As I was trying to choose which books to take on holiday last week, I, as usual, hunted through Persephone Books’ list for something tempting. My eye had drifted across “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” several times before, but for some reason – probably the title, which seems to be universally disliked – I had never gone so far as to actually read the blurb or delve into its pages. What an error of judgment on my part, and what an enormous pleasure suddenly to find E.M Delafield on my list of favourite twentieth century authors.
I will, henceforth, press these books onto like-minded readers. Everything about this series of volumes – from “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” to “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” – is as delicious as anything written by E.F. Benson and, dare I say it, even stands up next to P.G. Wodehouse. It is not just the way in which the unnamed Lady barrels through life with chaotic aplomb – which she does, fabulously – but also the way in which Delafield develops a supporting cast and series of verbal ticks worthy of the finest comedic writers England has produced. I particularly loved the way in which she describes the eternally-grumpy but devoted husband, Robert, almost through a total lack of dialogue or detail. More often than not he completely ignores his wife – instead choosing to read the Times and fall asleep – but very occasionally we have a glimpse into his caustic mind: “I reluctantly agree to do so, and she mounts her bicycle and rides off. Robert says, That girl holds herself well, but it’s a pity she has those ankles.” Withering. He essentially exists in the negative in these fictional diaries – plagued by his wife’s social life, and an endless series of doomed picnics – and very early on I almost felt as though his unassailable lack of interest in his wife’s affairs signalled a lack of love. As the diaries progress, though, he very occasionally confesses that He Misses Her when she is away from home – which sends his Provincial Lady into paroxysms of delight, and lends their relationship a unique tenderness. This is an honest, funny, and affectionate portrait of a marriage – and by the end of the final volume I adored Robert as much as his wife.
Stylistically, there are two things I would single out from this smorgasbord of delights. The first is the way in which Delafield’s Lady uses the “Query” and “Answer” model to sum up her thoughts on any human flaw, event, or pattern which catches her eye – e.g. “Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?” or “Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to a false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really realize?” They are uniformly hilarious asides, and more often than not very acutely observed. (I was primed to enjoy this particular tick, I think, because lawyers frequently use the omnipresent “Query” as a way to pose knotty questions in conversation, which I have always found to be fairly maddening – e.g. “Query: has the client considered branding issues here? Answer: probably not.” Delafield has skewered this for me, and never again will I listen to this mannerism in the ofcfice without wriggling my toes in mirth.)
Secondly, she uses capitalisation to devastating effect. I cannot think of any other author who can make me chuckle with only a few well-placed capital letters, yet Delafield’s Lady does it frequently – “Monsieur Gitnik, in response to leading question from hostess…tells us that if ever goes to Russia again, he has been warned that he will be thrown into prison because He Knows Too Much.” Or: “Housekeeper from upstairs rushes down, and unknown females from basement rush up, and we all look at ceiling and say Better fetch a Man. This is eventually done and I meditate ironical article on Feminism…” It is a wonderful technique, and she is a master at deploying it.
And then, of course, there is the Lady herself. She becomes a friend, a role model, and icon of what it means to be a modern woman by the end of these pages – as Rachel Johnson says in her affectionate introduction to the new Penguin edition, the Lady is effectively the first female character in literature who tries to Have It All. She is a loving Mother to Robin and Vicky, valiantly trying to be terribly Modern and dismissive of her children’s charms whilst all the while weeping whenever she sees their photographs if they are away from home. She is a fond Wife to the taciturn Robert – muddling through the housekeeping and her dramatic relationship with Cook to make sure that he is fed and watered and shielded from the domestic affairs which are, by tradition, her domain. She is a Feminist – quietly pursuing her own career whilst good-humouredly recognising that whenever anything technical goes wrong in the house, she is the first to Call a Man. And she is an Author – able to afford her own flat in London, and to send Vicky to school, all as a result of her own labour. Most appealing of all, though, is the fact that she juggles all of these responsibilities with frequent laughter and a touch of chaos – her Literary Agent is constantly chasing her for new material, she is often struck by how much better mannered other people’s children are, and Robert is the first to remind her that her house-keeping skills are less than perfect, and that she once forgot to order flour before a Bank-Holiday weekend. Essentially, she muddles through – but with such aplomb. Sure, the Lady could have been a fashionable Modernist thinker, if she had had the space and time – but she is far too busy for such indulgences, and if our heroine thinks that she might be in danger of slipping into a modernist flight of fancy she very quickly nips it in the bud and ploughs on with her day. “Mem: Should often be very, very sorry to explain exactly what it is that I do mean, and I am in fact conscious of deliberately avoiding self-analysis on many occasions. Do not propose, however, to go into this now or at any other time.”
In short, E.M. Delafield and her Lady are a joy, and these 1920s diaries are a gorgeous sanctuary. I am now a Devoted Fan.