Thursday, December 28, 2023

An anguish of suffering

‘On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home.’ This is George Gissing, a British novelist, a purveyor of unrepentant gloom according to some, who died 120 years ago today. As a young man he became disastrously involved with a prostitute, and, later, he married a woman who went mad. His diaries were published in 1978, and are said to shed light on his extraordinary life. However, Gissing’s gloomy novels are very much out of fashion at present, and the diaries have long been out of print.

Gissing was born in Wakefield in 1857, where his father was a chemist. Although apparently destined for a brilliant academic career, he failed to complete his education at Owens College, Manchester, because of a disastrous involvement with a prostitute, for whom he stole money. He was caught and imprisoned for a month. After his release, he went to the US for a year where he undertook literature and philosophy studies.

On returning to England in 1878, Gissing worked both as a tutor and a journalist while also writing and publishing novels such as Workers in the Dawn, The Unclassed, and Demos, which focused on the degrading effects of poverty. He was married twice, once to the prostitute and once to a servant girl, Edith Alice Underwood, but neither marriage brought him happiness. Edith gave him two children, but she was eventually certified insane.

In total, Gissing wrote over 20 novels (New Grub Street and The Odd Women being among the most well known), some of which, with a writer as the main character, were quite autobiographical. He also wrote more than a hundred short stories, literary criticism, essays, and many letters. Commentators say there is an unrepentant gloom about much of his writing. He travelled abroad several times; and, on one journey to Italy, was accompanied by H. G. Wells.

In the last decade of his life, Gissing became involved with Clara Collet. She helped take care of him and his two children, but was then disappointed when Gissing fell in love with a French woman, Gabrielle Fleury. Unable to get a divorce from Edith, he moved to France to live with Gabrielle. He died from emphysema - after catching a chill during a winter walk - aged only 46 on 28 December 1903. Further biographical information on Gissing can be found at Wikipedia, The George Rylands Library (University of Manchester), The Victorian Web, Victorian Secrets, and also in a 1948 article by George Orwell and reviews of a recent biography, George Gissing: A Life by Paul Delany, in The Telegraph or The Guardian.

More than 70 years after Gissing’s death, in 1978, The Harvester Press Limited (UK) and Bucknell University Press (US) published London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England - The Diary of George Gissing as edited by Pierre Coustillas. At the time of publication, the publishers stated: ‘Very few major novelists have left personal diaries. Where these exist they are a record of great interest, to the student of society, of literature and to the psychologist. George Gissing’s diary is probably the only one covering the late-Victorian period that has so far remained unpublished.’

There is also this from the publishers: ‘Professor Pierre Coustillas, perhaps the best known of all Gissing scholars, has edited and introduced the diary and placed it in its general social and literary context while also relating it to Gissing’s life and work. The editorial apparatus, including a ‘Who’s Who’ in the diary throws light on several hundred people contemporary with Gissing, and on many events which played a significant part in the writer’s extraordinary life. Professor Coustillas relates the diary to the themes and spirit of Gissing’s work.’ The published diary can be freely borrowed digitally from Internet Archive (log-in required).

1 March 1888
‘Let me describe this room. It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She [his mother] took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed. one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc. Over the mantelpiece hung several pictures, which she had preserved from old days. There were three engravings: a landscape, a piece by l.andseer, and a Madonna of Raphael. There was a portrait of Byron, and one of Tennyson. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago - to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts, and three cards such as are signed by those who “take the pledge” - all bearing date during the last six months.

On the door hung a poor miserable dress and a worn out ulster; under the bed was a pair of boots, linen she had none; the very covering of the bed had gone save one sheet and one blanket. I found a number of pawn tickets, showing that she had pledged these things during last summer - when it was warm, poor creature! All the money she received went in drink; she used to spend my weekly 15/- the first day or two that she had it. Her associates were women of so low a kind that even Mrs. Sherlock did not consider them respectable enough to visit her house.

I drew out the drawers. In one I found a little bit of butter and a crust of bread, - most pitiful sight my eyes ever looked upon. There was no other food anywhere. The other drawers contained a disorderly lot of papers: there I found all my letters, away back to the American time. In a cupboard were several heaps of dirty rags; at the bottom there had been coals, but none were left. Lying about here and there were medicine bottles, and hospital prescriptions.

She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it. It is more than three years, I think, since I saw her, and she had changed horribly. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.

I took away very few things, just a little parcel: my letters, my portrait, her rent-book, a certificate of life-assurance which had lapsed, a copy of my Father’s “Margaret” which she had preserved, and a little workbox, the only thing that contained traces of womanly occupation.

Came home to a bad, wretched night. In nothing am I to blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. I feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!’

26 September 1891
‘Clouded. Read Robertson’s life. Letter from Lawrence & Bullen, the new publishers, saying that Roberts had told them that I am engaged on a 1-vol. story, and offering to publish it for me at 6/ -, giving me 1/- on each copy; also willing to pay £100 on account. Note from Roberts, who is near Corfe Castle. The Illustd London News of to-day, in an article called “London in Fiction”, has this passage: “In such a book no inconsiderable part would be played by the Temple, which has been the happy hunting ground of so many of our novelists, from Sir Walter Scott to Mr. George Gissing”. The mention is good, but I have never made use of the Temple.’

6 October 1891
‘Reply from Watt. Longman won’t make an offer; MS sent on to Bentley. Wrote answer, saying I couldn’t wait after October, but on second thoughts decided not to send it, as I still possess £27. From Willersey came a basket of fine pears, addressed to Edith. Last night a furious gale, with heavy rain, and rain all to-day. In evening got the first page of new novel written.’

24 January 1893
‘Dull, warm. Wrote 4pp. of story. On way home, at night, an anguish of suffering in the thought that I can never hope to have an intellectual companion at home. Condemned for ever to associate with inferiors—and so crassly unintelligent. Never a word exchanged on anything but the paltry everyday life of the household. Never a word to me, from anyone, of understanding sympathy—or of encouragement. Few men, I am sure, have led so bitter a life.- Read half Bk III St Augustine, and some pages of [Cicero’s] “De Oratore”.’

7 February 1895
‘Terrible weather. Reports of 35° of frost from the Midlands. Worked well, though against terrible odds - hands frozen and feet like stones. Did 4pp. Got from lib. “Children of the Ghetto”[by Israel Zangwill]. Received Crabbe. Present of parkin from Mother. New servant seems satisfactory.’

9 February 1895
‘Frost harder than ever. Wrote only 1/2 p. Article of 2 cols, in Spectator to-day, an attack on me for my “perverse idealism”. Roberts writes to ask if he may write a critical article on me for the Fortnightly.’

9 August 1896
‘Nothing could be more difficult than my position as regards the boy Walter. All but every statement made to him he answers with a blunt contradiction; to all but every bidding he replies “I shan’t”. As I sit in the room, where the nurse-girl is present, he calls me all manner of abusive names. I said to him this afternoon, that, as it was too windy to go out, he had better rest an hour. “Not in your bedroom”, was his harsh reply. “I’ll rest in mother’s room, but not in yours.” And to-morrow, on some trifling provocation, he would make precisely the opposite reply. He knows there is no harmonv between his mother and me, and he begins to play upon the situation - carrying tales from one to the other, etc. The poor child is ill-tempered, untruthful, precociously insolent, surprisingly selfish. I can see that Wakefield may have a good influence, but only the merest beginnings show as yet. I should like to know how the really wise and strong father would act in this position. But no wise and strong man could have got into it. Talk of morals! What a terrible lesson is the existence of this child, born of a loveless and utterly unsuitable marriage.’

20 December 1898
‘Fine, frosty. Did 3pp. Eczema greatly better, George Whale advises me to send the sheriff a doctor’s certificate as excuse for non-attendance at Kingston. Wrote to Childcott for one. Reed circular from a Committee getting up fund for Harold Frederic’s widow and four legitimate children. As the youngest of these children is 10, and the eldest 20, I wrote to the Sec[retary, John Stokes,] asking whether anything is to be done to help the other family of young children, whose position is in every way much harder.’

10 December 1899
‘Have been up all night. A furious gale blowing. E. in long miserable pain; the Doctor has just given her chloroform, and says that the blackguard business draws to an end.

5.15. Went to the study door, and heard the cry of the child. Nurse, speedily coming down, tells me it is a boy. Wind howling savagely. So, the poor girl’s misery is over, and she has what she earnestly desired.

Sent notes to E.’s people in London, and one to Mother. Got through day without going to bed. Corrected some proofs. The wind, after lulling at mid-day, grew furious again towards night.

The baby has a very ugly dark patch over right eye. Don’t know the meaning of it.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 28 December 2013.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Beatrix and Benjamin

Beatrix Potter - author and illustrator of the much-loved Peter Rabbit books - died 80 years ago today. As a teenager and young woman, Potter kept a secret diary written in code. This was not deciphered and published until more than 20 years after her death, but it shows how (long before publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit) she was already writing to herself about her rabbit, Mr Benjamin Bunny - very much the star of her diary - in a style similar to that of the books she would publish later on.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, the only daughter in a cultured family with inherited wealth. She was educated at home, and spent much time painting, using specimens from the nearby Natural History Museum. The family regularly spent summer and early autumn in rented houses in the Lake District and Scotland. She kept rabbits and other animals as pets. Her parents entertained many guests, including Hardwicke Rawnsley who was to become one of the founders of the National Trust. He, in particular, encouraged her drawing.

Another friend, Frederick Warne, published, in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book which came about because of the illustrated letters Potter had been sending to a sick child. Other books - now famous around the world - followed, as did her engagement to Warne’s son Norman. However, Norman died tragically in 1905. That same year, Potter bought Hill Top Farm near Sawrey in the English Lake District, though she continued to be based in London. And then, in 1909, she bought Castle Farm over the road from Hill Top Farm (now a Potter museum).

Potter remained single until 1913, when she married William Heelis, a solicitor in Hawkshead. They moved to live at Castle Cottage, the renovated house at Castle Farm, and together, ran the farm; later they enlarged it with the help of an inheritance from Beatrix’s father (see Lancashire Life for more on Castle Cottage). Though all of the Peter Rabbit books had been published by this time, she continued to produce occasional books, some of them Peter Rabbit related, for her publisher, Frederick Warne.

In 1930, Potter purchased half of Monk Coniston, a romantic Gothic-style house, with the National Trust agreeing to purchase the other half. Potter, however, managed the whole estate and its many farms - with an increasing interest in conservation - for seven years, until the Trust was able to buy most of it back. Today, Monk Coniston is leased from the Trust for use as a hotel. When Potter died - on 22 December 1943 - she left several other farms and much land to the National Trust, together with some celebrated flocks of Herdwick sheep.

Further biographical information is readily available online at Wikipedia, the Beatrix Potter Society, Frederick Warne & Co’s Peter Rabbit website, the Visit Cumbria website, or the V&A which holds the extensive Linder (see below) archive of Potter work.

From the age of fifteen until her early 30s, Potter kept a detailed diary of her life written in a secret code. This code remained un-deciphered until the late 1950s, when Leslie Linder, an engineer and collector of Potter drawings, found the key and then worked painstakingly to decipher and transcribe the diaries. The Journal of Beatrix Potter - 1881 to 1897 was finally published by Frederick Warne in 1966.

A chapter towards the front of the book, written by Linder, describes the code in some detail, and how he cracked it. The chapter starts: ‘From about the age of fourteen until she was thirty, Beatrix Potter kept a Journal in her own privately-invented code-writing. It appears that even her closest friends knew nothing of this code-writing. She never spoke of it, and only one instance has come to light where it was mentioned. This was in a letter to her much-loved cousin [. . .] written five weeks before Beatrix Potter died, in which she described it as “apparently inspired by a united admiration for Boswell and Pepys”, continuing, “when I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about (the modern young author is not damped by such considerations). I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.” ’

From January 1987, Linder explains, Potter put her journal aside. He concludes the chapter as follows: ‘From now onwards the keeping of a Journal appears to have been put aside as Beatrix Potter became more and more absorbed in the planning of her books. It is of interest to note, however, that in later years she sometimes wrote odd notes and even fragments of stories in code-writing, but it was never used again for the purpose of a Journal.’ Much of The Journal of Beatrix Potter can be read online freely at Googlebooks.

From July to October 1892, Potter stayed at Heath Park, Birnam, Perthshire
20 August 1892
‘Still somewhat disposed. After breakfast taking Mr. Benjamin Bunny to pasture at the edge of the cabbage bed with his leather dog-lead, I heard a rustling, and came a little wild rabbit to talk to him, it crept half across the cabbage bed and then sat up on its hind legs, apparently grunting. I replied, but the stupid Benjamin did nothing but stuff cabbage. The little animal evidently a female, and of a shabby appearance, nibbling, advanced to about three strap lengths on the other side of my rabbit, its face twitching with excitement and admiration for the beautiful Benjamin, who at length caught sight of it round a cabbage, and immediately bolted. He probably took it for Miss Hutton’s cat.’

21 August 1892
‘Went into the garden immediately after breakfast, but saw nothing of the wild rabbit except its tracks. Benjamin’s mind has at last comprehended gooseberries, he stands up and picks them off the bush, but has such a comical little mouth, it is a sort of bob cherry business.’

22 August 1892
‘Very hot. Went to Mrs. McIntosh’s to try and photograph Charlie Lumm’s fox at Calley, but with very little advantage except that I was touched with the kindness of Mrs. McIntosh. She let the pony stand in their stall, gave me a glass of milk, and tramped up the wood with me to the Under-keeper’s cottage.

The wood is very beautiful at the bottom of Craigie-barns, such tall Scotch firs, and the Game keeper’s cottage with its bright old-fashioned flowers and a row of bee hives. The fox proved a tyke, tearing round and round the tree, in the absence of Charlie Lumm, but as things turned out, it did not signify.

Coming down we passed Eel Stew, with high post railings where her Grace’s supply of eels are preserved, having been trapped in the Lochs. Her Grace will have two or three cooked for supper every evening almost, when she is at home, at which information I was much amazed.’

30 October 1892
‘When I was walking out Benjamin I saw Miss Hutton’s black cat jumping on something up the wood. I thought it was too far off to interfere, but as it seemed leisurely I went up in time to rescue a poor little rabbit, fast in a snare. The cat did not hurt it, but I had great difficulty in slackening the noose round its neck. I warmed it at the fire, relieved it from a number of fleas, and it came round. It was such a little poor creature compared to mine. They are regular vermin, but one cannot stand by to see a thing mauled about from one’s friendship for the race. Papa in his indignation pulled up the snare. I fancy our actions were much more illegal than Miss Hutton’s.

After dinner I was half amused, half shocked, to see her little niece Maggie hunting everywhere for the wire. I just had enough sense not to show the stranger to Benjamin Bounce, but the smell of its fur on my dress was quite enough to upset the ill-regulated passions of that excitable buck rabbit. Whether he thought I had a rival in my pocket, or like a Princess in a Fairy Tale was myself metamorphosed into a white rabbit I cannot say, but I had to lock him up.

Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent. It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful in Mr. Benjamin Bunny, though I frankly admit his vulgarity. At one moment amiably sentimental to the verge of silliness, at the next, the upsetting of a jug or tea-cup which he immediately takes upon himself, will convert him into a demon, throwing himself on his back, scratching and spluttering. If I can lay hold of him without being bitten, within half a minute he is licking my hands as though nothing has happened.

He is an abject coward, but believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail. Benjamin once fell into an Aquarium head first, and sat in the water which he could not get out of, pretending to eat a piece of string. Nothing like putting a face upon circumstances.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 22 December 2013.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

This won’t break us

‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult.’ This is from the diaries of Dr. Willy Cohn, born 135 years ago today, who was one of many thousands of Jews executed by the Nazis at Ninth Fort in Lithuania. According to the publisher, the diaries show how the process of marginalisation under the Nazis unfolded within the Breslau Jewish community and how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps.

Cohn was born on 12 December 1888 in Breslau, Poland (though then it was part of the German Empire) into a wealthy Jewish merchant family. He studied history at the universities of Breslau and Heidelberg and married Ella Proskauer in 1913. They would have two children, before divorcing in 1922. He served as a soldier on the Western Front during the war, and won an Iron Cross for bravery. After the war, he secured a position as teacher at Breslau’s Johannesgymnasium in 1919, remaining there until 1933. During this time, he wrote several books, including biographies of Karl Marx, Robert Owen and Friedrich Engels. He married Gertrud Rothmann in 1923 with whom he had three children.

After being forced into retirement for ‘political reasons’ in 1933, Cohn became a board member of the Jewish Museum in Breslau, and he lectured at the Jewish Theological Seminary also in Breslau. However, as the persecution of Jews in Germany grew worse, he and his family began to consider emigration. They visited Palestine in 1937, but there seemed no employment prospects especially for Cohn who was not healthy enough for physical labor. By the time they wanted to flee, at the start of the Second World War, it was too late - the Nazi regime had begun its reign of terror, Wikipedia explains, and no longer allowed emigration. The Cohns and two of their children were arrested in November 1941, and deported to German-occupied Lithuania. A few days later, they were shot in Ninth Fort, together with 2000 other Jews from Breslau and Vienna.

Cohn’s life story stands out and is now remembered because of the diaries he kept all his adult life. These were found (along with a 1,000-page memoir in Berlin) in 1945. Excerpts from the diaries, in the original German, were first published in 1975, as was the memoir in 1995. Then, in 2005, the diaries were published in a fully annotated version, as edited by Norbert Conrads. This latter edition was translated into English by Kenneth Kronenberg for publication as No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941 (Stanford University Press). 

From the publisher’s blurb: ‘With great immediacy, the diaries of Willy Cohn, a Jew and a Social Democrat, show how the process of marginalization under the Nazis unfolded within the vibrant Jewish community of Breslau - until that community was destroyed in 1941. Cohn documents how difficult it was to understand precisely what was happening, even as people were harassed, beaten, and taken off to concentration camps. He chronicles the efforts of the community to maintain some semblance of normal life at the same time as many made plans to emigrate or to get their children out.’

From the translator’s note: ‘Willy Cohn was a complex individual: an Orthodox Jew and a socialist; an ardent Zionist and a staunch German patriot; a democrat but an admirer of Nazi resolve and sometimes even policy; a realist and an idealist often not up to grappling effectively; generous to a fault but also occasionally petty and stubborn. These and other contradictions within his personality, and the wealth of detail that poured from his pen, give us a unique view of a disorienting and frightening time in Germany.’

Here are several extracts.

17 December 1938
‘The first evening of Hanukkah. This morning I worked on my box of manuscripts and threw a few things out. This is the time of year when it makes sense to burn things. Delved into decades well before mv birth, when my father built his beautiful store with iron determination! Life smiled on us German Jews back then.

Went to synagogue, Shabbat afternoon service; first day of Hanukkah. The men’s section was very full, and we all proudly sang the old song of the Maccabees, which has been heard for more than two thousand years and will hopefully be heard for another two thousand. I firmly believe in the future of our people, and in its healthy inner life force. The Jews who pray in our synagogue, and who returned from the Buchenwald camp, all said the Birkat Hagomel, the prayer of deliverance.

Spoke with Tischler, the classifieds representative, and he told me that the Famlienblatt has been liquidated, that Schatzky sold it. How many Jewish livelihoods are now finished as a result; there will be no renewal of Jewish intellectual life in Germany now that all of the major sources of income have been blocked.

Celebrated Hanukkah in the evening with all three daughters. Trudi held Tamara in her arms. It is my most fervent hope that my family will celebrate this day next year in Erez Israel, in freedom. Whether I can still accomplish that, with all the efforts needed to get ready! Tamara will be five months old day after tomorrow! Susannchen knows all of the verses of “Ma’oz Tzur.”

This morning I sent both of my big girls to see Mother. Ruth was able to get half a chicken, and we sent a bar of soap along as well. Unfortunately, I can’t do much; I’m short on money right now myself, and I don’t know how we are going to get through this. I don’t want to ask anyone, either. It is very difficult for a father when he is unable to do what he would like to do, but of course that is also happening to innumerable Jews right now. I think that few of us Jews wall escape this mouse trap. Sometimes, a person must push his thoughts aside and bear in mind all of the good things that he has!’

18 December 1938
‘I don’t think I have yet noted that Curt Proskauer returned home from Buchenwald. His health seems to have been badly affected by it. I called him yesterday.

I went to see Czollak to greet him after his return from Buchenwald. He was in bed because of a nail-bed infection; other than that, thank G’d, he did not look too bad. He is very impractical about his emigration plans. I will help him to the extent I can. Urbach, in Jerusalem, is treating him and Daniel very decently. We have to help each other through these times!’

19 December 1938
‘Unfortunately, Trudi has to make the rounds of the police this morning about Ruth’s passport. First the district station, and then headquarters. She doesn’t want me to do it. The matter of Ruth’s identity card seems to be going smoothly; she will pick up her passport tomorrow. I don’t expect any other problems either. I am always quite anxious whenever one of my children’s emigration approaches. But it is not helpful, and I just have to get through it. We must fight against every sort of failure.’

22 July 1939
‘Yesterday was a horrible day. Terrible upsets, with Trudi as well. Arrangements for additional payments to the Palestine Trust Office so that we can at least take Tamara with us. To the bank, where I spent an hour negotiating; then came Dr. Latte, whom we had selected as our foreign currency advisor. We found a possible way out, namely if we can use the boys’ money that was placed in blocked accounts, we may be able to take Susanne with us. I cannot even imagine separating from the child.

Regarding yesterday, I must add that I was summoned to the Gestapo in the morning in the context of a so-called “street action.” They wanted my families personal information to the extent that they are registered in Breslau, and then he asked, “When are you emigrating?” I told him that my son had applied for me. “How long could that take?” I replied, “A few months.” “You can go home now," he said. The whole matter took a few minutes.’

2 September 1939
‘Thank G'd, the first nightly blackout went without incident. Sat on the balcony. There was a nice breeze, and I could see the darkened city. Toward evening, Trudi returned from shopping with the news that the airport in Warsaw had been bombed, and that Pless, in Polish Upper Silesia, had apparently been leveled. In the morning we will hear what is true and what is not.

I didn’t attend synagogue in the evening, nor did we light the Kiddush candles. Lay awake in bed thinking about Wölfl. We are completely cut off, and our thoughts alone connect us. It is sometimes difficult to turn them off. Emotionally, in fact, I have lost all hope that our emigration to Palestine might succeed. One has to consider the loss of money that would make possible such a transfer. But it makes no sense tearing my hair out about that now; all I can do is live from hour to hour. At this moment, I have no idea how the other powers will respond to the German-Polish war.

From a Jewish perspective, I can say the following about the situation. The Aryan population is surely not well disposed to us, and if Germany suffers failure in Poland, we can almost certainly expect pogrom-like assaults. Today on the street for the first time I heard two older men make an anti-Semitic remark: “The Jews must get out.” It wasn’t aimed at me, but that makes it all the more characteristic.’

6 September 1941
‘Yesterday a lovely and quick letter from Wölfl dated August 20, full of warmth. He asks about each and every one of us; a boy on whom we may rely.’

7 September 1941
‘No newspaper to be had yesterday. Paper is in such short supply that newspapers are quietly sold out. A number of streetcar lines won’t be running in the morning as of this Sunday. There is a shortage of personnel! I think that Germany’s situation continues to be very unfavorable, even though the newspapers report victories each day.’

8 September 1941
‘The day began with the barber telling me that, as of September 19, we will have to wear a badge bearing the word “Jew,” even six-year-old children. This won’t break us either, even though life will be made more difficult. In spite of it all, we will have to try not to lose our nerve. All of these measures show how increasingly bad Germany’s situation is, and how the people’s rage is being vented on the most helpless part of the population! This trumps the Middle Ages! Each violation carries a fine of 500 marks or one month in jail! In addition, travel by Jews has been banned throughout the Reich, and the obligation to report to the Gestapo tightened.

Worked in the Cathedral Archive and did some excerpting for Germania Judaica! Nonetheless, these matters coursed around my mind! Director Engelbert told me that I may continue to work there despite the badge. He is a man of great character, far different from Walter, the archivist, and Mother Huberta. Mother Innocentia is also a person with a large spirit.

9 September 1941
‘Dictated a considerable piece of my memoirs yesterday afternoon; I have now written more than 1,000 pages. I also wrote a lengthy letter to Wölfl! Given current circumstances, it is hard to find the right words. I was exhausted by evening. I went for a walk, but I am very unnerved by the decree about the yellow badge! I read it this morning!’

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.