E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. I’d been meaning to get around to reading this book for a while – it had been recommended to me by friends (including the always-reliable in these matters Anna Carey). I loved this so much; the rueful tone, the self-awareness, the snobbery, the not understanding why Robert can’t understand that the new footman has a funny name, the social anxiety and the obvious intelligence. I’m glad I discovered Delafield, and I look forward to reading more.

(A version of this appeared in TSG here etc)

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There’s a particular form of criticism of some writers (like Jane Austen, horrifyingly enough) which suggests that their work isn’t worth much because it’s so limited in scope. They only write about domestic issues, relationships, day-to-day household life. Trivial subjects all.

But in the hands of some writers triviality is not such a bad thing. No one who isn’t completely joyless complains that P. G. Wodehouse restricts himself to a bunch of mentally deficient upper-class English twits, when what he does with these characters is so good. And in E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a few months in the life of an upper-middle-class, harried mother of two is the stuff of genius.

Delafield’s “Provincial Lady” lives in a village with her two children, the mademoiselle who acts as governess to her daughter, and Robert, her husband. Robert works as a land agent for a Lady Boxe (Lady B) who frequently pops in to patronise our heroine. Robert is always grumpy about something, their daughter Vicky has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, and their son Robin spreads chaos and destruction whenever he is home from school. The house is never tidy, the cook is always upset about something, and nothing ever seems to go quite right. The Vicar’s wife visits and refuses to leave, and a local suffragette is trying to raise political awareness.

Our unnamed provincial lady worries frequently about money. This seems ridiculous – the family has a governess, a domestic staff of at least three people, and a son who goes to what seems quite a fancy boarding school. There’s plenty of classism here, as you’d expect. And yet it’s not as offensive as it might have been in other circumstances, and the narrator has everything to do with it.

In part it is the tone of the book. Diaries are usually intended only to be read by the person writing them*, and Delafield’s fictional diary is therefore written as if to assume that the reader can follow the supposed writer’s thoughts – jumping from topic to topic without any particularly obvious logical connection. It’s a surprisingly intimate style and it works.

She’s also accessible because she isn’t perfect. A recurring theme in the book is her failure throughout the year to successfully grow hyacinths indoors from bulbs, with cats, husbands, children and incomprehensible instruction booklets all getting in the way. She’s also never quite dressed right for the occasion. She catches measles as an adult in the most undignified possible manner. She’s never quite at ease in social or cultural situations. She worries about being wrong about literature (“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it”) and about how people will see her (“feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting–which indeed I should be–so better forget about it”).

Yet all of this is done with a sense of rueful self-awareness. She knows very well that the social circles into which she aspires to fit are pretentious. (“Americans, we say, undoubtedly hospitable–but what about the War Debt? What about Prohibition? What about Sinclair Lewis? Aimée MacPherson, and Co-education? By the time we have done with them, it transpires that none of us have ever been to America, but all hold definite views, which fortunately coincide with the views of everybody else.”) She knows the class system is silly. She knows that her various failures are funny – her diary suggests that she’s laughing at herself throughout.

If this seems heartless, it isn’t. There are flashes throughout of genuine feeling; but feeling filtered through a well-developed sense of irony. The result is familiar and hilarious.

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*Unless you are a character in an Oscar Wilde play. Doesn’t Cecily Cardew say somewhere that her diary is totally private and consequently meant for publication?

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