In 1924, six years before she would become a household name with her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M Delafield penned Messalina of the Suburbs, a fictionalised take on one of the most notorious murder trials of interwar Britain. In December 1922, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were convicted of the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. They were both hanged, despite the fact that it was Bywaters who stabbed Percy Thompson, and Edith claimed not to have any knowledge that he would do this. At the time, some newspapers launched a campaign to have Bywaters’ sentence commuted or quashed; as historian Lucy Bland notes drily: ‘No public steps were taken at the time on behalf of Edith.’ More recently, the case has been re-assessed in favour of Edith’s innocence; there is even a dedicated website that argues her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
In Messalina of the Suburbs book, Delafield imagines one version of events that could have led to Edith (Elsie in the book) ending up in an unhappy marriage, with a lover who kills her husband. Against the prevailing attitude of the time, Delafield is surprisingly sympathetic to Elsie, without shying away from her more questionable decisions.
The book starts with Elsie as a teenager, living with her sister in the boarding house run by their mother. Elsie is already aware that men find her attractive; in the book’s opening she agrees to go to the cinema with an (older) male lodger, and does not protest when he kisses her. Delafield describes going to the cinema as a sensual experience for Elsie, foregrounding her sexuality:
To-night, as she entered the hot, dark, enervating atmosphere of the cinema theatre, she thrilled in response to the contrast with the street outside. When she heard the loud, emphasised rhythm of a waltz coming from the piano beneath the screen, little shivers of joy ran through her.
After this escapade with the lodger, Elsie ends up working as a live-in help with a doctor and his wife. Before long, the doctor makes advances to her, which culminates in the pair having sex several times. Needless to say, even describing sexual relations between a married man and a younger woman was daring on the part of Delafield. But the scenes also make clear that the doctor is using Elsie for his gratification, with little regard for her well-being. When the doctor’s wife starts to realise what is going on, it’s Elsie who has to pack her bags.
Her next job is as a clerk in the office of Mr Williams, a lawyer. Initially, Elsie thinks the job will be very boring, but she cheers herself up by dressing up for her first day of work:
Elsie spent the week-end in cutting out and making for herself a blue crepe blouse, which she intended to wear on Monday morning. She also made a pair of black alpaca sleeves, with elastic at the wrist and at the elbow, to be drawn on over the blouse while she was working. She put the sleeves, her shorthand pad and pencil, a powder-puff, mirror, pocket-comb, and a paper-covered novel in a small attaché case on Monday morning, pulled on the rakish black velvet tam-o’-shanter, and went off to Mr. Williams’ office.
This quote captures how Delafield consistently presents Elsie as a slightly childish innocent. Although she is aware of her effect on men, and enjoys physical relations with them, she is hardly a calculating vamp.
At the law office, Williams, too, starts flirting with Elsie, and suggests that she go with him on a weekend to the seaside. At this point, Elsie’s friend Irene advises her that she should hold out, as that will persuade Williams to marry her. Marriage represents safety and stability, and both the doctor and Williams indicate to Elsie that her sexual experience lowers her ‘value’. Elsie manages to persuade Williams to marry her by holding off all his sexual advances. Williams tells her that he respects her propriety – but as soon as they get married he makes it clear that she is now his property and he gets to decide what she does, when, and with whom.
Trapped in this stifling marriage with a man she does not find attractive, Elsie eventually meets ‘Morrison’, a friend of her sister’s. From this point, Messalina of the Suburbs largely follows the real-life narrative of Thompson and Bywaters, including the romantic letters they wrote (she destroyed his letters, he didn’t destroy hers – something that weighed heavily against her during the trial) and the fateful events of the final evening. It is here, at the end of the novel, that Delafield makes her sympathies most clear. There is no doubt at all for the reader that Elsie has no idea that Morrison is going to kill Williams. There is no suggestion that she is the mastermind behind the plan, or that she spurred him on to do it, which were suggestions made during the trial. Instead, Elsie’s naiveté and her repeated abuse by men land her in the dock, where the novel ends.
That Messalina of the Suburbs was somewhat controversial is clear from the reviews it received. It was not reviewed very widely, and mostly in the local papers. The most positive review appeared in the Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer on 16 April 1924:
a powerful psychological reconstruction of the woman in a recent murder case. (…) Miss Delafield does more to make comprehensible the motives of the unhappy and blundering woman than any of the more scientific analyses have succeeded in doing.(…) The story is not pleasant, but it is well told. Miss Delafield knows with incredible intuition the hearts of the lower middle classes’
The review implies that the writer and readers of the book are of a different species than the ‘lower middle classes’ which populate the novel. Nonetheless, the reviewer appears to grasp and approve of the ultimately sympathetic portrayal at the novel’s core. Other reviewers were not so generous, instead protesting that the novel had no reason to exist. The review in the Westminster Gazette stated
Miss Delafield tells the story very well; but, whether, merely as an exercise in fiction, it was worth telling or not is another matter
and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that
Whether it was worthwhile thus recalling a sordid tragedy eighteen months afterwards is a little doubtful, but the analysis of indiscipline is very skilful.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most negative review appeared in Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies:
the characters in this novel are so unrelievedly sordid that there is little pleasure to be derived from their acquaintance.
Delafield’s psychological analysis did not win her many fans, and her career did not take off until she returned to writing the comic works for which she is now best known. With Messalina of the Suburbs, however, she demonstrated a real sensibility for the complex character of Edith Thompson, and an acute awareness of the structural exploitation young women faced, which could lead to devastating consequences.
 Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul., 2008), p. 645
 E.M. Delafield, Messalina of the Suburbs (London: Hutchinson, 1924), p. 16
 Ibid. p. 64
 ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 16 April 1924, p. 4
 ‘A Bold, Bad Girl’, Westminster Gazette, 4 June 1924, p. 5
 ‘An Ilford Novel’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 14 April 1924, p. 4
 ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Common Cause, 16 May 1924, p. 6