Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – a funny classic republished by Persephone

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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!

Our Vicar’s Wife…and A Surrey State

A short series of books that I have read recently has the character of “Our Vicar’s Wife” – a talkative lady who intends to stay for a few minutes and ends up staying for hours. Any resemblance to anyone…

The book is The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

This edition actually has four novels included: The original Diary, The Provincial lady goes  Further, The Provincial Lady goes to America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime.

The first novel is probably the best one, being the one that sets the characters up. The Lady is writing her Diary which features largely her inability to cope with her unruly children, her tricky servants and her mostly silent husband, Robert.  The locals are strange and wonderful, including Lady B, old ladies who have a strange attraction for everyone, their daughters, and of course the Vicar.

It may not sound so interesting, but the misfortunes and reactions of the lady makes for a very funny book, written in diary form. It is set in the early thirties, though obviously the following three books progress until 1939/1940. The lady is a writer, mainly of short magazine pieces, and her problems sometimes become the subject of her writing. She also does talks for the WI and other groups, and gets herself in all sorts of awkward situations.

The other books deal with odd holidays in France, a writing tour of America, (where everyone asks her the same questions ) and then finally trying to find something a proper job in war time. Odd characters turn up, such as another daft old lady who believes that everyone loves her, other workers in a shelter, artistic types and evacuees, all coping with blackouts, shortages and the general confusion of the early part of the War. Yes, these books won’t appeal to everyone, but they are the same daft humour as PG Wodehouse and others, set in a time familiar to readers of Persephone books.  I enjoyed the first and last books most, the other two just not being as strong, but all are funny, interesting and feature some great characters.

For those of you who remain unconvinced, a more modern version ( the author says she was directly influenced by the above when beginning this novel) is A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford.

 

In this book the heroine, Constance, begins a blog online detailing her relationship with her lawyer husband, her son – with -a- secret, her rebelling daughter and her excitable au pair. Her friends are also challenging in many ways, and include Reginald, the Vicar. Bell ringing is discussed, as are  the underhand tricks employed by another church team. I recognised some of this lady’s preoccupations, as she struggles with her family, facebook and life in general in a wonderfully comic way. Again she goes abroad, and tries to even up the odds against her. This feels like a very up to date book, as written for a newspaper apparently, and I wonder if it will last as well as Delafield’s. It too is very funny, and a good antidote to more serious and worthy books. I suppose is is Bridget Jones for older women…or what happened to Bridget after a few years of married life. I enjoyed it, anyway.