Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

The Diary opens on a quiet November morning in an English village around 1930. The lady -- whose name we never learn -- is chronicling her attempts to "plant the indoor bulbs" despite interruptions from children, servants, and the officious local peeress, Lady Boxe, who is always ready to drop by with unsolicited advice.

For the next year, we follow the Provincial Lady through her small adventures: running her household, volunteering at the Women's Institute, visiting elderly shut-ins, coping with endless financial difficulties, and helping to bring young lovers together just before suffering a serious bout of measles. All the while she attempts to (as it were) keep her cultural head above water. She enters writing contests sponsored by the county newspaper (and is annoyed at sharing Second Prize). She tries to read the latest books. She goes to London with a younger and admittedly better-looking girlfriend, fully intending to see the famed Italian art exhibition, until her Christmas shopping duties interfere.

The novel closes simply. November has come round again. The lady and her husband have returned from a dismal party at "Lady B.'s." She stays up late writing her diary even as Robert sensibly asks "'Why don't I get into bed?' "

The enchantment of the Diary is its calm, intelligent, almost-loving and just slightly acidic depiction of ordinary life among deeply ordinary people. Sme of the Provincial Lady's English references are, admittedly, difficult for the 21st-century American reader to follow. Her husband's occupation is mysterious, for one thing. He is Lady Boxe's "agent," which appears to put them both in a position of some subservience to the grande dame, and yet they are summoned to her country-house parties and seem to have a responsibility for taking the lead in the village's social and fund-raising affairs as well. (A hint of the tension is conveyed early on when the heroine writes, "have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us to distinguished literary friends, or anyone else, as Our Agent, and Our Agent's wife, I shall at once leave the house.")

The Provincial Lady's family and financial worries will also strike the modern reader as odd. She considers herself worked to death, yet employs a cook, two housemaids, and a French governess for the children. She pawns family jewelry and sells off old clothes to bring in cash, but sends her son to boarding school and manages to take a trip with friends to the south of France -- albeit, in the off season. " 'But why not go at the right time of year?' " Lady B. scolds.

Nevertheless, the almost relentless domesticity of this country gentlewoman's life, and her droll, engrossed, and un-self-pitying coping with it, ring true -- even nearly eighty years on -- for every reader who has ever complained about the daily grind. Practically everyone and everything in her world takes precedence over her own time and her own "little" plans; this is a part of being human, particularly a part of being a wife and mother, but her reaction to it is what makes this charming anonymous, in fact, a great Lady.

1 comment:

  1. I'm intrigued with this book. I believe I would like it very much.

    And Nancy, I came up with a little something that you were included in. Stop over and take a look!