Diary of a Provincial Lady

Before Bridget Jones there was the provincial lady…

E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady was first written for and serialised in Lady Margaret Rhondda’s feminist weekly, Time & Tide, beginning in December 1929.

Delafield was a popular novelist and valued contributor to the journal, and the caustic pages of the provincial lady’s diary were a great success with readers. It was obvious, even before its success was confirmed by the Book Society, that Macmillan’s book version was likely to do well. She is ‘I think our nearest Jane Austen’, Book Society Chairman Hugh Walpole wrote of Delafield in his diary (Nov. 5, 1928).

In Virago’s 1984 re-issueit is suggested that The Diary of a Provincial Lady is about ‘ordinariness’ (vii). The everyday humour and laugh-out-loud passages in the Diary are funny because they are humane and familiar, intimately capturing the petty indignities and small triumphs of daily life: problems with children and an uncommunicative husband, exasperating neighbours and trying but well-meaning friends.

This is not ‘ordinariness’ in most peoples terms: the provincial lady is of a particular set, with servants, children away boarding at school, and can occasionally (though with much domestic negotiation) take off to the South of France. But the charm in the self-depreciation and frankness overturns differences of class, or time. ‘Robert sees me off by early train for London, after scrambled and agitating departure, exclusively concerned with frantic endeavours to induce suit-case to shut’ (July 17th). ‘Go Through my clothes. Result so depressing that I wish I had never done it. Have nothing fit to wear, and if I had, should look like a scarecrow in it at present’ (May 16th).

The diary starts in November 1929 and two events dominate the opening pages: the saga that is the provincial lady planting her indoor bulbs (‘Take a look at bulb-bowls on returning suit-case to attic, and am inclined to think it looks as though the cat had been up here. If so, this will be the last straw’ (Nov. 13th), and the arrival of her new book from the Book Society. She is unimpressed with the November Choice, Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories:

‘Arrival of Book of the Month choice, and am disappointed. History of a place I am not interested in, by an author I do not like. Put it back in its wrapper again, and make fresh choice from Recommended List. Find, on reading small literary bulletin enclosed with book, that exactly this course of procedure has been anticipated, and that it is described as being ‘the mistake of a lifetime’. Am much annoyed, although not so much as having made (possibly) mistake of a lifetime, as at depressing thought of our all being so much alike that intelligent writers can apparently predict our behaviour with perfect accuracy’ (Nov. 14th).

She resigns four months later after a run of challenging novels (The Lacquer Lady, F. Tennyson Jesse’s historical novel of late nineteenth-century Burma; H. M. Tomlinson’s complex All Our Yesterdays; Sigrid Undset’s historical epic, Kristin Lavransdatter) citing ‘wide and ever-increasing divergence of opinion between us as to merits or demerits of recently published fiction’ (March 12th). But references to the Book Society continue to litter the diary as she tries to keep up with their choices and stay afloat with the conversation of her neighbours.

A funny, satirical expose of domestic and family life.