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…