Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield

From here on out, I will only be reading books that I cannot get when I am at home, absolutely with no exceptions. Diary of a Provincial Lady was my last exception, and I only read it because I forgot that my mother had ordered it from the internet. And also Fagles’ Odyssey, I’ll carry on reading that, because it’s a nice thing to read just before I go to bed at night. There. This forms an unalterable law by which I will live until the end of the summer.

I am glad I read Diary of a Provincial Lady. It’s a light, fluffy sort of read: a fictional diary of a British wife and mother, in which she chronicles her perpetual struggles with money (which do not stop her from keeping a cook, parlormaid, and gardener), her relationship with her husband and children, her aspirations to walk, but not too much, in literary circles, and her encounters with friends and frenemies. It is a bit like Bridget Jones’s Diary, but with less plot, and set and written earlier on in Time. It has the same tone, and the same endearingly (or not, depending on your views) well-intentioned, self-indulgent sort of heroine.

I know that Ms. Delafield and her protagonist were products of their time. And all. But I did not love how much she talked about “the servant question”, and how she needed to find a way to treat her servants that was firm but fair and would pull them into line. When she talked about that, I felt awkward. And when she carried on about needing money, and carried on having a cook and a parlormaid. I am rather destitute myself, but if I did have money, I wouldn’t spend the bulk of it on making someone cook and clean for me. I would spend it on Ben & Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide ice cream and elegant matching books.

Other people who read it:

things mean a lot
Verity’s Virago Venture
Savidge Reads
Stuck in a Book
A Work in Progress
My Porch
Books and Chocolate

Did I miss yours? I feel like there are more reviews of this book out there!

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25 thoughts on “Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield

  1. I want to read this book so badly!

    Like you, I often struggle reading opinions that I know are a product of the times and thus not something you could blame the author or characters for, but it still gets to me. I have to admit that that often makes for the most interesting reading as well. Then again, I am an historian, so I guess I’m expected to find it interesting.

    • It does make for interesting reading! But it doesn’t necessarily make for emotionally engaging reading – I am interested in the way the characters think but I don’t want to be their friends. :p

      …I’m still probably going to read the sequels though.

  2. I’m upset that you didn’t LOVE this – you should read the other volumes – there are three more besides this – Further Adventures, Wartime and In America – and they are much less servant based.

    The servant issue in books of this era used to annoy me too until I just accepted that life was like that and having ‘no money’ didn’t stop you from sending your son to Eton and employing a small staff to run your four bedroomed home. They can’t be blamed for what was their normality!

    • Okay! I will go forth and do so!

      I have mixed feelings on what I can blame people for. Part of me knows that societal norms change, and I can’t impose my values on them. But part of me feels like, giving people a pass based on what was “acceptable” back then (whenever “then” is) ignores their ability to think critically about their societal norms. Which I know that I don’t always do myself, but I do try.

      So yeah. My feelings, they are mixed in nature.

  3. I read Nymeth’s review of this book last week ( I think), and do really want to read this one. I think the servant issue would make me feel weird as well, and I agree…who needs a maid and cook when you have money issues? I think it would be neat to read this and sort of get a look into the past, but I also expect it to alienate me a little bit. Great review!

    • Maybe with forewarning you’ll be prepared for the servant stuff and be able to ignore it. Part of it was that I feel deeply uncomfortable when someone else is cleaning up after me, and I kept thinking how much I’d hate having a housecleaner all the time every day.

  4. Darling, your sins are forgiven. My copy has not arrived yet, and I think I chose a bad vendor. So, until further notice, you could not have read this one at home.

    The servant thing is something I can skate over until I think about things like the servants having to work until they died because they had no pensions. Then I start twitching.

  5. Funny. I read this the review of this on Things Mean a Lot and managed to come away with the impression that it was a memoir.

    My granny’s family was poor, but during the depression there was always someone poorer. She remembers a succession of “hired girls” who would come in to help her grandmother in the mornings–dryland wheat-farmer girls that her Nanny pitied and felt responsible for. She always tried to impart a little advice and some extras to give them a boost in life before they drifted away. If they weren’t working in Nanny’s kitchen, they’d be getting married too young to escape working on the farm for free. It was kind of symbiotic.

    Actually, I worked as what can only be described as a servant in college. It was weird. The weirdness was worse than the work. I always felt terribly sorry for my employer.

    • Yes! It’s the weirdness! It’s so weird! I don’t understand how people have servants without feeling weird about it! When I did a month-long study abroad thing in London, the place we were staying had cleaners who came in and did our rooms every day. It was ever so very awkward, and eventually I asked them not to do my room.

  6. Interesting book and interesting review! I don’t know whether I will read this, but I will browse through it if I find a copy. I loved your last line about buying icecream and matching books πŸ™‚

  7. It’s always awkward when you come across the more unfortunate implications of a time period, especially such specific class distinctions- I try to breeze through but acknowledge them, but sometimes it’s a bit much.

    • Yeah, it varies, I guess. Sometimes I can ignore it with my brain (I have a good ignorometer), but sometimes it hits me in a particular place and drives me crazy. I’m not sure what sparks the visceral reaction in this case…

    • Oo, sorry I missed yours! I added a link. πŸ™‚ I was more sympathetic to her wish to impress Lady B – relentlessly superior people can do away with all my good behavior and make me terrible. :p

  8. I enjoy reading a”light & fluffy” book between some of the heavier books that I read. It helps clear my mind of the book I just finished so that I can move on to the next book without any lingering tendrils.
    I don’t recall hearing about Diary of a Provincial Lady though. I don’t think this is a book I will be picking up.

    • I like a fluffy book myself – I have so much nonfiction checked out from the library that I’m longing for Georgette Heyer right now. πŸ™‚

  9. I read this back in January and loved it, here is a link to my review:

    http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2010/02/diary-of-provincial-lady-by-e-m.html

    I’m kind of embarassed that the whole servant issue actually went right over my head and I didn’t even think about it. Interesting because my library just discussed The White Tiger the other day, and we talked a lot about servants, because the main character is a poor Indian boy who becomes a driver to a very wealthy family. Talk about treating your servants badly!

    I also read The Provincial Lady in London, which I liked but not quite as much as the first. I haven’t gotten to any of the others in the series yet but I intend to read them all. I’d really like to see what she has to say about America.

    • Mercy, I was obviously lax about doing my reviews search for this one – yours is the second review I missed. I’m sorry!

      I hope I don’t find Provincial Lady in London disappointing, because that’s actually the one I was most looking forward to. I love reading books set in London, because I love London and it’s fun to read about places I’ve been. Is there one set in America? I didn’t even know! Sounds fun. πŸ™‚

  10. One of my very favourite books! And I understand feeling awkward about The Servant Question etc., but I find the servant dynamic the most fascinating thing in interwar novels – because in this period they were being gradually recognised as actually being human beings rather than automatons, and that made everything very interesting around the house…!

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  12. Interesting review. I didn’t mind the servant issue so much, mainly because it’s clear to me how mentally terrified she is of Cook, and actually how much she can’t give orders with the right authority (as would be sanctioned by Lady Boxe). The Lady can’t cook, and was never taught (there’s a scene in one of the later books, ‘The Provincial Lady in Wartime’, where she makes Cook go on holiday, and has some lessons from a local woman – she’s rather touchingly horrified by what has to be done to cook rabbit stew), and when she’s staying in London, she always has to eat out. Her relationship with Mademoiselle, Vicky’s governess, is much more equal, and there’s a lovely bit in ‘The Provincial Lady In America’, where she meets Mademoiselle unexpectedly and is very glad to see her, something which is looked on askance by her American acquaintances.

    The servant issue does diminish in the later books (though Cook is still around in wartime), or the emphasis on it – probably because fewer people would have had servants.

    The Lady _is_ always complaining about her overdraft, but I guess the servants’ wages were paid directly by Robert, so weren’t influencing her own finances. Though I find it odd to realise that she can only afford to send Vicky to school because her literary work is doing well.

  13. Pingback: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield | Iris on Books

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