Today would have been E M Delafield’s birthday – and she is the next author to be featured in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I wasn’t planning to join in with this one but, during last weekend’s Mini Persephone Readathon, having finished Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, I wanted something else to read and remembered that Diary of a Provincial Lady is also published by Persephone. My copy is not the dove-grey Persephone edition, but I was still pleased to have found a book that would count for both the Readathon and today’s celebrations!
Diary of a Provincial Lady, first published in 1930, is exactly what you would expect from the title: a novel written in the form of the diary of a ‘Provincial Lady’. The Lady, whose name we never learn, lives with her husband Robert in a village in the south of England. Their young son, Robin, is away at school much of the time, but there is also a daughter, Vicky, who is educated at home by Mademoiselle, her French governess. Several more servants, including a temperamental cook and a series of dissatisfied parlourmaids, complete the household.
The Provincial Lady’s days are always busy and varied. As well as being responsible for managing the servants, there are tea parties and garden fetes to attend, dinners to host and visitors to entertain – including the formidable and snobbish Lady Boxe, and Our Vicar’s Wife who, once she arrives, often forgets to leave again! The Provincial Lady records all of these things in her diary over a period of about a year, writing in short, concise sentences interspersed with notes, queries and memos to herself.
I have been putting off reading Diary of a Provincial Lady for a long time, because I wasn’t convinced that it sounded like my sort of book, but I was actually very pleasantly surprised. One of the things that surprised me was how often I found I was able to relate to the Provincial Lady and her problems. In fact, I think a lot of the situations she describes are things that most of us would probably identify with…saying something stupid and then wondering why on earth we said it; pretending we understand what somebody is talking about and then being caught out later in the conversation; agreeing to do something and immediately wishing we hadn’t!
I couldn’t relate to everything, of course. The Lady’s lifestyle is entirely different from my own – I don’t have servants to worry about, for example, and if I found myself in financial trouble my solution wouldn’t be to buy myself some expensive new dresses then go off to the South of France for a holiday. I can appreciate, though, that she belonged to a certain time and a certain class and that her position in society meant that she was expected to behave in a particular way.
I was also surprised by how funny the book was! A sense of humour is often a personal, individual thing and sometimes when someone else says that a book is hilarious I’m disappointed when I don’t find it very funny at all (and I’m sure this probably happens the other way around too). But the Provincial Lady’s observations are so witty and the things that happen to her are so amusing I couldn’t help but laugh.
I am aware that there are more books in the Provincial Lady series. A question to those who have read them – are they as good as this one or is there another E M Delafield book you think I should read instead?