‘I guess what you didn’t understand, you could make up’: Elizabeth Delafield in the Soviet Union — Travel, Travel Writing, Truth-Telling

Nick Hall

MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities (2024), pp. 15-24, doi:10.59860/wph.a383561

 Open access under:
CC BY 4.0
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A contribution to: Voyages

Edited by Emily Di Dodo and Rachel Hayes

MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities 18

Modern Humanities Research Association


Abstract.  The British novelist E M Delafield (1890–1943) visited the Soviet Union in 1936. She published her account of the trip as Straw without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (Macmillan, 1937). Many thousands of foreigners went to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to find ‘truth’ there, and published hundreds of accounts of their visits. Delafield’s book is one of these works — and also one that rewards closer study. The title of her account was self-deprecating. It contrasted Delafield’s offering of the ‘chaff’ of trite experience as against bricks formed of ‘solid’, empirically-mined facts that other travel accounts purported to offer. Yet this text brings us not only a depiction of a journey, but also the chance to interrogate the role of a novelist in truth-telling. Delafield was most famous for her semi-autobiographical novel, Diary of a Provincial Lady, and Straw without Bricks was published as The Provincial Lady in Russia in the United States. Delafield’s self-construction, and the strategy of her publisher, merged with a discourse where questions of sincerity and truth were wide-reaching and important — both to Soviet people, and to their foreign guests. This paper explores Delafield’s position in this discourse. It explores how Delafield’s concern with the imaginative capacity inherent to literature both helped her navigate the Soviet world, and relate elements of it that other accounts often did not show. Thus, we can consider a novelist’s exploration of the lived experience of the ‘Other’, and reflect on the complexity her work represents.

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