E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)
I’ve seen this book mentioned as a favorite by many, and lauded as a comic classic, and when a Folio Society edition came my way at a very reasonable price, I couldn’t resist. So I finally got to encounter the “provincial lady” and see what she had to say.
From the title alone, one can tell this is a very British book, with its slightly derogatory “provincial” (as opposed to fashionable London society) and the class-conscious “lady.” It’s a “diary,” though, so the lady is defining and perhaps poking fun at herself, another very British activity. In her entries, she chronicles a series of upper-middle-class concerns and woes: worrying over the best way to grow flower bulbs; brief, taxing encounters with her energetic children, who are normally taken care of by governess or boarding school; run-ins with the odiously superior Lady B.
I found these mildly amusing rather than hilarious. Many of the episodes revolve around financial troubles — pawning jewelry to pay off debts, being scared to tell the husband after buying too many clothes — which frankly annoyed me, coming from someone who thinks nothing of employing a live-in French governess, a parlourmaid, and a cook. This is not a purely British phenomenon (I had a similar response to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) but it did smack of a certain class and era to which I simply do not belong.
To me, the funniest and most enjoyable parts were when the Lady addressed the more philosophical and existential questions that confront her in ordinary life:
“Arrival of train, and I say good-bye to Robert, and madly enquire if he would rather I gave up going at all? He rightly ignores this altogether.
[Query: Would not extremely distressing situation arise if similar impulsive offer were one day to be accepted? This gives rise to unavoidable speculation in regard to sincerity of such offers, and here again, issue too painful to be frankly faced, and am obliged to shelve train of thought altogether.]”
Who hasn’t had a similar experience with one’s spouse or partner — without being able to put it into such perfectly absurd terms?
Delafield’s humor is often compared to that of P.G. Wodehouse, and they certainly have a sort of family resemblance, but the latter holds more appeal for me personally. The Provincial Lady is constantly reminding me of all the ways in which I am not like her, while Wodehouse somehow manages to make me forget that I’m not a rather dim young bachelor with a valet of unusual mental brilliance. He also plays with the English language in a more exuberant way, running rings around Delafield’s more restrained prose. Some find her style subtle and deceptively simple; to me, it too often induced yawns rather than amusement.
But taken on her own terms, the Provincial Lady does provide some quiet chuckles, and I’m glad to have met her at last. Have you? What did you think?