The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E M Delafield

Published in 1940

(Reviewed as part of Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors and for the Classics Club.)

I have had less opportunity for reading and blogging recently, which partly accounts for the fact that despite my best intentions, I did not get to finish a book for E M Delafield Day: the next underappreciated lady author in Jane’s Birthday Book – and even this post is late.  In fact, I didn’t even start what I intended to read – which is probably her most well-known book: The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  But it’s not so long ago that I read another of her ‘Diaries’ so I’m joining in anyway.

It’s only because of Jane’s birthday book, that I’ve come to realise that Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture wrote many novels, the first published in 1915 and the last in 1943 – the year in which she died, aged just 53.  Her witty twist – transforming her exotic birth name into her nom de plume – says a lot to me about her character and her view of life.

The first Diary originally appeared in weekly columns in Time and Tide magazine, of which Elizabeth was a director.  She was good friends with the editor who requested some ‘light middles’ and Elizabeth obliged with thinly-veiled vignettes of her own life.  She had already published 16 novels by this time, but The Diary of a Provincial Lady became the Book Society Book of the month when it was published in December 1930 and has never been out of print since.  She became a household name.  There were to be four Diaries.  After the original came The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932), which begins with the Lady’s astonishment at receiving a large royalty cheque as a result of the first Diary.  This was followed by The Provincial Lady in America (1934), in which the Lady records her experiences as she undertakes a literary tour (presumably on the back of her success); and finally, The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940) – written at the request of Harold Macmillan, presumably to bolster spirits.

I started reading The Provincial Lady in Wartime almost on a whim.  I’d just finished a trio by R F Delderfield and my Kindle ‘helpfully’ suggested books I might like to spend yet more money on read next.  It’s not such a great leap from Delderfield to Delafield …

I understand now that Wartime is perhaps the weakest of the Diaries.  It being my first and thus far, only experience of the series, I can’t comment on that beyond saying that I was hooked from the first and if it is indeed the weakest, I know I have some delights in store when I read through the earlier ones.  It stands perfectly well in its own right; I didn’t feel I needed to have read anything earlier in order to enjoy this book.

The Provincial Lady in Wartime covers the earliest months in the Second World War, a period known as the Phoney War.  It’s a chapter in the war that I’d not read much about: a seemingly quiet period when everyone is fired up and wanting to take action in whatever capacity they can and yet on the bigger stage not much seems to be happening.  The Provincial Lady, equally anxious to play her part, decides to leave her provincial home and heads off to London to find a Useful Job through which she can make her Contribution to the War Effort.

The Lady takes in Aunt Blanche as a paying guest.  Aunt Blanche and Cook take on the running of the house and the care of evacuees whilst The Lady is in town.  The Lady struggles to divide her time over the two locations and referee the battles with Cook, and the loss of maids to the war effort.   Her husband, Robert, busies himself with gas masks and Our Vicar’s Wife does sterling work in the village.  In London, The Lady struggles vainly to find useful war work.  She meets the lovely Serena Fiddlededee and the ghastly Pussy Winter-Gammon; tries numerous contacts which she hopes will open doors to Useful Work, always to meet with the same convoluted responses which essentially come down to no one really knowing what’s going on and everyone wanting to make their contribution at a time when there is nothing to be done.  The Lady volunteers in a canteen: she has Come To Help.  She meets Darling and her power-hungry boss Commandant.  And eventually, after various adventures recorded with her customary sharp wit, she is offered something more suited to her talents.

This is a wholly inadequate synopsis.  Really, you have to read the diary to get the full gamut of daily life, of wickedly-observed characters and wonderful satire.  I imagine that this Diary differs from its predecessors a little, because it’s written against a background of very challenging days.  The Lady maintains her customary persona of harried wit and light-heartedness but there are of course references to more serious matters.  She comments on her son’s age (he is not quite 18); she makes reference to having lived through the Great War and hints in her diary of how close to the surface those memories remain – whilst of course, listening politely to numerous young bores who profess to know far more than she does.

Ah, says the beard, it is being found very difficult – very, very difficult indeed – to make use of all those whom the Ministry would like to make use of.  Later on, no doubt, the right field of activity will present itself – much, much later on.

Does he, then, think that the war is going to be a lengthy affair?

It would, said Mr M, gravely, be merely wishful thinking to take too optimistic a view.  The probabilities are that nothing much will happen for some months – perhaps even longer.  But let us not look further ahead than the winter.

The long, cold, dark, dreary interminable winter lies ahead of us – petrol will be less, travelling more restricted, the black-out more complete and the shortage of certain foodstuffs more noticeable.  People will be tired of the war.  Their morale will tend to sink lower and lower.

Quote to myself:

The North wind doth blow

And we shall have snow,

And what will Robin do then, poor thing?

– but feel that it would be quite out of place to say this aloud.

I ask instead, if there is anything I can do, to alleviate the melancholy state of things that evident lies ahead.

All of us can do something, replies Mr M.  There are, for instance, a number of quite false rumours going about.  These can be tracked to their source – (how?) – discredited and contradicted.

The man with the beard breaks in, to tell me that in the last war there were innumerable alarms concerning spies in our midst.

(As it is quite evident, notwithstanding the beard, that he was still in his cradle at the time of the last war, whilst I had left mine some twenty years earlier, this information would really come better from me to him.)

The Government wishes to sift these rumours, one and all – (they will have their hands full if they undertake anything of the kind) – and it is possible to assist them in this respect.  Could I, for instance, tell him what is being said in the extreme North of England, where I live?

Actually, it is in the extreme West that I live….

Alongside the badinage and witticisms, I did find a sense of how it might have been, living through those days.  Here, The Lady is undertaking a mandatory practice trip to the air raid shelter.

Dressing is accomplished without mishap and proceed downstairs and into street with Our Mutual Friend, boiled sweets and electric torch.  Am shocked to find myself strongly inclined to run like a lamplighter, in spite of repeated instructions to the contrary.  If this is the case when no raid at all is taking place, ask myself what it would be like with bombers overhead – and do not care to contemplate reply.

Street seems very dark, and am twice in collision with other pedestrians.  Reaction to this is merry laughter on both sides.  (Effect of black-out on national hilarity quite excellent.)

I loved this book.  In the act of writing this piece, I’ve found myself chuckling away once again at The Lady’s prose (and the Many Capital Letters).   It was in the year that this Diary was published that E M Delafield’s son, Lionel, died.  The circumstances appear to be unclear.  From the time of his death, her own health declined until she too died, just a few years later.  A sad and untimely end for a woman who gave such merriment in her guise as the Provincial Lady.

I am left now, still determined to read all four Diaries, and also to sample some of her novels.  I need only to Find The Time…




46 thoughts on “The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E M Delafield”

  1. She sounds like an amazing woman, Sandra. And just from your post alone I’ve decided to look out for one (or all) diaries to read for myself. Never mind having a look for her novels. Not that I need more books on my lists, but I do need a few more books with humour and insight. Thanks for the delightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Humour and insight are exactly what I found, Alex. A light-hearted parody of genteel English life – for a certain class of women. Certainly made me smile (and that’s with the war in the background!)

      The diaries are available very cheaply on Kindle so you can get a flavour for yourself quite easily.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s great fun for some light relief. Enjoy 🙂

      And , oh … I know, I know….. Deep Breath: here comes The Confession…. you remember that I said I’d start The Poison Next? (I still have Capital Letter Syndrome, courtesy of the Provincial Lady.) Well, another book slipped in ahead. Just a small one – a mere 600 pages… But it’s a quick read; I’m Half Way Through Already 😀 And THEN it will be Poison. Because I’m Quite Scared of what might happen otherwise! 😵 😱 😂 😂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. If this is the weakest of the Diaries, it still sounds wonderful. I really enjoyed reading the first Provincial Lady book for Jane’s E M Delafield day and will definitely be reading the others. Like you, though, I just need to Find Time! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love these books- I haven’t read Wartime but the Diary, the Provincial Lady Goes Further, and The Provincial Lady in America- a delightful set of books–and while I enjoyed them all, the first two I think I liked best. Must look up the others.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I love it when that happens 🙂 I have this vague notion of reading through a year, choosing books which link in that way to whatever I’ve just read. It amazes me how often the link is there even when I pick up seemingly random selections. Of course, it will almost certainly remain just a vague notion! I can see Miss Read and The Lady connecting. I think the former were written after the latter so ‘Miss Read’ would certainly know of them. I’ve only read a couple of Miss Read books. I should look out for more 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Do read them– I’ve myself read only about fours so far but love them so very much–the villages, the characters, the life, its idyll in a way and yet real enough that it could actually happen.

            That sounds like an interesting idea- in fact when this connection turned up yesterday, I was myself toying with the idea (not of reading from one book to another) but of a post (monthly?) just on these connections that turn up– you’re right they always do–may be it’s a place one has never heard of before but turns up in two places back to back, or a character name, or a book or poem that’s mentioned.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yes, those are exactly the sort of connections I was thinking of. And your idea is a good one. I suspect I would forget to note them down though – reluctant to interrupt the flow and then forgetting later!


  4. Oh my. They sound so good! Forgive my ignorance, but are these fictional diaries or non fiction? I totally understand the lack of time for reading and blogging. I’ve felt that squeeze lately also. I recently read the non-fiction diaries of Elizabeth Yates and found them just FASCINATING. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are fictional and comedic diaries, Amy, although autobiographical to some extent. The Provincial Lady is a well-heeled wife and mother struggling with the challenges of managing the servants, her family, her eccentric acquaintances and her own privates wishes. The books are very light-hearted and great fun. And very English!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an interesting post, Sandra, along with all the comments (am intrigued about the story behind ‘The Poison’ by the way). I started the first book of Diaries fully intending to join in with Jane’s birthday celebrations, but could not get on with it. On reflection, this may have been because I had a rather tatty, grubby library copy which rather spoiled the reading experience and distracted from the text. Perhaps I should download the Kindle version and have another go… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps it’s simply not your sort of thing, Liz? Thankfully, we don’t all share the same tastes 🙂

      (The Poison refers to The Poisonwood Bible – which has featured regularly here of late and which I keep saying I will read and haven’t quite managed to start. And now I think about it, the copy I have is in fact a rather grubby and dog-eared library book. Oh dear. That doesn’t bode well!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are absolutely right – I really must remember that just because a book can be read, does not mean it must be read! 🙂

        And thanks for the clarification re TPB – it’s still on my list from the recent 6 degrees adventure. If my own experiences are anything to go by, I don’t hold out much hope for you and your library copy! 😂😱😳

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, I’m as bad! I read someone’s review and think the book sounds marvellous and I simply MUST read it. When I do read it ….. well, maybe not! I’m trying to be more ruthless though: if I’m not enjoying, I stop, as you did. (Of course, I daren’t stop with The Poison! 😂😱 Margaret would never forgive me! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  6. An interesting review. I’ve read one of her short stories, which was excellent, subtle and engaging. You’ve reminded me that I need to look out for some of her novels. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed your review Sandra and will look out for any of the Diaries. I can quite see how the creative use of capital letters can become an Incurable Addiction. And here’s hoping that all would-be readers and bloggers have better luck so that we actually do Find the Time …


  8. Fascinating post, Sandra- I love R F Delderfield’s books, and for reasons of ignorance and scanned reading, have always mistaken Delafield for Delderfield.. I suppose I did not want reality – ie Diaries- to place reality into the Devon novels I so enjoyed.
    But, I’m fascinated by the Lady, and will download her diaries on to my kindle- not for immediate reading, but for considerate reading in the future- the kindle is usually reserved for when I’m away from

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pat, you are not the only one to confuse them. (I also had the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady muddled in with the Provincial Lady too. Completely different!) In one of the many coincidences of life, I was jotting some notes about Delderfield last night. I read his Horseman trilogy last summer; I so enjoyed the first book that I went straight on to the next, and the next. I’m almost frightened of reading anything more by him: I don’t want to spoil the pleasure from that original encounter. But The Lady is great fun – well worth a read at the right time. I think they would make you smile 🙂


    1. Thank you, Cynthia 🙂 I’m enjoying learning more about these lady authors, most of whom are new to me. I have Jane at Beyond Eden Rock to thank for getting me interested in the first place 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: