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Women writing: EM Delafield, Russia and Writing Retreats by Dr Geraldine Perriam

As someone whose research often centres on women writers, I am interested in the authorial space and the conflicts of domestic life for women who write.  During Covid-19 restrictions, those conflicts have been highlighted by the closure of schools, universities and workplaces and the restricted access to a more public life.  The Women’s History Network Writing Retreats have been a good opportunity to do two things: to write relatively free of distraction and to connect with other women writing at the same time.  As a geographer, I am fascinated by the spatiality of our weekly sessions, led by the supportive and interested Professor Maggie Andrews.

After a short time of socialising on Zoom, we write silently, but in the room is the presence of those who have joined the retreat, their intent faces up on the screen as they/I write.  It’s silent communal writing with a short break where we share what we are doing before going back to work on our texts.  In the room with me are 20 or so women, working while I work, writing while I write.  Are we keeping each other disciplined?  Probably, but the greater benefit is writing in community, sharing a writing space.  Each week I look forward to that Friday session and move everything to be there, often dashing out to do the weekly shop before we start.  I could and sometimes do, write more often but the space wouldn’t be the same without that community.

My writing, during some of these sessions has had a focus on the authorial spaces of interwar women writers, so it’s a neat twist to be in a designated writing space myself while writing about those earlier women authors, especially during lockdown.  Most recently I’ve been working on a long-deferred project that was the subject of a research paper I gave at the WHN conference in Birmingham in 2017:  E M Delafield’s account of living and working in a commune in newly Soviet Russia in the 1930s.  During that session, we heard from Dr Jane McDermid who has written extensively about women writers and journalists such as Naomi Mitchison travelling in Russia.  Their experience, often closely guided, was very different from that of EM Delafield.  She was given permission to live in the ‘Seattle Commune’ and allowed freedom to explore.  She worked in the bakery, ate basic rations and shared primitive bathroom facilities.  Her health was excellent until a toothache obliged her to leave and seek dental treatment.  Her view of communal living, Soviet-style, in the Seattle Commune was that it had a “deadening effect…on individual development, both emotional and intellectual” [60].*

It was not the author’s first experience of adult communal living.  She had earlier been a postulant in a convent in Belgium.  When she found that the Mother Superior had torn up an innocuous letter that she had written to her sister and that she had not been permitted to write another, E M Delafield requested to leave the convent.  This proved to be a protracted and distressing experience.  She was cross-examined by a priest and sent to another convent as a secular border before she was ‘allowed’ to leave.  She had lost three stone in weight. Some of this experience was drawn upon for her novel Consequences, published in 1919.

EM Delafield’s experience of living and working in the commune and her travels elsewhere in Russia were written up as Straw Without Bricks, published in 1937 to good reviews.  The book is less well-known now, perhaps because the idea of the ‘Provincial Lady’ writing about Russia was taken less seriously and yet, between the self-deprecating and amusing passages, there is a serious commentary, the tone rather similar to Delafield’s earlier novels, such as Consequences.

Her brief, from her American publisher, Cass Canfield, was to live on a collective farm for six months and to “write a funny book about it” [1] . She negotiated a shortened time away so that she could be back for her children’s school holidays. The book is dedicated to them.  EM Delafield was candid about her motives for undertaking the work.  As well as wanting to experience life on the commune, she admitted that “the usual economic considerations influenced me, just as they influence everybody, except perhaps saints and geniuses”[4]

In Russia, the authorial space for EM Delafield was secretive.  She feared that her manuscript would be confiscated.  On embarking the ship bound for London, suffering dreadfully from diarrhoea and a high fever, perspiring profusely, the author had her manuscript strapped to her back underneath her clothes.  When she arrived in her cabin, she checked that all was well with the ms.  Lying on her bed, she reflected, “I wish I had spoken my mind, just once” [262].

Fortunately, the WHN writing retreats, led so admirably by Professor Maggie Andrews, are less daunting and our writing spaces each Friday and the discussion during breaks are productive and encouraging. My productivity levels have greatly improved and I feel inspired and supported by this online community.

*All quotes are taken from: Straw Without Bricks, EM Delafield, Macmillan and Co., London, 1937

Geraldine Perriam is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow.  Her research interests are: the professional lives of women writers of the interwar years; data analysis of women and work in the 21st Century; fictional and geographical therapeutic landscapes and sites of healing. She has also led creative writing and writing skills workshops for students.