Book Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield (1930)

by Victoria Madden

img_0005There’s something cosily domestic about being indoors on a rainy day with no need to go out; it’s a time to do all those unimportant yet essential little jobs like turning out the kitchen cupboards or matching all your black socks. A time to dig out a pleasantly undemanding book like my recently unearthed copy of The Diary of a Provincial Lady in its rather nice Virago green edition from the Eighties.

This is a doorstop sized omnibus of four books: Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930); The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932); The Provincial Lady in America (1934); and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940) which started life as a weekly instalment in the periodical Time and Tide. The first, that I’m currently re-reading, was so successful it was turned around to cash in on the Christmas book market within two months of it ending; a satirical look at the foibles, follies and social anxieties of the upper middle classes in the 1930s, it was effectively the Bridget Jones’s Diary of its day.

The ‘Provincial Lady’ is a writer, who once lived a Bohemian lifestyle in Hampstead with her friend Rose.  Now, married to a land agent for a Devonshire estate and with two young children, she lives in the country all year round – her occasional visits to London to stay with Rose and a holiday with her in the South of France (although at the wrong time of year) not seeming to count in this apparently dreadful scenario. As someone who’s not a gardener, plays tennis poorly and is afraid of horses, she doesn’t really fit in with the county set she moves amongst and her point of view is very much that of the hapless urban outsider.

Diary of a Provincial Lady covers the period November 7th 1929 to October 23rd 1930 and details the day-to-day household and social duties that continually get in the way of her attempts to write. It’s full of wry observations on the world around her and it’s written in a briskly rueful tone at the contemplation of her own and other people’s absurdities, and the brick bats that life occasionally throws:

Dec 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. Party otherwise entirely successful…

There’s all sorts of little gems for the social historian: topics of conversation are often listed – meant, I suspect, to highlight their general inanity – and there’s several references to books and plays of the moment – High Wind in Jamaica seems to have had quite an impact at the time. The entries are appended, too, with amusing Queries, Notes, N. B.s, and Mems. as well as ideas for articles that never get written, from the prosiac:

Nov 7th  Lady B. stays to tea. (Mem.: Bread and butter too thick. Speak to Ethel.)

to the clearly omniscient:

Dec 11th  Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading onto false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really materialise?

She’s very much writing for her own upper middle class circle, with her readers meant to recognise her Bridget-like social difficulties in themselves, and her struggles to make ends meet are, similarly, the struggles of her class to keep up its accustomed way of life post (First World) war. Although she has only two evening dresses ‘My Blue’ and ‘My Black-and-gold’ (both soon to be obselete with the change in fashion), sends old clothes to a second hand dealer and pawns her great-aunt’s diamond ring (which appears to constitute her sole jewellery) when particularly short, she maintains a subscription to a rarely used club in London, sends her son to a private school and has a live-in French governess for her daughter. When she is ill in May, after catching measles from the children, she has an ‘expensive’ live in hospital nurse for nearly two months, and recuperates with ‘grapes, Champagne and Valentine’s Meat Juice’.

What I enjoy most about this book is the recognisable picture of the period that’s built up for ‘middle-brow’ fans. The setting for the Diary is a small country village (shop, Post Office, church, workhouse, butcher, baker, grocer, fishmonger and two pubs: The Queen’s Head, and the Cross and Keys which has rooms) surrounded by the larger houses of the upper middle classes and dominated by the house of the local landed estate, and you very much feel you’re being taken behind the scenes of an Agatha Christie novel. Gossip is provided by Our Vicar’s Wife, the Post Office and a parish magazine, and entertainment by the Girl Guides, the WI and a Flower Show in August (flowers, vegetables, schoolchildren’s needlework, decorated carthorses, swingboats, brass band, decorated perambulators – with Dance afterwards, attended by servants). Barbara Blenkinsop’s Dilemma: to marry or stay as the prop and comfort of her widowed mother, runs round the entire parish in April, escalates thrillingly, to the interest of all those not concerned, and then is solved by the production of Roedean Old Girl, Cousin Maud in May. It’s the day-to-day working face, if you like, of the world so delightfully immortalised by E. F. Benson.

There’s a number of other interesting sidelights thrown on the period too: most women (upper middle class at any rate) seem not only to be able to drive but to own some sort of car; and the make up basics familiar to modern women are already widely available, though frowned upon by conservative types. Christmas seems to be very low key (and New Year’s Eve non-existent) with the sense of it being a social duty rather than a celebration, something I’ve found in other fiction of the period. I like the fact she does her entire Christmas shopping in pretty much one day! – as well as managing to get nearly everything at the one (Army and Navy) department store – apparently shopping elsewhere is unpatriotic.

The problem of clothes is a constant refrain, as there’s no possibility of not conforming with the prevailing fashion diktats, no matter how little they may suit you.  It’s extremely useful for pinpointing the exact moments of fashion change: ‘the new waistline’, discussed in November 1929, (moving from the waist-at-the-hip and hem-around-the-knee of the 1920s to the high waist and floor length skirts of the 1930s) is universal for evening wear by March 1930 – though not for daytime – hair is being grown long again and hats now have no brims. One rather charming snippet was that the Provincial Lady and her husband ‘dressed for dinner’ at home, even if they had no guests – quite a nice concept if you haven’t had to do the cooking yourself!

The children are out of the day to day picture most of the time – her son at a boarding prep school, whose Headmaster is obsessed with new buildings (plus ca change) and her six year old daughter looked after by the afore mentioned governess; though the Provincial Lady reads to them at bedtime and plays a variety of board games with her daughter in the drawing room of an evening (Ludo, Halma) it is the governess who takes charge of the children during the holidays and they eat with her upstairs. Although many of the entries constantly agonise about the difficulties of being a Modern Mother – which seems to involve not showing any overt attachment to, admiration of, or anxiety about, one’s offspring – when the Provincial Lady encounters her daughter around the house it is with the faint surprise of recalling a long-staying guest and though she constantly deplores the way ‘Mademoiselle’ is bringing up her daughter, there is the definite sense that she doesn’t really consider it her personal affair. She even wonders if the children are too much ‘en evidence‘ in front of guests – on Christmas Day!

There is also, of course, frequent mention of that perennial concern of the period: ‘the servant question’. Without the high end washing machines, super-strength cleaning products, gas central heating, microwave, ready meals and Dyson, with which her equivalent in modern society juggles housework and full-time job, the Provincial Lady is both dependent on servants and unable to afford the ultra competent ‘superior’ staff employed by those like Lady Boxe. As expanding job opportunities for women outside domestic service have siphoned off quantity as well as quality elsewhere, it’s very much a seller’s market. When both servants give notice she has a traumatic time through most of March trying to replace them – though her maid has no problems getting another place – and they have, in turn, an (unsatisfactory) house parlour man and a ‘superior’ house-parlourmaid ‘obtained at cost of enormous weekly sum’ before finally finding someone less competent and more within their budget.

(It’s really quite salutary to look back and realise just how much difference technological advances have made to women’s lives: a house the size of the Provincial Lady’s (five bedrooms by my calculations and presumably more in the attic for servants, with front and back stairs and a garden large enough to hold a fete in) would probably be run today with the aid of a part-time cleaner and gardener.)

Most of the Provincial Lady’s time is therefore still taken up by household duties – although, ostensibly, the servants are doing the actual work, they are constantly referring problems to her to deal with – the kitchen range isn’t producing hot water, there are numerous broken household objects to be replaced, items haven’t returned from the laundry – and the necessity of ‘speaking to’ servants or tradesmen is a constant refrain. There’s a good scene in June, where her attempts to sit in the garden and write during a sunny morning are continually frustrated by domestic concerns and conversations – until the weather clouds over and she has to take everything back in again.

Much of the household routine, and their own wishes, are also subject to the servants’ convenience rather than their employers’. Though she surprises herself by taking a firm stand with the cook over an August picnic, dinner is before eight, as the cook dislikes a later meal, and asking for cocoa in the evening is sure to be seen by the maids as an unreasonable request (it is). The Provincial Lady, ever conscious that servants dislike living in the quietness of the country and that the wages she can afford are low, frequently avoids asserting herself at all costs in case the servants Give Notice:

Dec 23rd  Should like to hurry up tea, but feel that servants would be annoyed, so instead offer to show [guests] their rooms, which they know perfectly well already.

I can see this book making a really a nice little film as long as it was properly cast. The ‘hook’ would be women’s struggle to juggle life and work in straitened circumstances – something which resonates with most of us these days – which is essentially the theme of the Diary. The ‘journey’ – the Provincial Lady’s attempt to write – would have to be made more explicit, perhaps showing her attempting to work on a novel, with intermittent telephone calls from her publisher as to its progress, and the end scene showing the completed manuscript ready to post on the bedroom table as she writes the last entry in her diary. It would make an excellent vehicle for Emma Thompson as she would handle it well; she could probably write the script too, as I think she has the required lightness of touch to flesh out certain scenes without losing the atmosphere.

In fact, thinking about it, the Diary of a Provincial Lady would adapt very easily to the screen, as it is, essentially, a series of almost stand-alone scenes with a loose narrative thread. The use of on-screen ‘handwriting’ giving the various dates would immediately set the season and period extremely economically and the opening entry/scene with the Provincial Lady struggling with the indoor bulbs (a continual motif that usefully highlights her sense of personal and social inadequacy) and being interrupted by Lady Boxe calling and staying to tea, ‘establishes’ the main characters, their relationship and the setting, again, very quickly and economically.

The use of voice-over, either leading into, concluding or sometimes over each scene would both knit together those entries/scenes which are a series of amusing vignettes, such as the nightmare journey to the South of France, and also enable us to ‘hear’ the Diary as the Provincial Lady’s inner commentary on people and events. High spots of the year such as the Garden Fete and Lady Boxe’s socially apartheid Dance, which bring all the characters together, could then be developed in more detail.

There are really good character parts for women: Dear Rose, her remaining link to literary London; Our Vicar’s Wife, who despite voluble protestations seems perpetually unable to leave; her enfant terrible six year old daughter (think Outnumbered) and her daughter’s French governess whose feelings are continually wounded; the unbearably hearty Cousin Maud; the appalling Miss Pankerton who, in a classic Bridget Jones moment she finds herself inviting to a family picnic at the seaside: a day at which it rains continually and they are cooped up with one another in bathing huts; and, of course, Lady Boxe, her bete noir.

There’s a great part for someone in Lady Boxe, her husband’s employer, whose ‘insufferable’ behavour runs through the Diary: graciously patronising, ‘looking in’ on her way to a ducal function, issuing invitations – which are sometimes nearer summons – to lunches, dinner and tea parties and frequently calling (always at an inopportune moment). Her Olympian obliviousness to the rest of society – assuming the Provincial Lady has the same politics and access to wealth as herself; turning up to the fundraising garden fete with a Londonish house-party (shades of Queen Lucia) which might reasonably be assumed to disgorge large sums, only to buy a single ninepenny lavender bag before driving off – keeps the parish in a state of outrage and provides them with conversational topics for weeks.

Now that I’ve thought of Emma Thompson in the role I can really see her as the intellectually isolated urbanite-at-heart Provincial Lady who, though perpetually flummoxed by the social demands of life in the country, is sharply observant of its foibles. She’d do the Bridget Jones elements in the Provincial Lady’s character well too: the seeming need for encouragement (permission?) from her husband to attend a famous Literary Club dinner or Mademoiselle to join Rose on holiday; the slight reluctance with which she takes the leading role expected of both an upper middle class woman and wife of the estate’s land agent, in village affairs (the brilliantly observed WI committee meeting she chairs about raising funds for a Village Hall would be a great scene); weakly agreeing with everything unpleasant callers say, as the quickest way of getting rid of them; setting the drawing room fire alight ahead of schedule with a carelessly thrown cigarette end; and ordering a luxurious dinner to celebrate her husband’s legacy, more in keeping with her taste than his.

In a typical incident she’s persuaded by a hairdresser’s assistant to have her colour touched up when she goes for a ‘shampoo and set’ – only to emerge with her hair dark mahogany looking ten years older and, although at one point she does contemplate an article entitled ‘Is Inherited Wealth Incompatible With Imagination?‘, her inability to rise above her fury at the behaviour of her overpoweringly gracious patron Lady Boxe means that she often reacts in a childishly petty way:

Nov 22nd  Have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us to distinguished literary friends as Our Agent and Our Agent’s Wife, I shall at once leave the house.

There’s really not that much for men – most of the male characters are only briefly sketched in and her husband, in particular, is extremely two dimensional – reacting with horror at the idea of leaving the country unless absolutely obliged and going to sleep over various newspapers after dinner. Actually, Hugh Laurie might make a good husband – grumpily non-commital along the lines of his role in Sense and Sensibility – and he’s huge in America after House so could bring in the crucial American audience.

There’s no actual American part to bring in the dollar funding – unless you fiddled around with the script a little and made Dear Rose an American? (You could also have various cameo roles/bit parts for Americans in Rose’s literary circle in London.) Rose’s ‘talented group of friends’ are all ‘connected with the Feminist Movement’ and some expanded scenes with them could be a chance to explore an element that’s only touched on in the Diary. (There’s also a reference to the W. I. as ‘the Movement’ that intrigues me.) Diary of a Provincial Lady is almost like a costume drama with strong modern themes that can easily be related to and so could potentially tap into the Downton audience demographic.

Though it’s obviously impossible these days to get all the ‘in-jokes’ in the Diary, it’s a glorious trove of insider information that resonate from other novels of the period: buying things cheaply at Woolworths (a stalwart of my Seventies childhood) – Beverley Nichols; ‘Burberry’ as the default name for a raincoat (now indelibly associated, in my mind at any rate, with appalling naffness) – Lord Peter Wimsey; a woman on a train with a red morocco jewel case (surely she’d have been mugged??) – Agatha Christie; and an elderly man on the same train wearing spats (note to Wodehousians: ‘What ho!’ was considered slightly old fashioned as slang by July 1930).

Diary of a Provincial Lady is the detail behind the world of P. G. Wodehouse and E. F. Benson, depicting the ‘squeezed middles’ of their day. It’s an excellent introduction to middle-brow fiction of the interwar period, a period that was characterised by these gentle satires by the upper middle classes on their own circles, and it describes a vanished world and, seemingly, a vanished class. The upper middle classes no longer write about their lives for each other (the last mention of them as a cohesive group, and in that vein, was The Sloane Ranger Handbook in the Eighties) or, it would seem, at all and with the demise of the Daily Telegraph their way of life is no longer even recorded.