Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘E.M. Delafield’ Category

Like many other people this week, I am viewing the 1930 Club as the perfect excuse to reread The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield.  This begs the question, does one ever really need an excuse to read such a perfect book?  No but I took it anyways.

For the uninitiated (are there any of you?  Is it possible that the Venn diagram of people who read my blog and people who have read the Provincial Lady does not directly overlap?), the Provincial Lady is a devoted diarist who chronicles the small goings in her life over the course of a year.  The PL lives in the country with her husband Robert (a land agent), her six-year-old daughter Vicky, and, when he is not away at school, her son Robin.  They are attended by the standard indispensable household staff for an interwar middle-class household, include Mademoiselle, Cook, a maid, and a gardener.  Life is not hard but it has its trials and they are (mostly) all amusing.

With a mono-syllabic husband who is more likely to fall asleep with his copy of The Times after dinner than make sparkling conversation, the PL pours most of her thoughts into her diary.  She aspires to cultural and social refinements but, to her disappointment, is always falling a bit short.  She can’t quite find the enthusiasm to read the books she knows she ought to read.  When in town, she swears she wants to see the exhibitions everyone else is talking about, but prefers to spend her time shopping for things she can’t afford.  She can’t seem to win the literary contests she enters, even though clearly stupider friends and relations manage to do so.  She struggles to be modern (particularly when it comes to parenting), well-dressed (always a challenge on her budget), and many other things, always falling a bit short.

Where she doesn’t fall short is with her writing.  The PL’s style is distinctive and has been copied ad nauseum since she appeared (Bridget Jones being her most famous descendant) and you can understand why.  Brevity is the soul of wit and her sentences are masterfully short with great effect.  Most winningly, she leaves herself notes and questions in her diaries for further reflection, highlighting her insecurities and random trains of thoughts, and giving us a much better sense of her personality than most verbose novelists could do.

But the best way to get to know the PL is through her own words.  I find she is always at her best when discussing the children.  Lamentably, they are neither as attractive nor as angelic as other people’s children appear to be, which she feels reflects badly on her.  Vicky and Robin are reassuringly irritating and arguably the best things about the book:

December 1st – Cable from dear Rose saying she lands at Tilbury on 10th.  Cable back welcome, and will meet her Tilbury, 10th.  Tell Vicky that her godmother, my dearest friend, is returning home after three years in America.  Vicky says: “Oh, will she have a present for me?”  Am disgusted with her mercenary attitude and complain to Mademoiselle, who replies Si la Sainte Vierge revenait sur la terre, madame, ce serait notre petite Vicky.  Do not at all agree with this.  Moreover, in other moods Mademoiselle first person to refer to Vicky as ce petit démon enragé.

(Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?)

December 24th – Take entire family to children’s party at neighbouring Rectory.  Robin says Damn three times in the Rector’s hearing, an expression never used by him before or since, but apparently reserved for this unsuitable occasion.

The PL also saves some of her frustration for Robert, but I have a soft spot for him so feel this is largely unearned.  Robert is a solid, predictable man who does not share his wife’s cultural pretensions but tolerates them (I think) remarkably well.  He is decidedly not a figure of high romance – however much the PL might sometimes wish him to be:

December 10th – Read Life and Letters of distinguished woman recently dead, and am struck, as so often, by difference between her correspondence and that of less distinguished women.  Immense and affectionate letters from celebrities on every other page, epigrammatic notes from literary and political acquaintances, poetical assurances of affection and admiration from husband, and even infant children.  Try to imagine Robert writing in similar strain in the (improbable) event of my attaining celebrity, but fail.  Dear Vicky equally unlikely to commit her feelings (if any) to paper.

April 12th – …Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.  Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.

I do find that the book is best when the PL is focused on her family.  E.M. Delafield has young children herself at this stage who clearly provided endless inspiration for Vicky and Robin’s most obnoxious behaviours. (N.B. Delafield’s daughter wrote Provincial Daughter as a 1950s response to her mother’s book.)  When the PL turns her sights to her social circle, the humour lags a bit.  Yes, she is still amusing in her pretensions and frustrations but I like her most when she is exasperated rather than insecure.

I like her least of all when she reminds me of how incompetent she is with money.  She is always short of funds: the pawnbroker knows her well and her banker dreads her visits to have her overdraft extended.  It’s never entirely clear if this is a family-wide issue (if so, Robert is remarkably sanguine, though he does know about the pawnbroker) or just the PL’s particular cross to bear.  What is clear is that she should not be allowed near money as every time she has any – or the promise of any – she spends it quickly and uselessly.  I can love her for her other foibles but this one leaves me twisted into anxious knots.

The Provincial Lady never disappoints and it was a delight to revisit her again.  But, by the end, it’s also a relief to leave her.  She is not a restful person – always aspiring to something that she can never reach, always feeling inadequate for some silly reason – and it’s refreshing to leave her behind and return to a more well-ordered world.

Read Full Post »