Today I’m copying over a slightly amended post for today ‘s offering for The 1930 Club is a slightly amended version of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, which has become a firm favourite since I first wrote about it way back in 2012. At that point I had a Virago hard-backed edition with a very chintzy, very pink Cath Kidston cover, and I still incline to the opinion that bright pink chintz does not belong on book covers. Anyway, I did eventually find a nice old Virago copy, which has the right sort if cover, and contains all the Provincial Lady Books, which is an added bonus. I must admit that for some reason I had it stuck in my mind that this was published further into the ’30s, but apparently it was first printed in 1930, so it’s perfect!
I’m sure most people have read this, but if not, , it’s a fictional diary of an upper-middle class woman living in a Devonshire village circa 1930. Thought to be based on life of the author, it charts her struggles to balance the household books, and to keep her home running as smoothly as possible while trying to solve various crises and keep everyone happy, from her husband and children to her friends, neighbours, servants and tradesmen. She deals with colds (herself and the children), measles (herself and the children), and a cat who is continually producing litters. Cash is always tight, and her bank balance totters from crisis to crisis, but she avoids disaster by pawning a great-aunt’s diamond ring.
It may not sound very exciting, but she records everyday events with self-deprecating warmth and humour – and a wonderfully ironic turn of phrase. She peppers her entries with memos and queries which veer from the practical to the philosophical. The tone is set from the very beginning:
November 7th.-Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: “O Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”
I like the way our heroine, who remains unnamed, tries to turn buying cheap bulbs into a virtue by saying she’s supporting the Empire, and then her young daughter lets the cat out of the bag by revealing the truth. This instantly shows the Provincial Lady to be short of cash, rather inept, since the bulbs should have been planted long ago, and not as strict with the children as she could be, or Vicky would never have made such a remark in public.
The diarist is much too well-bred to say what she really thinks, or to stand up to other people, and consequently she frequently finds herself involved in things she had no intention of doing, whether it’s attending a function at the home of fearsome Lady Boxe, or inviting people she hates to accompany her family on a seaside picnic in the pouring rain. She’s equally incapable of exerting authority over the servants, especially the cook, who counters any kind of criticism with complaints about equipment – the range is perpetually faulty.
Nevertheless, social conventions must be obeyed, and there are certain ways of doing things, as we see when the parlourmaid gives notice and an agency supplies a house-parlourman called Howard Fitzsimmons, which our Provincial Lady feels is a most unsuitable name for a servant. She feels uneasy issuing instructions regarding his duties, but decides she must make it clear that the correct response when receiving an order, is not ‘right-oh!’
You wonder how women like her, who didn’t work, filled their time, but she organises picnics and children’s parties, writes letters, attends parties and literary soirees, entertains at home, stays with a friend, and attends meetings – lots of meetings, for the church, the village show and the WI. She and her friends discuss the latest books and plays, politics, and even birth control, but what really interests them is village gossip. And our Provincial Lady writes which, for some unknown reason, I didn’t mention in my original review. She is a published author, whose work is printed in literary publications, and I suspect this, more than anything else she does, makes her neighbours view her with slight suspicion.
And why, when the family’s finances are so precarious, they live in some style, with a cook, a maid to clean the house, and someone who does the garden – and a governess for Vicky! You get a glimpse into a vanished world, but it’s the people who bring the book to life. There are the Provincial Lady’s children, who bicker, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and have straight hair, and no musical talent, and lack the charm of other people’s offspring – but she loves them very dearly. Or Our Vicar’s Wife, who always outstays her welcome (on one occasion Robert, who rarely expresses an opinion – he always seems to be asleep or reading the paper – suggests they prevent her return by turns out the lights, locking the door, and going to bed. And Rose, her best friend, who is everything she is not – effortlessly elegant, fashionable and well informed,with wealthy and famous friends.
Most of all it’s the narrator herself who is such an attractive figure, because she isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t take herself seriously, and from a distance of almost 90 years we can still relate to her domestic disasters and her account of the goings-on of family and friends. Generally people are not bothered about big issues. It’s the little everyday things that concern them, because that’s what affects them directly, and that’s very much the case here. But along the way Delafield makes some very astute comments about Life, the Universe and Everything, usually in the form of our heroine’s ‘notes to self’. Here she is in philosophical mood about the differences between the sexes:
Mem: Very marked difference between the sexes is male tendency to procrastinate doing practically everything in the world except sitting down to meals and going up to bed. Should like to purchase little painted motto: Do it now, so often on sale at inferior stationers’ shops, and present it to Robert, but on second thoughts quite see that this would conduce to domestic harmony, and abandon scheme at once.
I have often made the same observation and come to much the same conclusion!
I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!
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6 thoughts on “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”
I *must* re-read this, as I can remember very little. And although I find her work very funny, I might be asking some serious questions about quite why the Provincial Lady is so bad with money! 😀
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I think it;s all relative – one person’s idea of being ‘poor’ doesn’t necessarily match another’s! And I think it’s fair to assume they’ve both come down in the world.
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Ah, such a wonderful book. I have that VMC edition.
It’s surprisingly timeless for something so class-bound, isn’t it? Her observations about human nature definitely cover more than just her era and class.
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Absolutely – that’s what lifts the book and makes it so endurable.