“I spend much of the night thinking over the whole question of running the house successfully, and tell myself–not by any means for the first time–that my abilities are very, very deficient in this direction.”-E.M. Delafield. Diary of A Provincial Lady
I bought Diary of A Provincial Lady at a used bookshop in Scotland over a year ago, and it’s been sitting on my to-read pile since. I was intrigued because it was written by a woman, and I hadn’t heard of the author. I’m glad I picked it up. It’s actually a collection of four novels about the same character, a woman who lives in Southwestern England in the early 1930s. She’s an aspiring writer, but she’s hampered by her drab husband, her children, and various money and housekeeping issues that come up over the course of a year.
What makes this book stand out is the humor. The voice of this character is hilarious. She’s self-critical and critical of the hypocrisy of English society, especially of the people she knows who have more money and land than her family does. I kept smiling and chuckling to myself as I read this, and that doesn’t happen often. The humor ranges from situational: “Barbara calls. Can she, she says, speak to me in confidence? I assure her that she can, and at once put [the cat] and kittens out of the window to establish a confidential atmosphere.”, to conversational: “She enquires once if I have ever succeeded in making the dear blue Grandiflora Magnifica Superbinsis–(or something like that)–feel really happy and at home in this climate? to which I am able to reply with absolute truth by a simple negative, at which I fancy she looks rather relieved. Is her own life perhaps one long struggle to acclimatise the G.M.S.? and what would she have replied if I said that, in my garden, the dear thing grew like a weed?”.
As the quoted passages make clear, the narrator of this diary is a very posh woman. That did take me out of the book at times–I couldn’t help but compare her to some of the more unpleasant customers in the bookstore, especially in the passages where she described shopping experiences or critiquing books. For the most part, though, I really empathized with her. She creates such a vivid portrait of life in very simple, brief sentences. There’s a lot of scenework, even though it’s a diary. Delafield balances the scenes with ungrammatical, notelike sentences to give the book a feeling of a diary, and I really enjoyed that. It created the right atmosphere and it made the book read really quickly. (I’ve only read the first book in this anthology, which tracks one year in the life of the Provincial Lady. The rest follow her as a more successful writer and as a fundraiser for the war effort.)
There are heavier tones to the book, which balance it out and make it more realistic. The Provincial Lady worries that she’s wasting her life, as she socializes with a many more successful writers than herself. At one point, someone at a dinner party tells her that she seems unfulfilled, and she’s stung by the realization that she often thinks that herself. It doesn’t make it any easier to hear from someone else. She also has to deal with the (very relatable) problems of submitting to magazines. One literary magazine, Time and Tide, is repeatedly referenced because that’s where Delafield wrote this book in serial in the 1930s. The Provincial Lady reads Time and Tide and submits to the contests, only to find that someone else has won. When she wins, she’s often tied for first. She also reads the Literary Review at one point near the end of the novel and reflects that it seems like a lot of published authors are talking about each other, which is what it often feels like when you’re an unpublished author trying to enter the literary world. Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a quick, fun read. The posh voice may take getting used to if you don’t read a lot of literature about the English upper classes, but the Provincial Lady has a voice that transcends her class, and is a pleasure to read.