100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: E.M. Delafield

Blog post 3: The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

November 7th.
Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa. Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: ‘O, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworth’s?’

Edmée Elizabeth Monica De La Pasture was the daughter of a Count and a famous novelist, Mrs Henry de la Pasture. Under her pen name E.M. Delafield, ‘The Diary of a Provincial Lady’ is her most loved and well-known book (and she was a prolific writer, despite an untimely death in the war) and has never been out of print. This semi-autobiographical diary is full of charm, wit, and self-deprecation and is quintessentially English, a comedy of errors which touches on real issues and is therefore right down my street. So why have I never read it until now? Has it gone out of fashion? Absolutely not. The diarist may be an upper-class lady recounting the daily conflicts of domestic life in a Devon village in the 1930s, but underneath there is a recognisable woman with everyday struggles that are still relevant today, despite the boarding schools, the French governess and the servants.

She is married to Robert, a bit distant, grumpy, falls asleep over the Times and grumbles about the state of the house, but he’s essentially a good sort. She acts as a buffer between him and the two children, the delightful Robin and Vicky, who can’t always be counted on to be perfect in front of important visitors, especially Lady Boxe, her nemesis who drives imperiously around the village in her Bentley, flinging sly remarks which turn the writer to dreams of murder.

The interesting thing is that despite the fact they live in a fine house, have a cook, a maid, a governess etc, the Lady is always having to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. She has to be creative with her bills and regularly pawns her great aunt’s diamond ring to clear the household debts. And she must go humbly before the bank manager to procure an overdraft. You could call this family the modern day equivalent of the squeezed middle, a family that is living beyond its means. But the writer enters pieces for the Time and Tide magazine and has some success with publication. We can see that she longs to have more literary success and earn money in her own right. One way she hopes to do this is to better acquaint herself with the literary world, but usually this has unsatisfactory consequences.

Very, very distinguished Novelist approaches me (having evidently mistaken me for someone else), and talks amiably. She says that she can only write between twelve at night and four in the morning, and not always then. When she cannot write, she plays the organ. Should much like to ask whether she is married.

The diary is one of my favourite forms of writing. In the footsteps of Pooter and the descendant of Bridget Jones, E.M. Delafield’s diary deserves its place as a classic of the 20th Century. I feel like I should have read this book before. After all, my second novel ‘This Holey Life’ is of this tradition and I wonder if I somehow absorbed the essence of the Provincial Lady by cultural osmosis. Vicky is also struggling to be a good mother and a good wife and to have good thoughts about her neighbours and members of the community but is continually thwarted in her good intentions by the everyday muddle of life. A common theme for diarists, so it seems.

E.M. Delafield shines a light on the politics and dynamics of family life and a small community and this was handed on to Barbara Pym, a couple of decades later. (Yes, I will be blogging about the divine Miss Pym.)

Final word: Don’t be fooled by the ‘Lady and “Provincial’ of the title.

(Also, I am thrilled that there are several follow up diaries. Result.)

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