The Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield

E.M Delafield’s ‘The Diary of a Provincial Lady’ is a book that has been recommended to me umpteen times through the blogosphere. When a book comes under so much glowing praise firstly I have a good old think for about two seconds before I run off and grab a copy, then when I get it home I don’t read it instantly, oh no, I look at it on and off for a few weeks with trepidation instead. Will I actually like it? Have these lovely people got my book taste just so? What on earth will they think of me if I don’t like it? It can actually prove somewhat vexing.

Now really the title of this book does kind of tell you what’s coming. This is a fictional ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ though having a wander through the internet etc it turns out that actually this was quite an autobiographical volume of E.M. Delafield’s work. We follow our narrator through a year of village life as she copes with village life, marriage, children, cooks, neighbours and the like for just under a year. That is pretty much the premise of the book, throw in some very dry, wry (I am rather loving this word at the moment, deadpan humour and a bunch of rather wonderfully bizarre local characters and there you have a novel that you will sit grinning through.

The book is not one which is heavy on plot. Instead it is much more based on observational humour yet to my mind there was also a slight sadness to it. Whilst you have the cook who is always on the verge of quitting, the children who mystify their mother, nosey neighbours and the wonderful Lady Boxe who our narrator is ever in competition with and who constantly questions their friendship, I suppose you would call them ‘frenemies’ or some such in today’s world. There is also a husband that really never listens to his wife or seems to care which really is quite odd and the more I thought from that aspect and took into account all the friendships too I suddenly felt that actually our hilarious heroine is quite alienated and isolated. That could just be me of course has anyone else spotted this? It just stuck out to me amongst all the inane grinning I was doing!

Grin a lot I did, no actual out loud laughter but a lot of grinning and I think a smirk or two. I am probably preaching to the converted with this book as I am sure that many of you have already had the pleasure of this novel and possibly its subsequent series The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America and The Provincial Lady in Wartime which I might have a search for and read one day. In fact, and I have this on the TBR at the moment, E.M Delafield’s daughter R.M. Dashwood went on to write ‘Provincial Daughter’ and I am looking forward to reading that in the not too distant future.

A very enjoyable read all in all and one that you can either divulge in an afternoon or dip into now and again from the bedside table. I must forewarn people though that there is some discussion on a certain shopping site about the fact some books advertise three of the volumes and yet only contain the one. I can’t speak for the normal paperback as I bought the delightful Cath Kidston (perfect designer to cover this book) covered edition which is just the first volume.

If like me you enjoy crazy characters, wry observational humour and village life then I doubt very much you could resist its charms. I am wondering what other rare gems that fall under that category of book I am yet to read.

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27 Comments

Filed under E. M. Delafield, Review, Virago Books

27 responses to “The Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, and you must seek out a copy which has the rest of the books in 🙂

    The Provincial Daughter is quite different but also an entertaining read. I’ve written about both on my Virago blog.

    • I will definately read more of Delafield’s work but as there are still so many authors out there I will wait for these books to cross my path. I really enjoyed it but think, like any series, I would need a bit of a break between each one.

      I am looking forward to Provincial Daughter.

  2. Oh, this is on my wishlist! I enjoyed Consequences so much… though of course that’s a totally different type of story. I’m sure I’ll love this one. She’s a wonderful writer!

  3. Interesting review, Simon. I never really thought of the books as sad but I do know what you mean. There is a sense that the Provincial Lady is a bit trapped and underappreciated, but then I think E M Delafield did caricaturise a lot of the characters. By all accounts her marriage was perfectly happy and the model of the silent husband is very common in 1930’s literature so I considered his lack of interest more of a general period thing/cultural expectation of the time than a judgement on the quality of their relationship.
    You should DEFINITELY seek out the sequels – The Provincial Lady in Wartime is my favourite – it gives a fascinating insight into what London was like during the war and what war work was like.

    • I didnt think it was a sad book, I just felt there were occasionally sad undertones, like the ignoring husband and the competing friendships but as you say this could just be life in the rural 1930’s. It was just something I noticed and wondered if anyone else had?

      I will keep my eyes peeled for the rest of the series. I have to say if Provincial Lady in wartime is half as good as Joyce Dennys Henrietta’s War then I would definately be in for another treat.

      • Yes I think it was a very good point! And I do think you’re right in that some of the undertones are sad…the Provincial Lady certainly seems very frustrated with her life at times. I didn’t mean to suggest that you thought the whole book was sad…I know that’s not what you meant!

        I haven’t read the Dennys but basically in Wartime the PL gets a flat in London so that she can do war work and the characters she meets while working in a kitchen for VADs are absolutely hilarious – it was also fascinating to see how eager everyone was to join the effort, and how few jobs there were for willing volunteers!

      • Oh Rachel you must must must read Dennys its one of my most favouirte reads of the year! The ideaof this narrator being stuck in a kitchen has brought a smile to my face without even reading it hee hee.

  4. I am not sure where I have been, but this is the first time that I have heard of this title. I loved the review and feel that I simply must add this book to my 2010 TBR list. Thanks, Simon.

  5. Thank You! I now know what I’m getting my Mom for Christmas. This story sounds right up her street AND Cath Kidston cover her favourite designer…..plus I wouldn’t mind stealing it myself later 🙂

    • Oh well if you are going to borrow it afterwards then do get your mitts on it Jessica. I will say though that the feedback is to get the book that contains all of the volumes this one only has the one.

  6. I have the four Provincial Lady books in one volume (a 1940s one which is now falling apart, so will seek out the readily-available Virago 4-in-1) and, as you probably know, they’re amongst my favourite books. I’m re-reading them at the moment for the umpteenth time. My favourite is the second, The Provincial Lady Goes Further.

    I see what you mean about the slightly sad angle – but what saves the books from having this, for me, is her friend Rose with whom she is really close.

    Having read Violet Powell’s biog The Life of a Provincial Lady (which isn’t actually very good, overall) I discovered that a lot of it is true, but not the husband – EMD’s was rather more friendly, thankfully!

  7. I’ve had this book on my to-read list almost as long as I’ve had a to-read list. Unfortunately when something’s been on a list that long, you get really good at glancing over it. Thanks for reminding me that I need to read this!

    • You are so right about that, I have noticed that I can have a must read book on my TBR and the longer its there the more invisible it is, one is in my eye line now and I have to read it soon… what is it? Oh I musnt tell.

  8. I’ve seen this around, because the Cath Kidston cover is so distinctive. It doesn’t sound like something I’d normally read, but I admit I’m intrigued…

    • I have a list of people to lend it too and have indeed just lent it today or would pop a copy your way at Book Group. I have to say I would now swap this for the 4 in 1. That would mean no Cath Kidston cover though!!!

  9. Simon S – like Simon T I have the Virago edition with four of the Provincial stories in one volume. My old copy was falling apart and, as I dislike the new edition, I kept an eye open and found a practically brand new copy in a charity bookshop so I bought it. I think my favourite is Provincial Lady goes to war though in Provincial Lady goes further, when she is in the US, and she visits the home of Louise May Alcott, as I did, then I think perhaps that one is my favourite. One of my all time top bestest books and you have made me want to re-read them again!

    • Oh how did you all know of this 4 in 1 – in fact I hold you and Simon responsible Elaine hahahahaha. You two both raved about this book and didnt forwarn me of this fabulous 4 in 1 edition… I may sulk, or just do my research better in future ha.

      • I suppose Simon, because I had the four in one edition, I just assumed you had it as well!! So get thee hence and purchase – it is still in print by Virago though I dislike the cover and prefer my old battered edition which is falling apart. And then don’t forget there is one called The Provincial Lady in Russia those this is not striclty a PL book – EMD wrote about her visit to The Soviets and publishers, canny as they are, reissued it as a DPL books. Very funny and serious at the same time and well worth reading.

        Now off you go to Amazon!

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