The Virago edition I read also contained three sequels, namely:
- The Provincial Lady Goes Further;
- The Provincial Lady in America; and
- The Provincial Lady in Wartime.
E. M. Delafield wrote these books originally as weekly entries in Time and Tide, a feminist paper, and so (as Nicola Beauman points out in her introduction) are occasionally repetitious. They take the form of fictitious entries in a diary kept by an unnamed lady who lives somewhere in Devon, not unhappily married to the reserved Robert, with a son, Robin, and daughter, Vicky. The diary chronicles the daily life of a woman in the early 1930s, with WI meetings, villages fetes, repeated meetings with Our Vicar’s Wife (who never stops talking) and sundry other characters, frequent servant problems (Cook making dire warnings about the state of the range, or the parlour-maids always giving notice), the state of the Lady’s overdraft, and occasional trips to London.
The later books tell of her modest literary success and takes her to London for a while; of her tour of the eastern USA while giving talks about her books; and in the first months of wartime, trying (and failing) to get work involving writing.
The books are amusing, rather than laugh-out-loud funny – I thought the wartime one was best: there are several delightful characters, and the continuous search of everyone for jobs to do – in the early part of the war where nothing much appeared to happen – is funny. The Provincial Lady herself is a contradictory character: literary and well-educated, she is incapable of being rude to anyone, or, often, of disagreeing with them, though she sees clearly enough to write her real feelings or thoughts in her diary. Her diaries’ long struggle with the dislike she feels for her neighbour, Lady Boxe, is evidently mirrored by some of the other characters, but Lady B is wealthy and carries off all with a high hand. She makes friends easily, but it’s interesting to see that it’s only in America, and then in wartime, where first names are used routinely of new acquaintances – informality is gradually creeping in. She’s also, despite her very conservative life, not very prejudiced (she gets very indignant about disparaging remarks made about Jews, for example, when she’s visiting America).
There are some lovely bits – for example: the rather guilty pleasure she takes in her acquaintance with the scandalous Pamela; the resolve to see Louisa M. Alcott’s house in Concord, and her delight in meeting some of Alcott’s relatives; her determination to see the bright side of things – though I think much of the humour is difficult for a modern reader to see, due to the massive changes brought about by the war and its aftermath, but which would have been entirely relevant for her original audience. Luckily, there is still enough ironical observation and sarcastic remarks (never to the face of the subject of her derision, unfortunately!) and slightly farcical situations (I loved the bit where she was trying to find a man in one of the Ministries during the Wartime book – directed here, there and everywhere!) to remain an entertaining read.
The books are also useful to read as a spotlight on social mores and behaviour at the time, filled with everyday cares and daily joys or tribulations. There’s no great emotion, but there is humour and a sort of unconscious making the best of things attitude, which contrasts to that prevailing nowadays. Delafield writes with a light touch – she doesn’t go in much for description in the entries, but has a way with the daily trivialities of life that render them less trivial.
Anyway, these are recommended, but with the warning that you probably shouldn’t gulp them down whole – they were written as serials, and are probably best read that way.
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