Book review: Diary of a Provincial Lady

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield (1931)

Occasionally, upon reaching the end of a book, a reader may find hirself unsure as to exactly how to rate/categorize it. This is exactly how I felt when I reached the last line of Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. The book is either a light, enjoyable and forgettable read or a masterpiece. It is either wittily mundane or relentlessly subversive.

Let me digress for a moment before getting to the heart of this review to explain that the way I “discovered” this book and my own experience of reading it play major roles in my reception of it.

How I experienced Delafield

This is one of those books which made me actually laugh out loud while reading it. Not small giggles or demure chuckles but resounding belly laughs that were loud enough to bring the spouse in from some other room to ask “what’s so funny?” Each time this happened I would read the passage in question out loud (often barely able to do so without breaking into laughter again) and each time the spouse would respond with at a polite smile. “Yes,” zie would say, “quite amusing but it probably misses quite a bit from being out taken out of context.”

And that, of course, was the point. Delafield is not an author who can appreciated in excerpt or digest form unless the reader is already familiar with her style and created universe.

How I \”discovered\” Delafield

Much as the sentences in the book can be better appreciated in the light of all of the other sentences in the book, the experience of reading the book is further enriched, and indeed may only be fully achieved, if the book was read in the context of the other books published at the same time.

I \”discovered\” Delafield because of references made to her work among reviews of Angela Thirkell’s books. I would never have read Thirkell had not someone who read my reviews of E. F. Benson suggested her to me. I would not have reviewed E. F. Benson in the same manner had I not carefully placed Benson into the context of his time.

For today\’s reader E. F. Benson’s books might be understood/received differently if zie realizes that Benson set his stories in the same England (and to a large degree about the same types of people) as did Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and even, heaven forfend, H. C. Bailey. It is only when comparing the different ways in which these authors portrayed English society (given their varied backgrounds) that one can begin to see in full the larger story they were, probably unintentionally, telling.

The way in which Benson wrote about the gentry was informed by his own place within that class. Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, the brother of prominent writers and thinkers and a very successful novelist and short story writer. Benson grew up, and lived, around people who were financially and socially secure. While Thirkell was technically part of that same class there were times in her life (especially when she was living in Australia) when she endured serious economic and physical hardships. She and Benson both made a living from their writing but Thirkell wrote to achieve a standard of living that Benson had always been able to maintain.

Thirkell’s books were, like Benson’s, often wonderfully light and yet if one looked carefully beneath the light and witty surfaces one detected uncomfortable undercurrents of concern in the output of both authors. In Benson books the concerns often centred around how to maintain a particular place in life as well as how to fill the moments of one\’s life when, as members of the gentry, individuals were as limited in number and nature of their hobbies and philanthropies as they were in choices of careers. In Thirkell’s books those concerns often focused around money and the future as members of a class once as secure in its financial as its social place see economic (and social) changes coming for which they were unprepared. The careers and activities which Benson\’s shows members of that class indulging in will soon be neither within their financial reach nor capable of supporting them financially.

Diary of a Provincial Lady

Delafield, in Diary of a Provincial Lady, does more than just touch on these concerns, she makes them the central focus of the book. The titular Provincial Lady and her husband are of the gentry and so there are a limited number of ways in which they can fill their time. And their every hour is indeed filled and yet over the period of time covered by the book they seem, to the modern reader, to have been singularly unproductive. For example, we read little of what the Lady\’s husband\’s actual work entailed (that is, the work for which he was paid.) The work of the Provincial Lady herself appears to have been to maintain the appropriate outward signifiers that the family belonged to a particular class/social group. She does some writing that is intended for publication and she does much writing that is not. Like many of her class much of her time is spent writing reading letters from friends and acquaintances and writing letters to friends and acquaintances.

It strikes this modern reader that much of the letter reading/writing done by the characters in this and other books of the time differs little in content from the gossip exchanged by teenagers over the telephone (when I was growing up) and now by text, tweet and facebook post. So why was it not treated as simple time-wasting gossip and tittle-tattle? Two of the reasons are fairly obvious: first, it is members of society discussing the affairs of other members of society–thus it is by definition of value and in point of fact a requirement for any who wishes to negotiate the fairly complicated byways of society life at the time; and second, that which was written still carried with the rarefied patina of literacy. It is not that long since the time that comparatively few people in Britain were literate and the reading and writing of letters was a sign of being a member of gentry. Additionally, of course, the ability to afford cost of keeping up such written correspondences was a marker of class status just as was having a telephone, making \”trunk calls\” and owning a car.

And the Lady (who remains nameless throughout the book) certainly sees herself as being busy:

Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as \”leisured\”? Answer comes there none.)

And the modern day reader (or a reader contemporaneous to Delafield but with far less money) might note that most women did not have the luxury of extra rooms in which young children normally eat their dinner and play in the evening or staff to look after those children. Nor did most women of the time (or now) have other people to make the soup, set the table, wash the dishes, bathe the children or clean their rooms.

August 3rd.–Difference of opinion arises between Robin and his father as to the nature and venue of former\’s evening meal, Robin making sweeping assertions to the effect that All Boys of his Age have Proper Late Dinner downstairs, and Robert replying curtly More Fools their Parents, which I privately think unsuitable language for use before children. Final and unsatisfactory compromise results in Robin\’s coming nightly to the dining-room and partaking of soup, followed by interval, and ending with dessert, during the whole of which Robert maintains disapproving silence and I talk to both at once on entirely different subjects. (Life of a wife and mother sometimes very wearing.)

The response of this reader (and I imagine the response of most working class women in the 1930s) is to wonder at someone who is so acclimatized to absolute leisure that even the task of \”listening to one\’s child\” become wearisome.

One of the major preoccupations of these \”gentle\” women in \”financial distress\” is the state of the kitchens and the quality of their “help.” Having servants to \”do\” for them is a vital marker of class. However changing financial (and social) times have made it harder to \”get\” good servants. Servants had taken to asking for larger wages and refusing to devote all the hours of the day and week to service. It was still at this time not uncommon to find people who forbade their servants to use the telephone, limited the hours they could socialize, limited who they could socialize with and even \”renamed\” servants who had what they considered to be unsuitable or difficult to pronounce names. With the rising levels of education and with more non-service jobs available to women people who wished to treat their servants as vassals or people who expected to receive top-class service for mediocre wages were finding it increasingly difficult to \”get by\”:

Cook says that unless help is provided in the kitchen they cannot possibly manage all the work. I think this unreasonable, and quite unnecessary expense. Am also aware that there is no help to be obtained at this time of the year. Am disgusted at hearing myself reply in hypocritically pleasant tone of voice that, Very well, I will see what can be done. Servants, in truth, make cowards of us all.

The author has a cook, a governess/nurse for the children, a gardener and at least two maids. Yet nothing seems ever to get done and her life (from her point of view) is abundantly full of chores.The cook is invariably bad and servants invariably inefficient, emotional and prone to turning in their notice. The titular Lady never asks herself if she and her husband would get a better cook if they were willing to pay better wages. They don\’t ask themselves if the fault may lie with the employers rather than the employees. The Lady never considers how much more money she and husband would have if only she did the cooking and she looked after her children and he did more work around the house.

The answer, unfortunately, was that the Lady and her husband could NOT do those things and maintain their social place. One doubts that Robert would have kept his job. It is possible that their children would no longer be accepted at the schools which they would now be able to afford. So the Lady knows (whether or not she is aware that she knows it) that she and her family are caught in the trap of financially distressed gentility–that the most rational way in which to respond to the financial distress can only be carried out at the cost of the very thing the family was sacrificing so much to maintain: their status as members of the gentry.

So, is this book wittily mundane or relentlessly subversive? That depends on determining whether the reader is merely reading the subversiveness into the text or whether the author layered it carefully in between the seeming irrelevancies.

Delafield is clearly a technically proficient writer. For example, she captures that most mysterious and frustrating aspect of time—that it often seems to simply slip away from us. Even the most simple interactions can take an inordinate amount of time and so she (like us) looks back with wonderment at the fact that writing a few letters, running a few errands and do a few household chores can consume the better part of day and yet leave one with the feeling that nothing at all has been accomplished.

June 17th.–Entire household rises practically at dawn, in order to take part in active preparations for Garden Fete…..At ten o\’clock our Vicar\’s wife dashes in to ask what I think of the weather, and to say that she cannot stop a moment. At eleven she is still here

She is equally good at pinpointing the necessary hypocrisies of successful socializing as in here when the diarist discusses the end of “dinner out”:

Exchange customary graceful farewells with host and hostess, saying how much I have enjoyed coming.

(Query here suggests itself, as often before: Is it utterly impossible to combine the amenities of civilisation with even the minimum of honesty required to satisfy the voice of conscience? Answer still in abeyance at present.)

Structuring the book as a diary allowed Delafield to write things which would be considered astringent or cynical were they spoken out loud but come across as insightful whimsy when confided only with the page:

I notice that conversation has, mysteriously, switched on to the United States of America, about which we are all very emphatic. 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.

(Query: Could not interesting little experiment be tried, by possessor of unusual amount of moral courage, in the shape of suddenly producing perfectly brand-new opinion: for example, to the effect that Americans have better manners than we have, or that their divorce laws are a great improvement upon our own? Should much like to see effect of these, or similar, psychological bombs, but should definitely wish Robert to be absent from the scene.)

This reader wonders (and one wonders if the author wondered) if other (or even all) of the people present at that scene) were thinking similar things?

Delafield returns frequently to scenes in which what is being said by a character is different from (and sometimes antithetical to) what that character is thinking. Similarly she repeatedly presents the reader with scenes in which was is being done is the opposite of what was planned to be done and what characters said they would do (or were doing.)

Did Delafield intentionally write Diary of a Provincial Lady to be both a whimsical and homourous examination of the quotidian concerns of the unexceptional provincial lady or as a slyly subversive examination of the futility and hypocrisy of those clinging to the social status of gentry in the face of the economic changes in English life? Repeated readings have not allowed this reader to answer that question but they have provided me with pleasure, entertainment and a greater understanding of challenges facing British provincial gentry in the 1930s.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars


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