Thursday 5 July 2012

The Provincial Lady in a Floral Cover

I picked this up in the Oxfam shop
(again), but I think it looks like a
book on needlework, or a notebook,
or drawliners, or writing paper.
I started reading EM Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady online at Project Gutenberg Australia, which has all kinds of books unavailable on the British site, but they can't be downloaded on to Kindle. Personally, I never find reading online very satisfactory, because I can't sit comfortably with the laptop balanced on my knees, and every time I move it topples off. So you can imagine how delighted I was to find a Proper Book, even if it does have a Cath Kidston floral cover. Not that I have anything against her designs: I'm very fond of them, but preferably on tea towels and tote bags, not novels. I know I rave about those lovely Persephone end-papers, but they are on the inside, not the outside. Besides, this a Virago Modern Classic, and should be dark green, with a painting on the front carefully chosen to complement the writing. Anything else is unacceptable, even if it is a 30th anniversary edition.

Anyway, that's quite enough ranting. You want to know what I thought of the book, so here goes. I LOVED IT. I'm sure I'm one of the last people in the world to read this, and everyone else knows all about it. But just in case someone doesn't, 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:

Virago could have stuck with this, which
looks shabby and faded, as one images
The Provincial Lady's home to be.
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.

EM Delafield
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.

Reading this through I find I've not mentioned the 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. Or our heroine's best friend, Rose, who is everything she is not - effortlessly elegant, fashionable and well informed,with wealthy and famous friends. 

Nor have I described the romance between Barbara Blenkinsop and Crosbie Carruthers, who wants to marry her her and whisk her of to the Himalayas, a plan hindered by her mother, who cannot (and will not) be left on her own. And I've not said anything about the sweep, or the bran tub, or what happens when Robin unscrews a hot water bottle top in his sister Vicky's bed. Then there's the Provincial Lady's trip to France, and the story of what happens to the new bulbs, which prompts her to note: 

(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, which shows that things have not changed as much as I thought in the last 80 years.


  1. What a coincidence that we're both "Delafield-ing"! I loved the Provincial Lady books and had forgotten her struggles with the servants, entertaining, and Our Vicar's Wife. The heroine of Late and Soon, Valentine, has some similar difficulties. Thanks for reminding me of this terrific novel. I've got it somewhere and now I long to reread it!

    1. Thank you for reading my post. Enjoy re-reading the Provincial Lady - and I'll look for Late and Soon!

  2. This is absolutely one of my favourite books, I can pick it up and re-read it at any time, her observations on character remain so true today. I agree with you about that covver though...

    1. I am glad it's not just me - it seems to be so inappropriate, and it's very bright. I will certainly be reading the novel again, but if I'm to live with this particular edition I will have to cover it with something dull and faded!

  3. But of course you loved it, how could you not? Now go and find the other three in the series! I re-read the whole lot about once every two years, and they're definitely amongst my favourite books.

    1. Thank you Simon! It definitely goes on my favourite books list, and I've started the PL Goes Further (online, thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia), which I think I'm enjoying even more - I couldn't stop laughing at the French holiday. Just the thing for a rainy day!

  4. One of my favourite books, I'm so glad you've discovered it. I wish I had that original VMC edition. Mine's the VMC omnibus of all 4 books but I like that cover better... As Simon says, you really need to read the other books now.

    1. Thank you Lyn - I only wish I had the original VMC edition. I wonder if I could print it off and stick it over those horrid roses?