accustomed at the office. She was finding Plessing almost intolerable. There were no interviews, the telephone bell was not allowed to ring, no one urged her not to neglect the substabtial meals which were served for her with the greatest regularity, and Miss Jones daily assured her, with perfect placidity, that the whole work at the office was progressing with complete success without her… “I can’t desert my post at a time like this. Everybody must see that unless I had any extremely definite call elsewhere, my place is at the Depot. The work is suffering horribly from this piecemeal fashion of doing things.”
After a few weeks, Char goes back to work, living in the Hostel alongside her staff, because her mother refuses to have her comings & goings disturb her father. Char is a very unsympathetic character but I had to feel sorry for her when she arrives at the Hostel & has to unpack for herself, eat the cold, basic food that her staff live on & listen to the water gurgling in the pipes all night as her room is next to the bathroom. Even this experience doesn’t soften her attitude to anyone she believes isn’t giving everything to the work in hand.
Char’s secretary, Miss Delmege, is one of the worshippers. She takes on the attributes of one who knows Miss Vivian intimately, understands all the worries of her position & takes it on herself to worry over Miss Vivian’s missed meals & dedication to her work at the expense of her own health. E M Delafield writes so well about the strains of a group of women living together, working & living with the same people day after day. The squabbles & irritations, the friendships & the quarrels that are inevitable with any group of people of different backgrounds thrown together in wartime,
Grace hung up her coat and hat, and hastily made room on the already overcrowded peg for Miss Marsh’s belongings, as she heard Miss Delmege say gently “Excuse me,” and deliberately appropriate to her own use the peg selected by her neighbour.
“Did you see that?” demanded Miss Marsh excitedly. “Isn’t that Delmege all over? After this, Gracie, I shall simply not speak to her till she apologizes. Simply ignore her. Believe me, dear, it’s the only way. I shall behave as though Delmege didn’t exist.”
This threat was hardly carried out to the letter. No one could have failed to see a poignant consciousness of Miss Delmege’s existence in the elaborate blindness and deafness which assailed Miss Marsh when within her neighbourhood.
A newcomer to the Depot, Grace Jones, soon realises that Miss Vivian’s martyred sighings hide a lot of inefficiency & unnecessary work. As she says, would Miss Vivian work so hard on a desert island where there was no one to see her? Grace is the daughter of a clergyman, kind, thoughtful, popular with her co-workers & soon becomes friends with Lady Vivian through her daily visits to Plessing during Sir Piers’s illness.
Gradually the war workers’ attitude to Miss Vivian undergoes a change as they begin to see her less as an idol to be worshipped & more as a woman who uses devotion to duty as an excuse for selfishness & unkindness. Miss Vivian’s determination to be in charge of everything within her area causes some clashes with the hospital authorities, including her own family doctor, Dr Prince, who takes great delight in telling Char a few home truths,
It’s not the work you want to get back to, young lady; 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 and everything connected with it some twenty years or so before you came into the world… you’re playing as heartless a trick as any 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 than themselves, and pretending to yourself that it’s the work you’re after, when it’s just because you want to get somewhere where you’ll be in the limelight all the time.
One of the funniest characters is Mrs Lesbia Willoughby, an old school friend of Lady Vivian’s who arrives on the scene with her complaisant, almost totally silent, husband & revoltingly spoilt Pekingese & proceeds to organise a Canteen for servicemen. Mrs Willoughby is gushing, insensitive & totally convinced that every young soldier she meets is just longing to pour his heart out to her. She meets her match in Char who insists on running the Canteen her way but Mrs Willoughby interferes as much as she possibly can,
They say the men don’t like talking about it; but I’ve had, I suppose, more experience than any woman in London, what with one thing and another, and they always talk to me. The dear fellows in the hospital I visit simply yarn by the hour – they love it – and it’s too enthralling for words. They’re so sweetly quaint. One dear fellow always talked about a place he called Wipers, and it ws simply ages before I realized that he meant Ypres! Wasn’t that too priceless?
Is Mrs Willoughby an early version of the insufferable Lady Boxe of Provincial Lady fame? I loved The War Workers, it was compulsive reading. I was able to read this wonderful book on my e-reader thanks to Girlebooks, my favourite source for free e-books.