Tuesday, 1 April 2014

'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' by EM Delafield

There’s something about the diary format that lends itself to comic fiction. Whether it’s spilling the innermost secrets of joyously naive Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), lovelorn hypochondriac Adrian Mole (1982), or eternal singleton Bridget Jones (1996)… over the decades, the diary format has brought many a novel to life.

Maybe it’s the informal first person narrative, maybe it’s the unashamed insights into someone’s deepest thoughts, maybe it’s the illusion of unedited ego. Whatever it is, EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) truly has it in spades. And happily, Persephone Books has just reissued the diary in a beautiful new volume.

Originally conceived as a light-hearted column in the feminist magazine Time & Tide (of which Delafield was a director), the diary follows an unnamed middle-class wife living somewhere near Devon as she deals with the daily troubles of running her home, keeping her children under control (her son is away at boarding school while her daughter is home educated by a French governess), appeasing her gruff husband who hides behind The Times, and the eternal servant problem as staff come and go. 

Our nameless heroine is preoccupied. The bulbs she planted (in pots she definitely did not buy in Woolworths) are refusing to flower, no matter what room she puts them in, and the endlessly competitive Lady Boxe is driving her up the wall with her constant one-up-man-ship and determination to patronise our lady at every turn. 

Mademoiselle refuses to speak a word of English, but thinks that the lady’s daughter Vicky is the most angelic little bean ever born. While son Robin repeatedly returns from boarding school with an increasingly unlikely succession of unpopular friends who have come to stay with no warning whatsoever. And all the while, hard-working husband Robert is huffing behind The Times, and the staff are constantly threatening to hand in their notice.

I know… to a 2014 reader, it may not sound like the most absorbing material for a book. But that is where the majesty in EM Delafield’s writing is. The Diary of a Provincial Lady is un-putdownable. I first read it about six years ago (as a single 20-something) and loved it so much that I immediately read the subsequent three books in succession (not something I’d advise - spread the joy!). To re-read it again as a married 30-something, I loved The Diary of a Provincial Lady even more and have dug out my copies of the sequels to re-read in a leisurely fashion. 

On so many occasions, I kept thinking ‘That’s such a Bridget Jones thing to do...’, but of course our provincial lady pre-dates Bridget by 66 years, and maybe Bridget was simply acting a a provincial lady manner?! The gentle humour of the provincial lady is compulsive, endearing and identifiable. If only she didn’t have a cook, she would certainly be serving up blue string soup to Lady Boxe. 

Our provincial lady is concerned with flitting up to London on the train to keep herself kitted out in the right clothes, while constantly pawning and buying back her grandmother’s diamond ring to enable her to do so. Our provincial lady is cataloguing her awful and exhausting trip to France with the children, in a way that reminds me of Bridget’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival but inability to see any shows while there. Our provincial lady is invited to give talks at neighbouring WI meetings, in the way that Bridget falls backwards down a fireman’s pole live on TV. It’s the same but different… Bridget lives in a different age, but in many ways the provincial lady is her QVC-loving mum.

The popularity of the first Diary of a Provincial Lady in 1930 led to three further volumes, and these are readily available in collected editions. But to my mind, the original diary is the best and most enjoyable. And this new edition by Persephone (2014) is an absolute delight - it contains the original line drawings by Arthur Watts, and the endpapers are the covers from the 1930 edition. 

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