As is ever the case in January, I’ve spent the last few weeks swallowed up by an enormous pile of marking, only able to emerge briefly for food and water. I’ve broken the back of it now, and am grateful to EM Delafield and the Provincial Lady for keeping me company as I hastily ate lunch each day.

Grading Day! – One Hundred Ten
Actual footage of me every January. (Thank you PhD Comics for keeping me sane).

(Incidentally, I can’t help but feel that it would have been more satisfying to mark assignments back when they came in actual piles, moved slowly from in-tray to out-tray, rather than as pixels on a screen that don’t go away until you’ve marked the whole lot).

Anyway. The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I have this as part of a Virago bind-up that includes the other three books in the series (The Provincial Lady Goes Further/in America/at War), but I’m only reviewing the first one here. This novel is a semi-autobiographical series of diary entries by an unnamed narrator, the Provincial Lady of the title. The entries follow her through roughly a year, during which time she plays tennis badly, worries about her children, mismanages the household budget, and has some nasty colds. There are several other characters – Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife; bohemian best friend Rose; an appalling and officious neighbour who is not merely a lady but a Lady. In other words, it’s a sort of series of comic vignettes about rural life in the 30s – no plot, but excellent characterisation and a very strong voice.

I’ll get it out of my system straight away: as with House-Bound, I spent a large part of this novel quite frustrated. If the nameless Provincial Lady spent as much time learning to cook and clean as she did fretting about the quality of the servants’ cooking and cleaning, both her financial and her domestic issues would be resolved PDQ. It never seems to have occurred to upper-middle women of this era that they could do some work themselves. Maybe, as before, this is a sort of latent class feeling coming into play. Deep within me, I remember that I would have been Downstairs and not Upstairs, and so my ability to empathise with the title character vanishes into the ether. In principle, I love a funny novel about the petty nuisances and general mundanity of life, and I am an absolute sucker for epistolary fiction in any form – yet this book aggravated me despite these qualities. This is a shame, because it ought to be right up my street, and much of the time it was – but it was far from a perfect read. On the rare occasion that I tried to sink into this for an hour or so, I found myself getting annoyed.

Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.

Hmm. Actually, I can answer this one, Provincial Lady.

Now that’s dealt with, I can admit that if I limited myself to twenty minutes of reading snatched in between marking, I enjoyed it tremendously. The rest of this review will focus on that experience rather than the other. EM Delafield establishes a very strong voice for the main character. I’ve seen this called a satire – I’m not completely sure what it’s meant to be satirising, if this is the case – but I think it works on its own merits. In particular, the Provincial Lady’s attempts to stay on top with literary developments and intelligent new novels are very enjoyable. Her friend Rose is somewhat involved with the Bloomsbury set, and therefore she is always hearing about new ideas – but struggles to keep up with them. In fact, her thoughts on the books she is – and isn’t – reading are probably the highlight of the book.

Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.

At one point, she attends a literary dinner party in London, and that whole stretch of the novel is delightful. There aren’t any identifiable real life writers – at least, not any that I could personally identify, though of course I am not a big reader of that set – but you get an impression of some very strong Types.

The novel also acts as a fascinating, if troubling, insight into normal society at the time. For all she feels like an outsider, the narrator is intensely conventional, and so the reader gets a glimpse of the prevailing social mores (for an upper-middle English woman, of course – and probably a Scottish woman of the same class, given the similarities to House-Bound). For instance, I realise as I read more from this era that there really was a long stretch of time where the vast majority of people (especially in towns and cities) either had or were servants. The Provincial Lady is in genuine financial trouble throughout most of the book – not “I can’t afford to winter in the south of France this year! Quel dommage!”, but “the children have used too much toothpaste this week and I have to make it stretch”. She considers almost everything to cut back on costs except getting rid of the servants – or even just making do with fewer. At the very least, the family has a gardener, cook, parlourmaid, and governness (nanny?). Possibly there were more and I just lost count. I genuinely cannot comprehend why “maybe I can cook my own meals” or “perhaps I should care for my own children” would not be the first step in cutting back – I imagine that most contemporary readers would be similarly puzzled. Domestic service seems to have just been so normal for so many people, right up until WWII. It reminds me of this quote from A House in the Country, which I have been thinking about on and off ever since I first read it.

The gracious life in the front wing, after all, depended entirely upon service in the back wing, and it didn’t seem a justifiable way of living.

A House in the Country – Ruth Adam

Not a perfect book, by any means – but I am glad I read it. It is very much worth reading. I’m sure I will read the other instalments at some point, when I feel better equipped to deal with the Provincial Lady’s low-key snobbery and incompetence. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more EM Delafield. I understand that some of her other novels move away from this particular time and setting, and that the humour in other novels is balanced by more plot and drama. I would be interested to see Delafield’s deft hand at characterisation turned towards more interesting, less irritating characters.