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.)

Good News


Lynn Green has recently been elected as the new General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. This is like the Church of England having a female Archbishop of Canterbury, a prospect which is sadly further away than many of us believed it to be since the astonishing vote against women bishops. It will happen in the C of E, no doubt, in time. But the Baptists are in a new place where they are affirming a person who has been chosen by God, because of their gifts. Gender is no longer an issue like it still is in other parts of the world, including countries in Africa and parts of the USA.


Violet Hedger was the first female Baptist minister in 1922, a long way ahead of the first woman priest of the C of E in 1994. Since then there have been many more C of E female vicars and it took the Baptists a while to gain momentum. It seems now they are in full swing.

After the cloudiness of the last twenty years, a new wave of Feminism is shining across our nation, 100 years after the suffragettes died for the right for women to vote. No More Page 3 and other campaigns to stop the objectification of and discrimination against women are burgeoning. And Lynn Green is General Secretary. Whoop!

And so I will say it. I am a Feminist Christian who at last feels like I can be proud to be a Baptist. Hallelujah!


Writing Competitions

I am a huge fan of writing competitions.


Because they are a little oasis in the overwhelmingly vast world of publishing.

They are scouted by agents and publishers.

They have given me focus as a writer, assurance that my manuscript will be read and considered, and they have given me my breakthroughs.

So now I am trying to give a little back and am involved and connected with exciting and worthwhile competitions. If you are want to enter some writing competitions that could help you on your way then read this post.

I am concentrating on novel competitions as there are still comparatively few. In 2006 I won the novel section of the Yeovil Literary Prize with the opening chapters of The Generation Game judged by Katie Fforde. Now in its tenth year the closing date is May 31st so this one you have to be quick for. The novel prize is judged by Tracey Chevalier. There is also a short story and a poetry competition. I will always remain indebted to this prize and am so glad it is growing in status and reputation with an impressive alumni.

Next up, the Harry Bowling Prize. This competition is for novels by unpublished writers and this year there is a new flash competition. The closing date is September 30th 2013. I was runner-up with This Holey Life in 2008 and had a great time at the awards ceremony at MBA. This was affirming and gave me encouragement that I was on the right track.

So now a very special award, the Luke Bitmead Bursary for Writers. This is an annual award for unpublished writers in memory of Luke Bitmead who was Legend Press’s first novelist back in 2005. The first prize is a generous bursary and a publishing contract. I won the award in 2010 with The Generation Game which was published in August 2011 by Legend. A year later Legend published This Holey Life. Entries opened on the 1st May and the closing date is 2nd August 2013. Unlike the other novel competitions I am flagging up, the manuscript must be finished and the work of an unpublished author. The age limit is 16 and over so this allows a chance for a young person to enter. There is always a shortlist and some of these have also gone on to achieve publication.

And now some very exciting news: the inaugural Exeter Novel Prize run by CreativeWritingMatters and sponsored by Exeter Writers is now open for entries. The closing date is October 31st 2013. Cathie Hartigan, Margaret James and myself will be administering the prize which is for both unpublished and published writers for a novel not currently under contract with a commercial publisher.  The shortlist will be judged by London agent Broo Doherty of Wade and Doherty and the winner will receive £500. There is a launch at Exeter Central Library on 27th June at 7.00pm, free entry plus cake, and a fabulous chance to meet other writers and find out more about the prize.


And one last competition but this time for a short story. I am honoured to be one of the judges for this year’s Hysterectomy Association’s short story competition. The closing date is 31st August 2013. Stories of up to 2000 word on ‘almost any theme related to women’. There are cash prizes but probably  more importantly the first, second and third prize winners plus ten other writers will be published in an anthology.

And I must mention Words for the Wounded, a charity of which I am delighted to be a patron. The competition is closed now and the results will be announced on June 6th.

So I hope this has inspired lots of you to enter these competitions, all worthy and worth it. They really do help writers on the road to publication for which I am evidence…

But I want to finish with one of the best competitions ever. Crackerjack’s Double or Drop.

Books, Babies and Biscuits

croppedimage373279-World-Book-Day-373-279-1In honour of World Book Day 2013 I visited a book group at Exeter Central Library this morning to talk about This Holey Life. This was a book group like no other as there were babies and toddlers there. So lovely!

The book group has been set up by librarian Karen Bowdler with funding from Literature Works. The idea is to have a reading group that parents can attend with their small children in an informal, safe space. There are many parent and toddler groups but this is one for the parents. It gives them ‘permission’ to read again, to return to the world of books that might have got lost under the heap of nappies and plastic toys.

I had great fun chatting to the other mothers (there were no dads today but there was a grandma). They could relate to This Holey Life because the central character is a mother of three. She’s also a reluctant curate’s wife – and guess what? There was a retired curate’s wife among us!

We had a really good discussion about writing and books and how our responses to books change as our lifestyles change, as we age and move into different stages of life. Books we read as teenagers touch us in different ways when we are in our thirties, forties, fifties, sixties… Life experiences change our attitude to the world and also the fictional world, which offers us if not the truth then at least a certain truth. I couldn’t navigate the world without my fictional characters alongside me…

I think this is an amazingly simple idea and am so impressed that Karen was inspired to do it and put it into being.

Libraries are sacred spaces. The book world may be changing but there will always be a special place for libraries in our communities.

And did I forget to mention the biscuits? Biscuits were available for both big and little ones.

Happy World Book Day? What are you reading?

2013-03-07 11.41.11

One Good Thing

smiling's my favourite

OK, so it’s December. Christmas is coming. But as much as there is to love about this time of year (mince pies, tinsel, Elf), it can be tinged with a sadness as we think of those who won’t be here with us.

How do we carry on and celebrate without feeling guilty? How can we still come together as a family? How can we get through to the other side?

Maybe do something good, in memory of someone you love.

Any ideas?

Let’s have them. Be creative. Be wild. Be quirky.

I’ll be asking my kids to choose their favourite idea. The winner – if ‘winner’ is the appropriate word here – will get a copy of This Holey Life. (Yes, ‘Holey’ with an ‘e’ as life is full of holes. It is how we plug those holes that keeps the rain out.)

And we’ll take it from there…

Excellent Woman

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’

Why has it taken me all these years to read the magnificent Barbara Pym?

I’d certainly heard of her, believed her to be a novelist who was of a certain era, one that has changed so much that she is not longer relevant. Well, I was most definitely ill-informed and it took a review, comparing This Holey Life to Excellent Women, to put me right.

Set in dreary post-war London, Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman,‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather.’ (from blurb of Virago Modern Classics edition, 2012). Mildred, whose mother and clergyman father have passed away, lives the ‘spinster’ life, alone, in a flat. She works part-time for the wonderfully named Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund, helps out at the vicarage, attends church and reads novels. When a married couple, the glamorous Napiers, move into the other flat in the house, she worries about how they will co-exist. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.’

What follows is a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant telling of the way things go over the next few months as Mildred faces disruption to her ordered life. I was completely absorbed and won over.

Beware these excellent women. My great aunt is one such excellent woman. Like Pym she served in the WRNS. After  the war she looked after her ageing parents. Marriage never happened. She put her energies into the church, Greenpeace, Christian Aid and composting. It wasn’t until fairly recently, with the passing of the Official Secrets Act, that that we discovered she worked on the Enigma Code as a young woman.  She might not have been an Oxford Mathematical genius. She didn’t even know what was going on, the bigger picture, but she knew her small part made the whole machine work and who knows how the war would have turned out without the Code breakers. (And I’m excited about the second part of The Bletchley Circle tonight on ITV!)

Pym’s excellent women may be consumed with the smallest things of life but these are the biggest things of life. As Alexander McCall Smith says in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition of Excellent Women, it is ‘a novel that on one level is about very little, (but) is a great novel about a great deal.’

Yellow is the Colour

It’s been a memorable few days to say the least and yellow has been the joyful colour woven throughout.

Firstly, Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France, the first Brit ever to do this. Obviously yellow is always the colour associated with this race.

Then on Thursday I went to London with my family to attend my book launch. On the way there, struggling in a very tight yellow dress to match the bright yellow of my new book cover, we were caught up with the Olympic flame at Hyde Park and came within feet of it. We took cabs, walked, and got propelled along by the crowds and eventually made it to Great Windmill Street to the launch venue, kindly hosted by Red (yes, I know) Consultancy.

I was worried no one would turn up as they would be put off by the Olympic crush but gradually the room filled and I was so grateful to everyone who made the epic journey to come out, including one lovely friend who I hadn’t seen in over twenty years since our PGCE.

Red are based right opposite the Windmill Theatre which was the place where Sir Bruce Forsyth started his long career as a teenager. He was the inspiration for my first novel ‘The Generation Game’ which was launched from the same place almost exactly a year ago. And on the day of the launch of ‘This Holey Life’, Brucie carried the Olympic torch, representing the BBC.

Back in Devon yesterday, we watched the amazing opening ceremony, kicked off by Bradley Wiggins in his yellow jersey and watched on by Michelle Obama in a yellow dress. All these splashes of colour will stay with me for a very long time.

And finally: if you have an unpublished novel lurking about, do think about entering it for this year’s Luke Bitmead Bursary award. But don’t think about it for too long as the closing date is August 3rd. I wouldn’t have got to wear that yellow dress had I not entered two years ago.

Ironing Man

I was listening to Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 yesterday. The subject was housework and the gender divide and how this causes much friction between partners. Even now, in families where both men and women work full-time, the woman tends to do the bulk of the housekeeping, particularly the laundry. There are of course men who do their fair share. I will admit I am rather slapdash with a duster but my husband is a phenomenal ironer. We have distributed the work between us over the last 25 years. I do the loos. He does the oven. We both do the washing and take out the bins. He changes the sheets, I hoover (occasionally).

When we lived in London and I was teaching full-time we got a cleaner called Marcia who was a Brazilian marvel. As I gave up teaching to look after our three small kids, we didn’t have the money anymore and our house was always a tip. It still has its moments with three teenagers who leave cups and glasses everywhere and a trail of discarded clothes. They do help sometimes. If directed. And nagged. Or paid. And it helps greatly that my mother loves cleaning and will zoom around our house with a mop and a dustpan and brush.

But I do hanker after my own space sometimes. It would be clean and uncluttered with no piles of papers strewn across the table. There would be no slag heaps of shoes heaped by the back door. Or in the hall. Or at the top of the stairs lying in wait to break someone’s neck. There would be no odd socks, no brim-full bins, no sticky Coke cans lurking on dusty windowsills. It would be a place where I could write without feeling guilty about neglecting the washing machine or unpacking the dishwasher.

I know this is a dream. Life is messy. We all have to pull our weight and share our gifts. Vicky, the heroine of my new novel This Holey Life, is a cleaning fanatic. She does it in order to get some control over her life but it makes her bossy and irritated and unsatisfied as she can never achieve the perfection she hankers after.

Before you get married you should be sent on a course that teaches both men and women how to unblock a sink and how to polish a shoe. There should be a contract that stipulates who does what. And then of course you would have to trust each other to stick to this.