Wednesday 12 December 2012

More from The Provincial Lady

My copy of Macmillan's 1947 four-in-one
The Provincial Lady doesn't have a dust
jacket, bit would originally have had one
like this.
One of the great joys of volunteering in a charity bookshop is that occasionally - well, fairly frequently if I am to be totally honest - I come across a book I really, really want. In this particular instance the Object of Desire was a volume containing FOUR Provincial Ladies, so how could I resist? (Query: Was it sound financial management to buy this, when I already have the First Diary, even if it is covered in inappropriate Cath Kidston chintz, and The Second, downloaded from Project Gutenberg Australia?)

Actually, I think it was money well spent, because the first PL book is the only one readily available. In addition, I have a wonderful book to lift my spirits, and Oxfam has £4.99, of which 84 per cent will go directly into the pot for emergency response, development work and campaigning for change, while the remainder covers support and running costs, and fundraising costs. Sorry about the plug, but I think it's a point worth making, because there's a general perception that most of the cash donated for charities goes on administration, and while I don't know anything about other organisations, as far as Oxfam is concerned this is simply not true.

Anyway, my 'new' 1947 edition of EM Delafield's The Provincial Lady is a faded blue (easy on the eye, but not very photographic) and currently has pride of place on the bookshelf. Published by Macmillan & Co, it contains Diary of a Provincial Lady, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, with a foreword by Irish writer Kate O'Brien.

I've already written about Diary of a Provincial Lady, so rather than individual posts on each of the other books, here are a few thoughts on the follow-ups.

The Provincial Lady Goes Further is, if anything, even funnier than its predecessor. Our heroine has become a successful author, and is disturbed by the curious behaviour of neighbours who now suspect her of Putting Them into a Book. Despite her new-found literary fame her financial situation is as precarious as ever, but she engages a holiday tutor for the children, takes the family on holiday to France. and acquires a flat in London with the intention of writing uninterrupted by the trials and tribulations of domestic life. However, she's easily distracted and, as usual, nothing in her chaotic life goes according to plan. She remains surprisingly good-humoured as she totters from crisis to crisis, but makes acerbic comments about her friends, family, acquaintances, and people's social pretensions.

It's the throw-away lines I love – non sequiturs on domestic life that get a mention, but are never referred to again. For example:

Cook sends in a message to say that there has been a misfortune with the chops, and shall she make do with a tin of sardines?

What kind of misfortune can occur to chops? Did Helen Wills (the cat) eat them? Did they get dropped? Did Cook burn them? Had they gone off? And what kind of substitute meal could one rustle up at short notice with sardines, which I assume must have been tinned? Alas, we never learn: it's just one of those unaccountable domestic disasters which occur in the best regulated households. It reminded me of the time in my own (unregulated) household when I was in the office on weekend duty, so the Man of House set about cooking fish fingers, mash and beans for The Daughters, only to discover there were no fish fingers. So, with great ingenuity, he tipped beans into a dish, piled mashed potatoes on the top, and told the girls it was Fish Finger Surprise - the surprise being that there were no fish fingers. But they ate every mouthful without complaint as they searched for the missing ingredient, something they rarely did for me!
Pamela Pringle, in an illustration by
Arthur Watts for The Provincial Lady
Goes Further.
Old friends, like Our Vicar's Wife, are still present, but the book is enlivened by the arrival of Pamela Pringle (known to the Provincial Lady many years ago as Pamela Warburton), who is extraordinarily beautiful and rich, has run through a collection of husbands and lovers, but claims never to Lead a Man on, and maintains it is not her fault that men have always gone mad about her.

In The Provincial Lady in America our unnamed heroine's American publishers invite her on a publicity tour, so she sub-lets her London flat and buys new clothes – most of which turn out to be as unsuitable as her existing wardrobe, and which look distinctly crumpled when she unpacks them. She is ill crossing the Atlantic aboard a luxury liner and, as usual, I find myself sympathising with the agonies of a fellow bad traveller:

New remedy for sea-sickness provided by Rose may or may not be responsible for my being still alive, but that is definitely the utmost that can be said for it.

Once in America she is whisked off on a relentless merry-go-round of lectures, social events, and yet more travel. She follows a rigid timetable, and finds there is little time to do the things she wants. She does manage to stand her ground about visiting home of Louisa May Alcott (her own literary heroine), but only through the intervention of an eminent critic. She discovers cocktails, which give her Dutch courage, and finds that Tea Parties are a Feature of Life.

Am by this time becoming accustomed to American version of a tea-party, and encounter cocktails and sandwiches with equanimity, but am much struck by scale on which the entertainment is conducted...

As inept and amenable as ever, she is terrified by American women, and I can't say I blame ber. The ones she meets would scare a saint: they are over-bearing, voluble, energetic, enthusiastic, well dressed, organised, well read, knowledgeable, determined, and will brook no opposition to what they want. The Provincial Lady soon realises that will never take 'no' for answer, that they have their own ideas about what a British author likes and dislikes – and that nothing she does or says will change their minds. But on the whole they are kindly, and very hospitable and, as in the first two books, it's the small incidents which delight, and the descriptions of people and places.

However, there's a change of tone in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which feels a little more forced and is not as funny as the other books. Apparently, she had decided there would be no more PL books, but her publishers asked her to resurrect the character at the start of WW2, so perhaps that's why it seems to lack sparkle. There's also a poignancy about the book, especially when the Provincial Lady mentions her son Robin (still at school, but almost old enough to be called up) for Delafield's own son, Lionel, was killed in an unexplained accident at an Infantry Training Centre in 1940, the year the book was published.
Robert trying a gas mask on Cook, from an illustration
by Illingworth for The Provincial Lady in America.
It covers the first few months of the conflict, the 'phony war' when little was happening, and many people were convinced that things would somehow be resolved peacefully. Evacuees descend on the village – an event which neither evacuees nor villagers are prepared for – while Robert, our heroine's husband, dispenses gas masks to everyone in his role as ARP organiser for the district.

Cook shows a slight inclination towards coyness when Robert adjusts one on her head with stout crosspiece, and replies from within, when questioned, that It'll do nicely, sir, thank you. (Voice sounds very hollow and sepulchral.)

Robert still dissatisfied and tells me that Cook's nose is in quite the wrong place, and he always thought it would be, and that what she needs is a large size.

The Provincial Lady moves to London, hoping to put her literary skills to good use with the Ministry of Information. But, like everyone else, she finds herself 'Standing By' and volunteers in the WVS canteen at an underground ARP station. A whole host of new people are introduced, but I felt there was an element of cruelty in some of her descriptions, turning them into caricatures rather than characters. The Commandant is a grotesque re-incarnation of Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers, and the portrayal of Granny Bo Peep tips over the edge of comedy into unkindness. There's a darker edge here, a tenseness, with people deprived of concrete information trying to sift rumour from from reality as they wait to see what will happen.

But Delafield is still witty, still able to poke fun at social pretensions, and still recognises that it's the small every-day things that people worry about, rather than major issues, and can still be very funny. 

I have yet to find a copy of 'The Provincial Lady in Russia' (also published as 'Straw Without Bricks: I visit the Soviets') which Delafield wrote after visiting the USSR.

PS: If there's anyone out there who wants a hardback Virago Anniversary edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, I have one going spare, and I don't want anything for it (unless postage is exorbitant!).  It's in really good condition, apart from a small patch of missing surface on one page of Jilly Cooper's introduction - it looks as if something sticky got pulled off the paper. 


  1. I bought the first two of the series about 20 years ago, when all the Provincial Lady books were reissued in gorgeous dust-jacketed paperbacks. I can't remember the publisher, and unfortunately, I gave those volumes away when I replaced them all with vintage clothbounds. Those paperback editions must be out of print now. But I do recall that the publisher titled the second in the series The Provincial Lady in London rather than The Provincial Lady Goes Further. The others had the same titles as you cite: Diary of, in America, in Wartime, and in Russia. Delightful books all.

    1. Fabulous, aren't they Leticia! The first one has been re-issued by Virago, but the others are not easy to find, which is a shame.

  2. I have that same edition! I love the scene in 'America' where she and Mademoiselle enjoy themselves by sobbing their way through the film of Little Women. I go right off the PL in 'Wartime'. I think she'd be more useful back home in the village. The tone of that book is all wrong, somehow. It compares very unfavourably with Henrietta's War, which I love and reread often.

    1. Oddly enough I cut out two final paragraphs which said just that:
      "Personally I thought 'Henrietta's War' by Joyce Dennys, was funnier, and her characters are drawn with a warmth that 'The Provincial Lady in Wartime' lacks. Dennys' novel, written in the form of letters, shows the effect of the war on a small Devon village, and describes the kind of life the Provincial Lady might have faced had she stayed at home. And there is more truth and compassion in 'Good Evening, Mrs Craven', Mollie Panter-Downes' collection of war-time short stories.

      I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy 'The Provincial Lady in Wartime,' because I did – I just felt it wasn't quite as good as the other three PL novels I read, and there are other works of fiction which cover the same period better."

      Perhaps I should have left them in!

  3. I love this series, my four-in-one volume is looking a bit tatty these days though! I do hope someone republishes them in a nice edition again, along with the Russia book (which I still haven't read). :)

    1. Virago did a four-in-one volume at one stage I believe, with everything except the Russian trip. We could all write and ask them...

  4. I've never heard of the Provinical Lady before, but this looks delightful.

    1. Karen, he original Diary of a Provincial Lady written in diary form (obviously), was published in 1930, and written by EM Delafield, who seems to have based it on her own life. Considered to be a classic of its kind, its a very funny account of the life of a married, middle class mother-of-two who lives in a small village, has literary aspirations, doesn't work, is perpetually short of cash, but nevertheless has servants and sends her son to a private school. It is delightful, and the first two books are the best.
      Her comments on domestic disasters are hilarious, as are her descriptions of friends and family.

  5. The Provincial Lady is one of my faavourites and a perennial re-read - or will be again when I can replace my Virago four in one volume that my puppy ate. Like her mistress she knows a good book when she comes across one.

    1. Nice to hear of a dog with such excellent taste!

  6. My version of the second one is called 'goes to London.' I'll never get over the changing of titles.
    I so love these books, though I haven't read them all.

    1. Changing titles does get very confusing, because you don't know if the same book or a different one!

  7. Abe Books lists a number of suppliers of 'The Provincial Lady in Russia'.

    1. Dark Puss, you are so good at finding things on the internet - thank you.

  8. Lovely review of this wonderful series, Christine! I have the same edition, but I've read it so often that the spine has fallen off... I also have various other copies of the books singly, if they have different illustrations... I'm an addict.

    PL Goes Further was the first one I read, and remains my favourite - I love it so much. I should warn you, PL in Russia is *not* a Provincial Lady book - that was just a title a later publisher added, to flog more copies. It's still a good book, and often funny, but it's very definitely not got the same feel as these. Forewarned is forearmed!

  9. Thanks for reminding me of our dear Provincial Lady. I have read "Diary" and "Goes Further". I have in my possession "In America" but for some reason it was lost on my shelves - that does happen sometimes - and I have now pulled it out and will start it as soon as I finish reading Shirley Jackson's domestic chaos book "Life Among the Savages" which is not nearly as entertaining as the PL tales. I enjoy the diary is so much more personal and intimate.

    1. I lose books all the time, because the shelves are such a jumble, and there isn't enough room, so I end up with books on every surface and under furniture!

      I have never read any Shirley Jackson, although I have seen The Haunting of Hill House as a stage play, and found it a little too dark for my taste, but I keep meaning to read some of her work.

    2. True to my word, I did read 'PL in America' - in one sitting because it was so amusing. Here is what I had to say about it:

      Now to track down a copy of 'PL in Wartime'. In the meantime I think I will reread her first diary. I do wish I could invite PL over for tea!

  10. True to my word, yesterday I read "The Provincial Lady in America". Here is my take on it, in the manner of the PL herself:

    Now I need to track down a copy of "Wartime." I think I will skip "Russia" based on Simon's comments.

    Happy New Year.