Tuesday 24 July 2012

The Provincial Daughter Needs a Voice of Her Own

At the time it was first published (in 1960), Provincial Daughter, written by RM Dashwood, must have seemed a good idea – after all, it's the diary of a fifties housewife, written by the daughter of EM Delafield, author of The Diary of a Provincial Lady. But it didn't quite do it for me. At the beginning a note from Dashwood explains that her book is intended as 'an equally light-hearted continuation of that picture'. And she adds:

It seemed natural to to write it in the same idiom; but if the result seems to any reader too imitative, or even plagiaristic, I can only ask their forgiveness, as the original Provincial Lady would, I am sure, have warmly given hers.

Therein, I think, lies my problem: Dashwood never quite develops her own voice. It's hard to know how good a writer Dashwood is, because the style and content is so similar to Delafield, and I'm not sure that the style suits life in the 1950s quite so well as it does life in the 1930s (though in actual fact, things do not seem have changed that much). The Provincial Daughter, like her mother, has literary aspirations: we her follow the progress of an article for a magazine, a script for the BBC, and a hoped-for novel. Like her mother, she is disorganised, has no nice clothes, and doesn't bother much about her appearance - and when she does the results are not always what she anticipated (her trip to an exclusive, expensive London hair salon echoes Delafield's disastrous experiences). Friends who are thin and stylish are constantly trying to improve her appearance and her mind (does this remind you of someone?) and, just like her mother, she appears to be perpetually short of cash, yet her eldest son is due to depart for boarding school, which does make you question her priorities.

Obviously there are some differences. Instead of a cook, maid and French governess, the Provincial Daughter has a German au pair, who is given to hysterical outbursts when upset (which is most of the time). The lack of domestic help means that unlike her mother she does her own cooking (unless the au pair helps) as well as the housework and washing – with varying degrees of success.

Her husband, a doctor, does absolutely nothing around the house and seems to think every domestic disaster is her fault, and her three sons are engagingly naughty, without doing any real harm to themselves or anyone else. 

RM Dashwood
It wasn't all bad – it's just that it was all too similar to what had gone before. Parts of it are very funny. Having attended (and given) some horrendously disorganised children's parties, I particularly like the account of the one thrown by Maybelle, a Charming American, for Junior: when the guests arrive nothing is ready, and Maybelle's husband, is still out buying food. She is so laid-back that the other mothers do everything for her, including the washing up! At one of my younger daughter's parties I once let her and her friends bake cakes and make sandwiches. And then I gave them lots of beads and plastic thread so they could make jewellery for their party bags (which they also made). I've no idea what the other mums thought – I suspect they found me very odd indeed – but the children enjoyed it, even though I am probably a Bad Mother.

Anyway, I digress – not that I can really think of much more to say, other than the fact that this was not nearly as charming as the Provincial Lady. Now I feel mean and inadequate, because there wasn't really anything wrong with the book, but I didn't really like it.

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