A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

EM Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

with 7 comments

If proof were ever needed that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady provides plenty. Looking particularly chintzy in the rose-covered jacket of its excellent new four-volume edition from Virago, this prim-sounding  tome from the 1930s seems to promise a gentle stroll through everything that is genteel, correct and charming…

In other words, dull. In fact, had it not been recommended by a friend who’d already put several other great reads my way, I’d probably have slotted it straight back on to the shelf and moved on. So it was a delight, on settling down on the daybed one Sunday after giving the servants the afternoon off,  to find wit and sharp perceptions where I’d expected find fluffy generalisations and tweeness.

Told through the diary entries of an anonymous Provincial Lady, the novel unfolds the triumphs and frustrations of domestic life in the early twentieth century. It documents the trials of its narrator as she struggles to keep up appearances in the face of mounting debts, squabbles among children and staff and the unreasonable demands of contemporaries.

‘Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”?’ she muses at the end of one entry. ‘Answer came there none.’

Yet this is no catalogue of woes. Bursting from the same stable as Stella Gibbons, Delafield uses comedy to fence from behind the accepted forms and social mores of upper-middle-class society, spearing the hypocrisy, inconsistencies and oddness of the world around her. Each character is revealed in all his or her contrariness, from Our Vicar’s Wife, who is always saying how busy she is and yet always outstays her welcome, to the stormy Mademoiselle, who has a mauvais mot for every occasion. Not to mention the Provincial Lady herself,  with her talent for selective blindness when it comes to domestic economy versus shopping sprees.

Revelling in the ludicrous, Delafield, who originally wrote the book in instalments for Time and Tide — itself a recurring theme in the book — exploits the diary form for comic effect, puncturing expectations with the bathetic reality that follows. So ‘dear old school friend’  Cissy Crabbe turns out to be on a punishingly strict diet that throws the household into chaos, and the bulbs that are puffed so persuasively in their marketing pamphlets moulder in their pots.

The comedy lives in the space between the way things are supposed to be and the awkward reality, much like the novel itself. And this is what makes it such fun to read. Far from being the narrow story of a cossetted woman in a very particular time and place, this is a work that resonates far beyond the boundaries of its setting and subject matter. It is anything but provincial in scope. Cosmopolitan men, women and children everywhere will find it a joy.

Which books have surprised you ? Leave a comment and let me know.

Picture by Ms Bailey

Written by Ann Morgan

August 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

7 Responses

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  1. Sounds wonderful 🙂 I keep meaning to read more Viragos. A book that surprised me was THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME, by Jean Thompson. I thought it would be a dull contemporary family-dysfunction novel but it turned out to be magical!


    August 8, 2011 at 10:37 am

  2. I read this one summer a few years back when I was very anxious and worried. It was the only book I could face and it was a delight. It kept my spirits up and cleared my mind and remains now as one of those books for whose existence I am purely grateful. I’m so glad you appreciated it.


    August 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm

  3. I know that this may sound odd because the book is a classic, but I am totally surprised by how much I am enjoying Anna Karenina! I’m from a tough part of New York City. Also, as you know, I write humor. So when my wife and I decided to listen to Anna Karenina as we drove to my parents home (a 12 hour trip), I was surprised by how interesting and entertaining it is! Now, I can’t wait to go on another trip so that we can finish listening to it! I enjoyed your post.

    Wayne E.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:59 am

    • Thanks Wayne. I have to confess I’ve never read Anna Karenina. In fact there are some pretty massive Russian-shaped gaps in my reading history. I’ll have to give them a go once my male writer ban is over…


      August 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  4. Oh wow I will have to read this, it sounds as brilliant as ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ which also surprised me! I am very much enjoying reading your blog, the women-only year sounds like it’s going really well.

    Anna Galkina (@AGalkina)

    August 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    • Thanks Anna. I’ve actually got Miss Pettigrew lives for a day on my bedside table lined up to read (along with about 20 other books). I hope to get to it at some point in the next couple of months. I’m having a brief holiday at the moment so for once have time to get down to some serious reading…

      Thanks very much for your encouragement – it means a lot.


      August 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm

  5. I was very surprised by the book girl with a dragon tattoo. I thought it would be very different.


    August 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

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