Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Provincial Lady books

Between 1930 and 1940, E.M. Delafield published four books about the Provincial Lady, all written in diary format, and I have now read three of them.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady was the first book, a satirical and humorous look at the life of a married woman with two children (and a cook, a French governess/nanny, and a maid or two), living in an English village, and dealing with money problems and the foibles of others.

This was followed by The Provincial Lady in London, published in 1932. This book continues the story after the Provincial Lady publishes her diary. It is successful and she has received enough money for this effort to improve the family's financial status. She endeavors to find a flat in London to take more time to write. The tone is light, humorous and fun. The original title was The Provincial Lady Goes Further, and I think that title is much better. There is a good bit of time spent on the logistics for finding a flat in London, and setting up the flat, but much else is covered, including a holiday trip and a trip to Belgium for a Literary Conference.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I did have some quibbles. I was bothered by the fact that the main character was complaining so much (about lack of money and time, mainly) when she had a maid and a cook and a governess for her daughter. Her son was away at school most of the time. But I kept reminding myself that this is a picture of life as it was for a middle-class woman at this time and place, and I should not be judgmental. I am not sure why that particular aspect was an irritation.

In all of the books, I loved the author's queries and memorandums. Such as...
December 20th. Rose takes me to see St. John Ervine's play, and am much amused. Overhear one lady in stalls ask another: Why don't you write a play, dear? Well, says the friend, it's so difficult, what with one thing and another, to find time. Am staggered.
(Query: Could I write a play myself? Could we all write plays, if only we had the time? Reflect that St. J. E. lives in the same county as myself, but feel that this does not constitute sound excuse for writing to ask him how he finds the time to write plays.)
There are also characters that I love throughout the series. One is "our Vicar's Wife", who visits often and carries on a conversation long after she should be leaving, but is such a dear person.
Our Vicar's wife calls for me at seven o'clock, and we go to a neighbouring Women's Institute at which I have, rather rashly, promised to speak.
[The Vicar's wife takes her home...]
I beg our Vicar's wife to come in; she says, No, No, it is far too late, really, and comes. Robert [her husband] and Helen Wills [the cat] both asleep in the drawing-room. Our Vicar's wife says she must not stay a moment, and we talk about Countrywomen, Stanley Baldwin, Hotels at Madeira (where none of us have ever been), and other unrelated topics. Ethel brings in cocoa, but can tell from the way she puts down the tray that she thinks it an unreasonable requirement, and will quite likely give notice to-morrow.
At eleven our Vicar's wife says that she does hope the lights of the two-seater are still in order, and gets as far as the hall-door. There we talk about forthcoming village concert, parrot-disease, and the Bishop of the diocese.
Her car refuses to start, and Robert and I push it down the drive. After a good deal of jerking and grinding, engine starts, the hand of our Vicar's wife waves at us through the hole in the talc, and car disappears down the lane.

Moving on to the third book...
The Provincial Lady in America, published in 1934. The Provincial Lady's American publishers want her to come to America to tour for her books and lecture at various events. This is a major undertaking but she makes plans so that she can do the trip while her children are at school, from October to early December. She visits many cities: New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia in the US and Toronto in Canada. I loved that she was determined to visit Alcott House in Concord, Massachusetts and enjoyed a special tour for her benefit. The day before she is taken to see her first American football game at Harvard stadium.

So far this is my favorite of the books. Not as funny, but more interesting, with her reactions to the cities, conditions in America, and the people she meets. In the earlier books, Robert seems to be a stick and a stuffed shirt and very non-communicative. But I got a much better impression of him in this book. The vicar's wife shows up even in The Provincial Lady in America, in Robert's letters from home.

In spite of my initial reservations, I have enjoyed continuing with these books and I will be reading the fourth book, The Provincial Lady in Wartime, soon. It was published in 1940 and describes her experiences at the beginning of World War II.

I have been reading my husband's editions of the Provincial Lady books. They are lovely Academy Chicago editions, published in the 1980s. The first two books had illustrations by Arthur Watts. The third one was illustrated by Margaret Freeman.

Resources for Diary of a Provincial Lady ...
Jilly Cooper's comments at The Guardian
Constance's review at Staircase Wit
Clothes are much discussed in Provincial Lady books, as noted at Clothes in Books

Cath at Read-warbler reviews The Provincial Lady Goes Further.
Katrina's review of The Provincial Lady Goes to America at Pining for the West.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Reading one of these might be just the break I need. They are strangely appealing to someone who never reads this sort of book.

Cath said...

What an excellent post about this series of books, Tracy, a pleasure to read. I know what you mean about the complaining, my main feeling was 'maybe she could manage their money better'. Apart from that I have found the books to be a real pleasure. Our Vicar's Wife is a joy and I'm hoping that she appears a fair bit in the 'Wartime' book. Suspect she will. I'll be reading that soon too.

TracyK said...

I know what you mean, Patti. They have been on my husband's shelves for years and I have never read them. They were a fast read and addictive.

TracyK said...

Cath, I am looking forward to reading Provincial Lady in Wartime also. Almost certainly in June. When I was scanning through books 1 and 2 for this post, I enjoyed parts I read even more. I will be reading them again.

Margot Kinberg said...

I do like the blend of social commentary, with, and family story here, Tracy. And this is a very good time to read a series like this..

TracyK said...

Margot, the social commentary is interested, although understated, and I probably missed a lot of it. I was just thinking that in 1930 my father would have been 9 years old in Birmingham, Alabama, and his family life would have been very much different. That compares an urban setting to a rural one, but still.

Katrina said...

I love these books but completely agree with you about her complaints. However this was very authentic. I remember hearing an interview with Shirley Williams, the daughter of Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth) and she said that her mother and friends were constantly complaining about their maids or lack of them. They never seemed to see those women as being downtrodden - by them!

TracyK said...

Thanks for that comment, Katrina. That is very illuminating. I assumed the Provincial Lady was reflecting the norm for the time, but it was difficult to sympathize with. And the book are educational (plus fun) for me in many ways.

col2910 said...

Glad you enjoyed them, but I don't think they are for me.

TracyK said...

We can agree on that, Col. This is not your type of book at all.

CLM said...

Thanks for linking to my review. You had the same reaction I did - yes, it's amusing and probably typical but all that complaining about a house full of servants!

However, I do need to read the one where she goes to America because I was the manager of the Harvard Football Team and will greatly enjoy her experience at a game!

Have you read Mrs. Tim?


TracyK said...

Constance, I only recently learned about the Mrs. Tim books. I am definitely interested in reading them, I just have to decide where to start and whether I want newer editions or look for something used. I have been buying too many books lately and should be thinking more about how much I am spending. Plus I have a huge TRB backlog (really huge).

Very cool about you being the manager of the Harvard Football Team. I think you would enjoy The Provincial Lady in America.

Clothes in Books said...

Love these books, and thanks for the shoutout. I just re-read the first one in fact as ideal lockdown reading, and recommended it to my bookgroup.
Troubles with servants are always such a feature of books of the era, and that does read badly to modern ears.

TracyK said...

Moira, sometime soon I will be reading The Provincial Lady in Wartime, and I am looking forward to it. Glen's set also includes The Provincial Lady in Russia, although I have heard that it is not really a Provincial Lady book. And I am now motivated to find other books by the author.