Tea and Philosophy: Diary of a Provincial Lady

Posted December 6, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 16 Comments

E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

dplI’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?

Classics Club List #50

Tea and Philosophy: Diary of a Provincial LadyDiary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Published by Folio Society in 1979 (originally 1930)
Format: Hardcover from Personal Collection

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16 responses to “Tea and Philosophy: Diary of a Provincial Lady

  1. I love the Provincial Lady and have read the books several times. Of course, I also love P.G. Wodehouse. I think he is more laugh-out-loud funny but she is wry and witty. Somehow I am able to relate to her even though I most definitely do not have a maid, cook, and governess! We can’t all love the same things though. That is what keeps book blogs interesting.

    • I have no quarrel with those who love this book — as you say, it would be pretty boring if we all liked the same thing. It just didn’t make me laugh quite as hard as I expected. Humor is one of the most personal tastes of all, and one of the hardest to define.

  2. E. M. Delafield has been on my list of authors I’d like to read someday, but more for her book Consequences than this one, although this one seems to be her most famous. Your review makes me think that if I ever do run into a copy of this one, I’ll gladly pick it up and give it a try. 🙂

  3. I liked the book a lot and it reminded me of Bridget Jones…I wonder if Helen Fielding wasn’t as much influenced by this title as she was by P&P.

  4. Hmm, I think I would prefer Wodehouse too, in this case. I especially enjoy the witty way Wodehouse puts together his words. 🙂 This does sound like an interesting read though, for people who are interested in the time period and would like a slice of life sort of story!

    • There’s some expert wordcraft here too, but I found it more restrained. Both authors are certainly worth reading for fans of British humor.

  5. I am quite interested. I have enjoyed PG Woodhouse in the past and find that subtle humor is more to my liking than side splitting humor. It’s funny that some of the things in this book that you have mentions as penned in 1930, is very much the same in some households today.

  6. Kat

    What a terrific review! I adored these books when I read them 10 or so years ago, but picked one up the other day and was put off by the incredible snobbery. I don’t know if I was right then or now, but I much prefer D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books, also told in the form of a housewife’s diary. Delafield is really sharp and biting.

    • I started Mrs Tim of the Regiment a year or two ago but didn’t finish it, I think I was just not in the mood. I would like to try again with this in mind as a contrast.