World War. A British headquarters. A commander pores over a deskful of papers whilst their second-in-command fusses around them, irritably addressed as “Darling”. Most people who’ve been watching TV in the last couple of decades could probably put a name to the show and the characters.
In fact, this isn’t a scene from Blackadder, but a much earlier fictional depiction of British wartime: it’s from E.M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady in Wartime. Delafield’s telegraphic style, and her depiction of an upper-middle-class woman’s hassles and insecurities made the largely autobiographical The Diary of a Provincial Lady a success in the 1930s. (Anyone familiar with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels will find a lot of material in the Provincial Lady which rings a bell.) But in 1940 she published another instalment in the series, at the request of the government, which presents the same character trying (and mostly failing) to make a suitable contribution to the war effort during the early years of the Second World War. Having managed to volunteer in the canteen of a Women’s Volunteer Service post underneath a hotel, she is finally admitted to the office of the woman who runs the post:
October 1st. Am at last introduced by Serena Fiddlededee to underworld Commandant. She is dark, rather good-looking young woman wearing outsize in slacks and leather jacket, using immensely long cigarette-holder, and writing at wooden trestle-table piled with papers…
Have seldom met more unendearing personality.
Bell is once more banged – am prepared to wager it will be broken before week is out at this rate. It is this time answered by smart-looking person in blue trousers and singlet and admirable make-up. Looks about twenty-five, but has prematurely grey hair, and am conscious that this gives me distinct satisfaction.
(Not very commendable reaction)
Am overcome with astonishment when she enquires of Commandant in brusque, official tones: Isn’t time it you had some lunch, darling?
Commandant for the first time raises her eyes and answers, No, darling, she can’t possibly bother with lunch, but she wants a staff car instantly, to go out to Wimbledon for her. It’s urgent.
Serena looks hopeful but remains modestly silent while Commandant and Darling rustle through quantities of lists and swear vigorously, saying that it’s not a most extraordinary thing, the Time-Sheers ought to be always available at a second’s notice and they never are.
As with so many other “commonplace” posts, this isn’t a worked-out analysis, I was just very surprised to find what looks very like a sketch for one of the central characters in Blackadder Goes Forth. The fussing Captain Darling at General Melchett’s headquarters (played by Tim McInerney, in a role which produced other weird echoes when he took the part of Iago years later in an Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe) is, of course, addressed by his commander as “Darling”, without his rank attached. It’s one of the running jokes of the show, based on the fact that a) it’s funny because a formal way of addressing someone sounds like a very informal ay of addressing someone and b) hur hur it sounds a bit gay, doesn’t it.
In Delafield the joke starts from the other end, as “Commandant” and “Darling” are actually in some sort of non-specified but intense emotional relationship, and only the fact of their being officers in the same service makes their snappish endearments sound like their formal titles. Just as Serena becomes “Serena Fiddlededee” in the Provincial Lady’s head because no-one seems to know her surname, and her son’s tutor becomes “Casabianca” in an earlier novel because of his refusal to abandon his post sitting on a suitcase (it’s a Felicia Hemans poem, I had to look it up), the two women become “Commandant” (surely not her real rank) and “Darling”. It’s a rather more interesting joke in Delafield, as well as being another addition to the list of Things E.M. Delafield Probably Did First.
She must, says, Darling, absolutely must have something. She has been here since nine o’clock and during that time what has she had? One cup of coffee and a tomato. It isn’t enough on which to do a heavy day’s work.
Commandant – writing again resumed and eyes again on paper – asserts that it’s all she wants. She hasn’t time for more. Does Darling realize that there’s a war on and not a minute to spare?
Yes, argues Darling, but she could eat something without leaving her desk for a second. Will she try some soup?