Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield
This is a well – known book, even a classic, and deserving praise for many aspects of its subtle comedy, insight into a woman’s life and relentless good humour in the face of trying events. The unnamed narrator is always caught in the midst of activity; this is not the artistic musing of an idle writer shut away from life, but the almost notes of a busy woman, continually caught up in the family and domestic crisis which strikes a familiar note even in the twenty first century. This is a book of its time, first published in 1930, but which can still amuse today, especially in the illustrated edition produced by Persephone in 2014. While it is far from poverty, money is often tight in this small family, which after all includes a governess, a cook and a maid. However, this book was written at a time when having at least one servant was normal for even the lower middle class; in the days before labour saving devices in the kitchen and vacuum cleaners for the rest of the house, help with cooking and cleaning was perhaps a reasonable expectation. Certainly the carefully noted expenses, overdraft and even pawning of a family ring give the impression of a woman having to manage her money. Not that this prevents her from spending money on carefully described clothes and having things altered. This was a time when social convention demanded specific clothes for evening functions and a hat for everyday wear. We recently discussed this book at a book group and actually found much to talk about.
The book opens with a description of the narrator planting some bulbs, which are soon condemned by the visiting Lady B as being too late, and inferior to a Dutch brand. The narrator’s quick witted response that she prefers to buy “Empire products” is a bit deflated by her daughter’s pointing out that they came from Woolworths. The ill – fated bulbs become a theme throughout the book, as whatever she tries, her display is confined to empty or broken bowls. Odd friends turn up to stay, rejoicing in the name of Cissie Crabbe, and make demands on the household in which Robert, the husband and father takes little interest. Lady B. tries to persuade and influence the family’s politics “she says Look at the Russians” “I find myself telling her to Look at Unemployment”, and “Relive my feelings by waving a small red flag belonging to Vicky”, much to the astonishment of a passing maid. As the narrator visits Rose, her socially successful friend in London, she conducts the “Beauty Parlour experiment” and tries unsuccessfully to go to the Italian exhibition which everyone says she simply must see. She wishes that she had read the latest novels, and memorises just one fact on many subjects for conversation. She often feels distracted and inadequate socially, and tries very hard to do the right thing. We were fascinated by the character of “old” Mrs Blenkinsop, who has a very funny way of depicting herself of the centre of interest. Wrapped in blankets and always seen in an armchair, she is seen as frail and elderly, needing her adult daughter’s constant attention. We found it very funny that she was only in fact sixty – six, an illustration of the changing perspective of age!
It is difficult to describe why this is such a funny and enjoyable book. The characters can be exasperating, there is no great drama (though in pre antibiotic days even minor illnesses could have been serious) and this is not real poverty. The reader is swept along by the diary form, without chapters, as situations develop and are solved. This edition, with its witty and timely illustrations, does not include the three sequels, which lack the original spark but are still a fascinating insight into the time, especially as the narrator seeks worthwhile war work as war begins to affect the country. This book is a funny and enjoyable read, and while possibly an acquired taste, gives a fascinating picture of life in the interwar years.
So the Book Group found this an interesting choice! As with all Persephone books, mine is a lovely edition, but there are many editions available, especially the rather large paperback which includes all four books. Apparently this book appears to be on several lists of books you must read – and I would agree!