“The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – review

I’m quite an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Many wonders of the modern world, such as on-demand TV (I prefer to, as I still refer to it, “set the video”) and Apple-pay (I still have a cheque book in a drawer somewhere) are yet to become a part of my life.  I can’t even claim that I’m shunning technology and going retro because that’s what the trendy people are doing right now – I quite simply haven’t moved with the times.  All of which probably explains the sense of comfort I feel when reading novels such as “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”; set in the 1930s, it’s a period that doesn’t feel so far removed from the present day as to be considered “historical” as such, but is distant enough to evoke a real feeling of nostalgia.  One thing hasn’t changed though: the fact that many of us spend a fairly high proportion of our lives feeling wholly inadequate compared to those around us.

That feeling of inferiority, whether of appearance, intellect or financial circumstances, is the recurring theme of the Provincial Lady’s diaries.  Downbeat and self-absorbed, though, they are not.  Our hugely entertaining diarist may spend her days flying into a panic about not having an appropriate outfit to wear or the fact that her woeful attempt to grow indoor bulbs is being met with disdainful comments from her neighbours, but ultimately every setback is faced with endearing good humour.  What is more, she’s totally upfront in acknowledging that the very people she’s trying to impress are usually the ones whose attitudes and lifestyles she despises.  Among these surrounding characters are some brilliant comic creations: Lady Boxe, the supremely arrogant, self-appointed lynchpin of village life; Pamela Pringle, who works her way through inappropriate men at an astonishing rate, and “Mademoiselle”, French nanny to the Provincial Lady’s two children and who is prone to frequent bouts of mild hysteria.  I laughed out loud countless times; the author is so astute at nailing (mostly unflattering) observations of her fellow humans – all through the protagonist’s eyes of course – and the level of cringe-inducing awfulness on display is something to which we can all relate.  I’m sure at one time or another most of us have encountered the pretentious bore at a social gathering intent on making sure everyone knows how well-read they are, or the person who subtly slips into conversation the fact that their forthcoming holiday is more exotic or their dress more expensive than yours.  Most hilarious of all are the beleaguered diarist’s internal responses to all the odious people around her – perfect, pithy comments that of course she – like all of us – never voices out loud.

The book is actually made up of four stories – novellas I suppose you could call them.  The first, “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” centres around everyday village life; the subsequent three, “The Provincial Lady Goes Further”, “The Provincial Lady in America” and “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” follow our heroine to London and the United States.  I have to say that for me, none of these worked quite as well as the first story.  There is still a lot of fun to be had and the author’s skill at creating finely-drawn comic characters remains, but I found the mundanity of the day to day tribulations found close to home much more engaging than the pressures of the London or New York social scene.  The subtle observations of a WI meeting, a village fête or a family picnic are exquisite in their accuracy, and when the lead characters venture away from that cosy setting some of the sense of reality is lost.  It’s also about that feeling of nostalgia I mentioned earlier: the inherent cosiness of a long vanished rural way of life appeals to me much more than a metropolitan setting.

Despite these reservations this novel definitely still gets a recommendation from me.  If you’re feeling a bit low it will lift your spirits, and I think sometimes that’s what we all need from a book.

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