Saturday, December 2, 2023

A very provincial lady

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the death of E. M. Delafield, a British writer much loved for The Diary of a Provincial Lady, first published in 1930, and its sequels. Although classed as fiction, the books - a journal of the life of an upper-middle class Englishwoman living in a Devon village - are considered to be thinly-veiled autobiography.

Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture was born in Steyning, Sussex, in 1890, the elder daughter of a count and a novelist. During the First World War, she worked as a nurse, and she published her first novel Zella Sees Herself. In 1919, she married Major Paul Dashwood, and after two years in Malay States they returned to England and lived in Devon, where Dashwood became a land agent. They had two children, Lionel and Rosamund.

Delafield (Mrs Dashwood’s pen name) became a prolific novelist, writing one or two books a year. But she is best remembered for The Provincial Lady, a series she wrote for
Time and Tide, a political and literary weeklyAlthough ostensibly fiction, the diary is considered to be barely-disguised autobiography.  The sketches were first published in book form under the title Diary of a Provincial Lady by Macmillan, in 1930, with illustrations by Arthur Watts. Several sequels followed, including The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America and The Provincial Lady in Wartime. These books have remained popular and have never been out of print.

During the Second World War, Delafield did some work for the Ministry of Information, and she spent time in France, but she died on 2 December 1943. Further information about her, and/or some extracts from the diaries can be found at Wikipedia, The Guardian, Starcourse, and Amazon. The full text of the first book - Diary of a Provincial Lady - with Watts’s illustrations can be read freely at Project Gutenberg Australia. And various other editions can be freely borrowed from Internet Archive (with log-in). The following extracts come from The Diary of a Provincial Lady published by Virago Press in 1984 (which is a compilation of three of the original books).

7 November 1929
‘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 a 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, 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 I think it is 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: “Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”

Lady B stays to tea. (Mem: Bread-and-butter too thick. Speak to Ethel.) We talk some more about bulbs, the Dutch School of Painting, Our Vicar’s Wife, sciatica, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

(Query: Is it possible to cultivate the art of conversation while living in the country all the year round?)

Lady B enquires after the children. Tell her that Robin - whom I refer to in a detached way as “the boy” so that she shan’t think I am foolish about him - is getting on fairly well at school, and that Mademoiselle says Vicky is starting a cold.

Do I realise, says Lady B., that the Cold habit is entirely unnecessary, and can be avoided by giving the child a nasal douche of salt-and-water every morning before breakfast? Think of several rather tart and witty rejoinders to this, but unfortunately not until Lady B.’s Bentley has taken her away.

Finish the bulbs and put them in the cellar. Feel that after all the cellar is probably draughty, change my mind, and take them all up to the attic.

Cook says something is wrong with the range.’

30 June 1930
‘The Sweep comes, and devastates the entire day. Bath water and meals are alike cold, and soot appears quite irrelevantly in portions of the house totally removed from sphere of Soot’s activities. Am called upon in the middle of the day to produce twelve-and-sixpence in cash, which I cannot do. Appeal to everybody in the house, and find that nobody else can, either. Finally, Cook announces that the Joint has just come and can oblige at the back door, if I don’t mind its going down in the book. I do not, and the Sweep is accordingly paid and disappears on a motor-cycle.’

7 October (1931?)
‘Extraordinary behaviour of dear Rose, with whom I am engaged - and have been for days past - to go and have supper tonight. Just as I am trying to decide whether bus to Portland Street or tube to Oxford Circus will be preferable, I am called up on telephone by Rose’s married niece, who lives in Hertfordshire, and is young and modern, to say that speaker for her Women’s Institute to-night has failed, and that Rose, on being appealed to, has at once suggested my name and expressed complete willingness to dispense with my society for the evening. Utter impossibility of pleading previous engagement is obvious; I contemplate for an instant saying that I have influenza, but remember in time that niece, very intelligently, started the conversation by asking how I was, and that I replied Splendid, thanks - and there is nothing for it but to agree.

(Query: Should very much like to know if it was for this that I left Devonshire.) Think out several short, but sharply worded, letters to Rose, but time fails; I can only put brush and comb, slippers, sponge, three books, pyjamas and hot-water bottle into case - discover later that I have forgotten powder-puff, and am very angry, but to no avail - and repair by train to Hertfordshire.

Spend most of journey in remembering all that I know of Rose’s niece, which is that she is well under thirty, pretty, talented, tremendous social success, amazingly good at games, dancing, and - I think - everything else in the world, and married to brilliantly clever young man who is said to have Made Himself a Name, though cannot at the moment recollect how.

Have strong impulse to turn straight round and go home again, sooner than confront so much efficiency, but non-stop train renders this course impracticable.

Niece meets me - clothes immensely superior to anything that I have ever had, or shall have - is charming, expresses gratitude, and asks what I am going to speak about. I reply, Amateur Theatricals. Excellent of course, she says unconvincingly, and adds that the Institute has a large Dramatic Society already, that they are regularly produced by well-known professional actor, husband of Vice-President, and were very well placed in recent village-drama competition, open to all England.

At this I naturally wilt altogether, and say Then perhaps better talk about books or something - which sounds weak, even as I say it, and am convinced that niece feels the same, though she remains imperturbably charming. She drives competently through the night, negotiates awkward entrance to garage equally well, extracts my bag and says that It is Heavy - which is undeniable, and is owing to books, but cannot say so, as it would look as though I thought her house likely to be inadequately supplied - and conducts me into perfectly delightful, entirely modern, house, which I feel certain - rightly, I discover later - has every newest labour-saving device ever invented.

Bathroom especially - (all appears to be solid marble, black-and-white tiles, and dazzling polish) - impresses me immeasurably. Think regretfully, but with undiminished affection, of extremely inferior edition at home - paint peeling in several directions, brass taps turning green at intervals until treated by housemaid, and irregular collection of home-made brackets on walls, bearing terrific accumulation of half-empty bottles, tins of talcum powder and packets of Lux. [. . .]

Evening at Institute reasonably successful - am much impressed by further display of efficiency from niece, as President - I speak about Books, and obtain laughs by introduction of three entirely irrelevant anecdotes, am introduced to felt hat and fur coat, felt hat and blue jumper, felt hat and tweeds, and so on. Names of all alike remain impenetrably mysterious, as mine no doubt to them.

(Flight of fancy here as to whether this deplorable but customary, state of affairs is in reality unavoidable? Theory exists that it has been completely overcome in America, whose introductions always entirely audible and frequently accompanied by short biographical sketch. Should like to go to America.)

Niece asks kindly if I am tired. I say No, not at all, which is a lie, and she presently takes me home and I go to bed. Spare-room admirable in every respect, but no waste-paper basket. This solitary flaw in general perfection a positive relief.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 2 December 2013.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Paul, this was a lovely introduction to a writer and diarist whom I've not encountered before. The excerpts that you posted remind me of the Cranford books by Gaskell. Do you think there was any connection, perhaps? Of course, Gaskell was before Delafield's time, but I wondered about, perhaps, the influence. Cranford was also serialized in Dickens' Household Words.

- Jenny Bhatt