Jun 25, 2010

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

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

The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a comic novel from 1930 that chronicles the adventures and misadventures of an upper-class country lady: her struggles to balance the household finances; her attempts to deal with her temperamental Cook and with the sensitive Mademoiselle, the children’s French governess; her constant fight to keep the insufferable Lady B., her smug and superior neighbour, at bay; and so on. The novel is written as a diary, and it covers a period of about one year. Fortunately there are sequels, which continue to follow the Provincial Lady all the way into WW2.

I first added Delafield’s novel to my to be read list because several of you suggested it when I reviewed Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys earlier this year. I can see the similarities, especially in how both books use a comparable kind of humour to paint a fascinating portrait of early twentieth-century upper-class English country life. But the main difference is that in Dennys’ work, the sharp humour is often alternated with some very moving moments in which Henrietta’s very real fear and helplessness far overweigh the comedy.

Of course, WW2 is a historical context that easily lends itself to this kind of overlapping of comedy and tragedy, so it would be absurd to resent Delafield for not doing the same here. In The Dairy of a Provincial Lady, the elements that go beyond the comedy are perhaps not immediately obvious, but as you read on, you do begin to glimpse them. E.M. Delafield is absolutely hilarious – there were actually a few passages that made me laugh out loud, and this rarely happens. Mostly I just register the fact that I’m amused in my head with no outwards manifestation. But as fabulous as the humour is, even better was the fact that behind it I could sense the workings of an acute mind, and of a sensibility that, historical context aside, I didn’t find too distant from my own. The Provincial Lady sees through the absurdity of the social pretences she has to uphold, and ironically remarks on them even as she goes along with what she’s expected to do. As Jilly Cooper puts it in her introduction,
…and gradually one realises that, despite the short sentences and the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the prose and subject matter, here is a very subtle and deliberate talent at work, naturally satirical, with a marvellous ear for dialogue and an unerringly accurate social sense
Diary of a Provincial Lady

Something else that positively surprised me was Delafield’s attitude towards class. Don’t get me wrong; the Provincial Lady is far from free of class consciousness, and the book is set in a very privileged social world (the Lady’s financial struggles are a result of the fact that she's expected to maintain a certain lifestyle) and doesn’t often consider what might be going on outside it. That’s what its scope is meant to be, and this fact is made clear from the very beginning. But I expected it to also be carelessly elitist, as many 1930’s novels are. Instead, there are several instances in which its heroine seems to be acutely aware of the artificiality of the social structure that determines that she’s mistress while others are her servants, or that Lady B. is her social superior. Delafield’s sense of social justice and her subversive humour also extend to gender, as the passage I include at the end shows – and so does the fact that she asks herself things like: Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.

If you’re a fan of gentle but gripping domestic stories, of books set in Interwar England, or of biting social satire, then The Diary of a Provincial Lady is for you. I need to get my hands on the sequels (and on Delafield’s Persephone title, Consequences) as soon as possible.

Diary of a Provincial Lady Diary of a Provincial Lady

Favourite bits:
Receive a letter from Mary K. with postscript: Is it true that Barbara Blenkinsop is engaged to be married? and am also asked the same question by Lady B., who looks in on her way to some ducal function on the other side of the county. Have no time in which to enjoy being in the superior position of bestowing information, as Lady B. at once adds that she always advises girls to marry, no matter what the man is like, as any husband is better than none, and there are not nearly enough to go round.
I immediately refer to Rose's collection of distinguished Feminists, giving her to understand that I know them all well and intimately, and have frequently discussed the subject with them. Lady B. waves her hand--(in elegant white kid, new, not cleaned)--and declares That may be all very well, but if they could have got husbands they wouldn't be Feminists. I instantly assert that all have had husbands, and some two or three. This may or may not be true, but have seldom known stronger homicidal impulse. Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman. Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally. Cannot say whether she is or is not impressed by this, as she declares herself obliged to go, because ducal function “cannot begin without her”. All I can think of is to retort that Duchesses--(of whom, in actual fact, I do not know any)--always remind me of Alice in Wonderland, as do white kid gloves of the White Rabbit. Lady B. replies that I am always so well-read, and car moves off leaving her with, as usual, the last word.

A letter from Lady B. saying that she has only just heard about measles--(Why only just, when news has been all over parish for weeks?) and is so sorry, especially as measles are no joke at my age--(Can she be in league with Doctor, who also used identical objectionable expression?).--She cannot come herself to enquire, as with so many visitors always coming and going it wouldn't be wise, but if I want anything from the House, I am to telephone without hesitation. She has given "her people" orders that anything I ask for is to be sent up. Have a very good mind to telephone and ask for a pound of tea and Lady B.'s pearl necklace--(Could Cleopatra be quoted as precedent here?)--and see what happens.

Am still thinking about this failure, when I notice that conversation has, mysteriously, switched on to the United States of Ameerca, about which we are all very emphatic. Americans, we say, undoubtedly hospitable--but what about the War Debt? What about Prohibition? What about Sinclair Lewis? Aimée MacPherson, and Co-education? By the time we have done with them, it transpires that none of is have ever been to America, but all hold definite views, which fortunately coincide with the views of everybody else.
(Query: Could not interesting little experiment he tried, by possessor of unusual amount of moral courage, in the shape of suddenly producing perfectly brand-new opinion: for example, to the effect that Americans have better manners than we have, or that their divorce laws are a great improvement upon our own? Should much like to see effect of these, or similar, psychological bombs, but should definitely wish Robert to he absent from the scene.)

The child Henry deposited by expensive-looking parents in enormous red car, who dash away immediately, after one contemptuous look at house, garden, self, and children. (Can understand this, in a way, as they arrive sooner than expected, and Robin, Vicky, and I are all equally untidy owing to prolonged game of Wild Beasts in the garden.)
Henry unspeakably immaculate in grey flannel and red tie--but all is discarded when parents have departed, and he rapidly assumes disreputable appearance and loud, screeching tones of complete at-homeness. Robert, for reasons unknown, appears unable to remember his name, and calls him Francis. (Should like to trace connection of ideas, if any, but am baffled.)
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  1. It sounds lovely. I think I read a review of this a few weeks ago on Violet's blog. I was interested in the book then and I now want to read it even more.

  2. I'm *ashamed* (ashamed, I tell ya!) that I haven't yet read this. I own both the beautiful hardback edition pictured and the older green omnibus edition with its sequels. I have Consequences too...

    So many books, so little time.

  3. I want this book! Might have to go back and see if the library has this one too!

  4. I'm so glad you reviewed this right now - I've vowed not to read any books while I'm here that I can get at home, and then I promptly found myself unable to think of any. But Diary of a Provincial Lady! I have been wanting to read that for a while (love the excerpt!) but haven't been able to get it at my library.

    P.S. I dreamed I went to visit you in Portugal. You were very nice and had a lovely house with lots of open spaces, but it contained no books whatsoever, and when I asked you where all your books were, you gave me this very creepy smile and said "All are consumed." I do not know what the bewildered emoticon is, but if I did I would insert one here.

  5. Wow you have a lot of 30s books on your shelf!! It seems like you've been reading tons of them!

    ps - I absolutely love Jenny's dream!!!

  6. Oh, I love the sound of this book! The fact that the humor and satire is so strong, coupled with the time period it represents makes me want to go out and grab this one right now!! Thanks, Nymeth, for bringing this book to my attention with your wonderful review!

  7. I was all excited about this and planning a trip to the library THIS VERY DAY and then I read Jenny's comment and realized all my hopes were dust and ashes. *is sad* But I will find this somehow. Maybe I will buy it for Jenny, but read it myself first.

  8. This sounds good, and I love the fact that this character was capable of seeing outside her own socioeconomic niche. I really like the illustrations.

  9. Thanks for the reading reminder! Picked up on this from Thomas a while back and never followed through. And summer seems the perfect time.

  10. I put this on my wish list after the review on My Porch. It sounds wonderful! Thomas is the one who put Excellent Women on my wishlist, too, and I had a very strong and palpable reaction to that book, so I have high hopes on this one!

  11. I saw this the other day in the window of a 2nd hand book store and I fell in love with the cover. I thought I wont buy it until Ive read some reviews first and then a few day later you write one!

  12. From the title and the cover, I would never have guessed this was humorous - it sounds delightful.

  13. I really love to laugh out loud while reading, but that rarely happens! Maybe I'll give this a shot and see how I like it.

  14. I am ashamed to admit I am not familiar with this one but it sounds like something I would love.

  15. Maybe this is bad but the bit you quoted reminds me of Bridget Jone's Diary. I love the irreverent sense of humor and keen observation. I like the "clever" voice of the narrator. And I love that it is set in the 1930's.

  16. Like bermudaonion, I had no idea that this was a comedic novel. I had always assumed that it was a real diary!

    I love the excerpts here and the Virago edition is gorgeous.

  17. You certainly liked this a lot more than I did.
    I thought the Lady was a classist snob, a total twit, and the whole book was twee beyond belief. Maybe it has something to do with me being a frightful Colonial. :) I could not stand Amelia Peabody either, so I'm detecting a pattern here.

    Glad you enjoyed it. Millions of people do love this book. :)

  18. Iris: I hope you'll enjoy it :)

    Claire: Nothing to be ashamed of! As you say, there are just too many tempting books out there.

    Vivienne: I hope it does!

    Jenny: Your dream cracked me up :D The weird thing is that I think I can picture that creepy smile perfectly :P

    Amanda: This was an e-book actually :P But your point still stands. I thought the least I could do was finish my own mini-challenge :P

    Zibilee: You're most welcome :D Enjoy it!

    Mumsy: Buying it for Jenny and reading it first sounds like an excellent plan :P

    Stephanie: It's not so much that she sees outside it as it is that she's aware of how ridiculous all those stuffy people she knows are. And I think she's too smart not to see it in herself too.

    Frances: Yes, it's a perfect summer read :)

    Aarti: Judging by your review, Excellent Women seems a bit more meaty than this one. But this is a very fun read, and there's more to it than meets the eye.

    Jessica: Perfect timing :P

    Kathy: I wouldn't have thought so either!

    Emidy: I don't know why I don't actually laugh out loud more often, as I do find a lot of books funny. But mostly I'm quietly amused :P

    Lola: I hope you do love it!

    Kathleen: You know, I've actually seen this compared to Bridget Jones' Diary before! That's a book I need to read for my personal "giving books I don't think I'd like a chance" challenge :P

    Tea Lady: Isn't it? I want to collect all those editions.

    Violet: I very much disagree about the Provincial Lady. About Amelia Peabody and Colonialism, I don't, but... well, I was going to go on about that at length when I reviewed the first two books anyway, so I'll save it for then :P

  19. I haven't read this one but have read Provincial Daughter written by her daughter, funnily enough! I really enjoyed it, very lighthearted. My Mum and Dad lived in England in the 50s and it's nice to have a bit of insight into that era.

  20. this sounds interesting! I really like those illustrations. Great review :)

  21. What an interesting sounding book. The humour aspect of it intrigues me the most - I love a witty book!

  22. "This may or may not be true, but have seldom known stronger homicidal impulse." That made me laugh right out loud! I think I would very much enjoy this book!

  23. This sounds like such a wonderful read, I might need to loot it from the library soon! Although it would look lovely on my shelves, too, the cover is so beautiful!

  24. Nothing can beat a good book with humor- I added this on to my list! Thank you for the great review! :)

  25. This is on my TBR pile - different cover from yours - after I picked it up in a second hand bookshop. It looked like just the sort of book I like to read but I haven't managed to squeeze it in yet. My pile is starting to panic me!

  26. This is on my TBR pile - different cover from yours - after I picked it up in a second hand bookshop. It looked like just the sort of book I like to read but I haven't managed to squeeze it in yet. My pile is starting to panic me!

  27. I have tried to get this and failed - its not available in the library in melbourne neither is it available at home in Sri Lanka. I have to get this as its universally loved!

  28. "Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally."


    I think I will like this book a lot, which is good, since I picked it up for free a month ago. (not a really nice edition, but still - free.)

  29. lovely treez: I quite like the sound of Provincial Daughter! I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    Naida, aren't the illustrations great? Very amusing and very 1930's :)

    Amy: As do I :D

    Debi: Don't you just love her?

    Bina: Isn't it? I love those Virago editions. There's a beautiful one of Excellent Women too!

    Lua: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy it :D

    whisperinggums: What I always tell myself is that fortunately the books we own have no due date. Of course, it doesn't always work :P

    Mystica: If you don't mind reading e-books, Gutenberg Australia has it for free!

    Christy: Isn't she hilarious? :D I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  30. Have you read "Hen's Dancing" and "Summertime" by Raffaella Barker?
    These books are so funny, and I think were probably somewhat inspired by "Provincial Lady".

  31. I haven't, but I'll be adding it to my wishlist - thanks for the recommendation!


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