The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield

As you may well know by now, Simon and Karen are running another of their ‘Clubs’ this week, this one focusing on literature first published in 1930. (You can find out more about it here.) For my contribution to the event, I’ve decided to write about E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the first of four books included in the Penguin collected edition of the series. (The first book appeared in 1930, with further instalments following in 1932, 1934 and 1940.)

So, what can I say about this classic of 1930s British literature that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot – other than to reiterate what a joy it is to read, full of witty asides about the day-to-day minutiae of English country life.

The Provincial Lady in question lives in Devon with her pithy husband, Robert, and their two children, Robin and Vicky. While Robin is away at boarding-school for much of the year, Vicky is being educated at home by a rather sensitive French governess, Mademoiselle, a woman who requires delicate handling by the Lady of the house. Also adding to our protagonist’s challenges are the temperamental Cook and the dutiful parlour-maid, Ethel, reliable domestic staff being so difficult to find and maintain, particularly in the country.

The book is presented as a series of diary entries, capturing the Provincial Lady’s unfiltered thoughts and observations as she goes about her business – mostly domestic or community-based in nature as she attempts to oversee the running of the house. In spite of our protagonist’s best efforts, nothing seems to run quite as smoothly as she would like it to, painting a picture of a somewhat frazzled woman trying to hold everything together but frequently falling a little short of the mark.

Life for the aspirational Provincial Lady can be challenging, even at the best of times. Irrespective of the family’s middle-class status, there never seems to be quite enough money at hand to pay the never-ending stream of household bills, often leading to a reliance on credit and the goodwill of traders. Moreover, our protagonist frequently has to resort to bluffing her way through conversations with various acquaintances in an effort to save face, never having read quite the right books, seen the latest plays, or attended the de rigueur exhibitions of the day.

Keeping up-to-date with the latest fashions, particularly in millinery, represents another major headache for the Provincial Lady. Like many British women through the ages, our protagonist will head off to the shops in search of something new when her spirits are low. However, finding the right hat to flatter the face isn’t quite as easy as it may sound, especially if one’s hair is as wild and unruly as the Provincial Lady’s proves to be…

January 22nd. – Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold – which he has hitherto ignored – is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

[…]

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.

Hairdresser’s assistant says, It’s a pity my hair is losing all its colour, and have I ever thought of having it touched up? After long discussion, I do have it touched up, and emerge with mahogany-coloured head. Hairdresser’s assistant says this will wear off ‘in a few days’. I am very angry, but all to no purpose. Return home in old hat, showing as little hair as possible, and keeping it on till dressing time – but cannot hope to conceal my shame at dinner. (pp.31-32) 

Meanwhile, husband Robert is unphased by most things, remaining remarkably silent and unmoved by all manner of minor upsets and household crises.

Other diary entries focus on the Provincial Lady’s social interactions with friends and other members of the local community, often covering a wide range of random topics including literature, current affairs, mutual acquaintances and domestic challenges. The rural world and its inhabitants are beautifully captured – the central character in particular, complete with all her flippant thoughts, social anxieties and unfavourable comparisons with others. Our protagonist’s ‘mems.’ or notes to self are another joy, revealing more of her inner musings and wry observations on life.

May 15th. […]

Tea is brought in – superior temporary’s afternoon out, and Cook has, as usual, carried out favourite labour-saving device of three sponge-cakes and one bun jostling one another on the same plate – and we talk about Barbara and Crosbie Carruthers, bee-keeping, modern youth, and difficulty of removing oil stains from carpets. Have I, asks Our Vicar’s Wife, read A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land? No, I have not. Then, she says, don’t, on any account. There are so many sad and shocking things in life as it is, that writers should confine themselves to the bright, the happy, and the beautiful. This the author of A Brass Hat has entirely failed to do. It subsequently turns out that Our Vicar’s Wife has not read the book herself, but that Our Vicar has skimmed it, and declared it to be very painful and unnecessary. (Mem.: Put Brass Hat down for Times Book Club list, if not already there.) (p. 68)

Interestingly, the Provincial Lady has some literary ambitions of her own, a point that is brought out here and then developed further in the subsequent books in the PL series.

This is a charming, humorous and at times poignant novel of a largely domestic life in a bygone age. In spite of its firm footing in the late 1920s/early ‘30s, Delafield’s book still holds some relevance to the modern world, especially in terms of the emotions and dilemmas portrayed. In some respects, it may well have paved the way for later diaries capturing the lives of more contemporary women and characters, books like Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (2013).

So, in summary, a fitting read for the #1930Club, best consumed in small doses to avoid any risk of fatigue. It’s the sort of book you can dip in and out of every now and again when the mood takes you without having to worry about the intricacies of narrative plot.

If you’re interested in my thoughts on other books from 1930, you can find the relevant posts via the following links:

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys – Initial read and re-read

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Miss Mole by E. H. Young

46 thoughts on “The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield

  1. Brian Joseph

    I have always liked books written in journal form. I would think that it would lend itself well to this kind of story.

    I also am thinking that folks living beyond their means, and getting themselves in trouble with credit, is a very old, but often effective, plot device.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this is one of those books where the form is a perfect match for the content and style, everything working together in harmony to create a memorable read. Pus, the bite-sized entries make it very easy to read, irrespective of available time and other pressures.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Priceless, isn’t it! Just the sort of minor disaster my mother and her sister fell prey to in the era when hair colourants became more widely available.

      Reply
  2. Nat

    This is timely for me, as I just bought this book yesterday. Very pleased to learn that this seems to have been a good decision!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely indeed! I think you’ve made a very wise decision there. It’s absolutely charming and very cleverly done, particularly in the way it builds up a picture of domestic life in that era.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can totally see why you would return to it again and again. An absolutely joyous book with something witty on every page. I’m so glad I was able to squeeze it into your Club!

      Reply
  3. realthog

    I read something of Delafield’s while I was living in Devon, but it wasn’t this. I’ve just been scouring through her biblio in Wikipedia, but nothing rings a bell. Grr!

    Splendid review, Jacqui. I should really try to find a copy of the book, because it does sound great fun.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is! A veritable delight from start to finish. I don’t know if it’s ever been adapted for film or TV, but if not someone is seriously missing a trick. There’s a wealth of material here for the right creative team to play with…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui! I think this will be a popular one this week! I read it decades ago, so can remember nothing, but I *did* read a later volume of her adventures in Russia which was very entertaining. Perhaps a good one to pick up when I need to escape from the horrors of the modern world…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m sure it will be, definitely one the landmark books of the year, for sure. As for it being a potential antidote to the current state of the nation, there’s definitely something in that. If only the biggest issues we had to worry about were as manageable as the PL’s, our lives would be so much simpler…

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Fabulous review, for a quite joyful book. You make me want to read it again immediately. I have the Persephone edition and the VMC omnibus with all the PL books in.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As Simon was saying above, it is one of those books you can go back to again and again, even in small doses for the occasional lift. Your editions sound lovely. And how appropriate they are from Persephone and Virago – probably your favourite publishers if I were to hazard a guess.

      Reply
  6. Jane

    I haven’t read this yet although I have an old green Virago copy waiting, but your copy is fabulous – It would make me smile every time I saw it!

    Reply
  7. hopewellslibraryoflife

    Good review! I loved this book and plan to read the others in time. Robert having to eat minced beef. lol So many good chuckles in that diary.
    For what it’s worth, I see Vile Bodies on the list–I am not a fan, though I enjoy Waugh. I don’t think it stood the test of time as well as many people feel it does.
    Now off to look into Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (2013).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, I preferred Waugh’s Vile Bodies to Decline and Fall, which I did feel had dated very badly (I read it around the time of the BBC mini series with Jack Whitehall in the lead role). There’s a somewhat savage streak running through those early novels that doesn’t quite sit comfortably with the ‘mood’ of the modern world. I love his humour, but at times it feels a little too close to the bone (if you know what I mean).

      Love, Nina is great, and the TV adaptation is worth a look, too. Enjoy. :)

      Reply
  8. Liz

    I’m one of the few who have not read this yet. I tried a while ago but it wasn’t the right time, so I must get back to it sometime because I’m sure I would enjoy it based on your lovely review. And thanks for the nudge about Jean Rhys. I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea but am keen to try her other work, 😀

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. Timing can be everything with a book like this. It has a very particular tone and feel, so if you’re not in the ‘right’ mood it just won’t fly. Definitely worth another try, though – whenever you feel the time is right.

      The Rhys is brilliant. Quite different from Wide Sargasso Sea, but possibly even better imho. I do hope you get a chance to try it!

      Reply
  9. Tredynas Days

    I’m another who hasn’t read this; I’d always naively assumed it was a genuine diary, not a novel! As for Vile Bodies – it’s so long since I read it I remember little about it, but I too find EW’s mordant wit a little too rancorous – though it’s always good to see pomposity and stupidity ridiculed – we could do with a bit more of that here in the UK at the moment…Must check my archive for 1930 titles, as I’m too occupied with current plans to start something new.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is fiction but largely autobiographical, I think. The boy and girl have different names to Delafield’s own children, although I suspect they are pretty accurate representations nonetheless. It certainly has the feel of being grounded in reality, if somewhat embellished for literary effect.

      As for skewering pomposity and stupidity, I’m in agreement with you on that. Satire can be a very effective tool when employed effectively, but that’s probably easier said than done. I was hoping that Jonathan Coe’s Middle England might prove to be a razor-sharp critique on the current state-of-the-nation, but the reviews I’ve seen so far have been rather mixed or disappointing. Oh well…maybe there’s scope for another writer to fashion something interesting here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve just read your piece – lovely review! Much as I like this Penguin edition, I’m rather jealous of your VMC with it’s vintage green livery and spine. I do wish Virago would go back to these ‘artwork’ covers, irrespective of modern tastes and styles. :)

      Reply
  10. Pingback: “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” (Capt. Spaulding, Animal Crackers (1930)) | madame bibi lophile recommends

  11. Caroline

    I’m so glad I own this. It sounds delightful. The episode with the hair is a hoot. I will need something like this after Berlin Alexanderplatz. It makes Ulysses look breezy.

    Reply
  12. P L

    I love this book, and now need to re-read it after your review. Delafield’s real daughter later wrote a book that continued the form of her mother’s; she and her husband had moved to Canada, and her book is called Provincial Daughter. It doesn’t have quite the sparkle of her mother’s writing, but I found it interesting just because of the link. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how interesting! I hadn’t come across it before but will definitely look it up. Many thanks for the tip. I hope you enjoy your re-read of The Provincial Lady. It definitely feels like a book one could happily return to again and again

      Reply
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  15. Liz Dexter

    Great highlights you’ve brought out there. I love this and the other three; I have them in the Virago omnibus paperback edition and have read them right through a number of times.

    Reply

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