E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

First off – I bought myself a kindle thinking I would read great classics and yet I always get stuck on things which could be described as ‘social history’ and which very few people would describe as great literature. Then again, who cares? I haven’t laughed so much when reading in a long time.

The Provincial Lady, whose name we never actually know, lives in Devon and is permanently short of cash. However, a trip to the pawn shop to pawn the diamond ring (again) usually concludes with purchasing a new hat (very unbecoming), toothpaste (children averse to brushing teeth – maybe they just eat the paste?) and other odds and ends – quite unfathomable how they were bought.

The slightly sarcastic comments about her neighbours whom, one can tell, the protagonist sort of likes really make the whole book seem very real. According to various sources (mainly google) the diary is an only slightly fictionalised version of the author’s life. It seems bizarre that, only 80 years ago, positions such as housemaid and cook were seen to be necessary by even the impoverished upper middle class. There had to be money for the cook and the maid because one did not really know what to do without them. This helplessness leads to another hilarious situation where the only housemaid to be found (because the others are too posh and expensive) is actually a houseman. The permanent awkwardness in the house abides until the houseman gives his notice – to the relief of mistress and ‘maid’ alike.

Then there are the ‘dear children’ – seldom referred to without the quotation marks, showing a perceptiveness about the position of children in society which is quite poignant. Even though the children are separate from their parents (at school or with the wonderful French Mademoiselle – I wish I spoke enough French to understand her!), they are the constant topic of conversation. After the weather of course. However, in The Provincial Lady in America the wonderfully perceptive lady travels to the States to promote her book. After numerous tea parties involving cocktails rather than actual tea, and visits by ‘friends’ in high places, the lady wishes nothing more than to go home to her children and her husband, reflecting a deep love for family despite all the disparaging sarcastic remarks throughout.

The obligatory annoyingly rich aristocrat (Lady Box), in The Provincial Lady at War, refuses to shelter London refugees but instead opens a hotel for wounded soldiers which (at the end of the book) is still empty. A bit Dad’s Army really, with the elderly lady in her nurse’s uniform, constantly trying to enlist the villagers and the Provincial Lady to nurse and train at the unoccupied hospital.

I always find it a trifle strange that it’s so hard to convey the humour in this book to someone else because the humour lies in the everyday observances made by the lady. The ‘Queen’s English’ in which the diary is written seems almost quaint to the modern reader (which I am despite my literary and musical tastes) and, as already suggested, some of the social conventions are funny because of their out-dated nature. Yet though this book is definitely light reading and could be classed as a guilty pleasure, a lover of social history like myself will probably enjoy it. The characters in the book often seem more like caricatures or comical derivations of their real counterparts but then who knows? Lady Box might be as real as Granny Bo-Peep.

Yes really.

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