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The PL, by Mark Robinson - Liz Robinson on E. M. Delafield, The Diary of Provincial Lady, Slightly Foxed Issue 13

People of Our Sort

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November 7th Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs?

So opens E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, supposedly the record of a year in the life of an upper-middle-class housewife in her mid-thirties who lives in a country village not very far from Plymouth. The year is 1929 – a world away, you might think. So why does this fictional chronicle of mundane events written nearly eighty years ago continue to give me such pleasure?

Well, take Lady Boxe, and the way she sails into the room regally assuming that any and every chair waits ready to receive her. And that question, ‘Do I know how very late it is for indoor bulbs?’ How arrogant and insensitive she is, how managing and interfering. (It subsequently emerges that the Provincial Lady’s husband works for Lady B. They are invited to dine, to meet her house party, and the Lady makes a vow to herself: ‘Have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us as Our Agent, and Our Agent’s Wife, I shall at once leave the house.’) Characters like Lady B. have been around for ever – Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh springs immediately to mind – and are with us still; she reminds me of a woman I= used to know in our village who was apt to refer to ‘people of our sort’.

In fact I find every one of the characters in the Diary instantly recognizable – perhaps all too familiar, even the men. You might think men very different creatures now from eighty years ago – they change nappies, and are in touch with their inner marshmallow. Maybe so – and I concede that my

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November 7th Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa. Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs?
So opens E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, supposedly the record of a year in the life of an upper-middle-class housewife in her mid-thirties who lives in a country village not very far from Plymouth. The year is 1929 – a world away, you might think. So why does this fictional chronicle of mundane events written nearly eighty years ago continue to give me such pleasure? Well, take Lady Boxe, and the way she sails into the room regally assuming that any and every chair waits ready to receive her. And that question, ‘Do I know how very late it is for indoor bulbs?’ How arrogant and insensitive she is, how managing and interfering. (It subsequently emerges that the Provincial Lady’s husband works for Lady B. They are invited to dine, to meet her house party, and the Lady makes a vow to herself: ‘Have absolutely decided that if Lady B. should introduce us as Our Agent, and Our Agent’s Wife, I shall at once leave the house.’) Characters like Lady B. have been around for ever – Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh springs immediately to mind – and are with us still; she reminds me of a woman I= used to know in our village who was apt to refer to ‘people of our sort’. In fact I find every one of the characters in the Diary instantly recognizable – perhaps all too familiar, even the men. You might think men very different creatures now from eighty years ago – they change nappies, and are in touch with their inner marshmallow. Maybe so – and I concede that my knowledge of those in their thirties and forties is sadly limited; but I have spent thirty-five years with someone not so very unlike the PL’s husband, Robert. Dear Robert – so taciturn, for ever falling asleep behind The Times of an evening, whether at home or away (‘Query: why come to Bournemouth to do this?’), so unsentimental. At a wedding, ‘I ask Robert . . . if this makes him think of our wedding. He looks surprised and says No, not particularly, why should it?’ Lady B. observes that ‘she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman. Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally. Cannot say whether she is or is not impressed by this . . .’ Children have not changed much either. Vicky, aged 5 or so, ‘tells me in private that she has learnt a new Bad Word but does not mean to use it. Not now, anyway, she disquietingly adds.’ Robin, who is perhaps 8, and away at prep school, is referred to ‘in a detached way as “the boy”, so that [Lady B.] shan’t think I am foolish about him’. He shares his mother’s lack of interest in horses and hunting, and has ‘a precocious taste in good literature’. But when Vicky makes a scene at the local flower show, Robin is discovered to have ‘removed himself to furthest corner of the ground’, where he is ‘feigning interest in enormous cart horse tied up in red ribbons. (N.B. Dear Robin perhaps not so utterly unlike his father as one is sometimes tempted to suppose.)’ And how familiar is the character of ‘our Vicar’s wife’. Here she is, having brought the PL back from a Women’s Institute meeting in a neighbouring village in her not wholly reliable two-seater.
I beg [her] to come in; she says No, No, it is far too late, really, and comes. Robert . . . asleep in the drawing room. Our Vicar’s wife says she must not stay a moment, and we talk about Countrywomen, Stanley Baldwin, Hotels at Madeira (where none of us have ever been), and other unrelated topics. Ethel brings cocoa, but can tell from the way she puts down the tray that she thinks it an unreasonable requirement, and will quite likely give notice tomorrow [she does]. At eleven our Vicar’s wife . . . gets as far as the hall-door. There we talk about forthcoming village concert, parrot-disease, and the Bishop of the diocese. Her car refuses to start, and . . . Robert and I push it . . . car disappears down lane. Robert inhospitably says, Let us put out the lights and fasten up the hall-door and go up to bed immediately, in case she comes back for anything.
As well as all this, the Diary is a wonderful piece of minor social history, affording many tantalizing glimpses of the ways in which English middle-class life between the wars was indeed rather different from today’s. The PL has a French governess for her daughter, a cook and house-parlourmaid, a gardener and a gardener’s boy. On the other hand, she also lives in a house – presumably it comes with Robert’s job – without electricity or mains water. The butcher calls weekly, a ‘general stores’ delivers, the chemist sends in his bill for things like toothpaste by post, and chickens, eggs and cream are to be had from the farm. Working out the precise accommodation afforded by the Provincial Lady’s house is fascinating. The main reception rooms are easy enough – drawing-room, morning-room, dining-room and study – but the kitchen quarters more obscure. Do Cook and the house-parlourmaid have a sitting-room or do they not? Upstairs is difficult. There is certainly a bedroom and dressing-room for the Provincial Lady and Robert, and a spare bedroom (but only one) for guests – but then what? Presumably Mademoiselle has her own bedroom – but does Vicky share a room with Robin when he is home from prep-school? There seems to be only one bathroom and it is certainly shared with Mademoiselle – and so, presumably, with the children and any guests; but what of Cook and Ethel? Do they make do with ewer and basin, and perhaps a downstairs/outside privy? The Provincial Lady is silent on the subject. The food eaten is pretty stolidly English, with all the good and bad that that implies.
December 10th Robert, this morning, complains of insufficient breakfast. Cannot feel that porridge, scrambled eggs, toast, marmalade, scones, brown bread, and coffee give adequate grounds for this but admit that porridge is slightly burnt . . . Robert suggests ringing for Cook, and have greatest difficulty in persuading him that this course utterly disastrous.
(The subtle terrorism exercised by servants is clearly not to be regretted. After the PL has spent the inside of two days in London, ‘Cook says she hopes I enjoyed my holiday, and it is very quiet in the country. I leave the kitchen before she has time to say more, but am only too well aware that this is not the last of it.’ Informed that Robert and the Lady are going to Bournemouth for Robin’s half-term, which ‘will give the household a rest, Cook replies austerely that they will take the opportunity to do some extra cleaning. Wish I could believe this was true.’) The PL admits to having little gift for housekeeping: ‘I spend much of the night thinking over the whole question of running the house successfully, and tell myself – not by any means for the first time – that my abilities are very, very deficient in this direction.’ She struggles to run her household on what seems to be a not entirely adequate allowance. She is forever juggling the tradesmen’s bills, battling to balance her accounts and being thrown into mild despair by letters from her Bank informing her that she ‘is overdrawn to the extent of Eight Pounds four shillings and fourpence’. The telephone is apparently not much used, and not wholly reliable – but the post is a revelation. There seem to be at least two deliveries a day, even in the village, and both in the morning; the piano-tuner announces by postcard that he will ‘visit tomorrow’. What I find particularly striking, however, is that when Robert and the Lady spend a couple of nights in Bournemouth, taking Robin out for half-term, Lady B. is able to fire off a managing postcard about a village meeting which arrives at the hotel ‘by the late post’. Robert strongly disapproves of his wife using make-up, but she is undeterred. While visiting her friend Rose in London she goes rather nervously to a Beauty Parlour, and emerges ‘more or less unrecognizable, and greatly improved. Lose my head and buy Foundation Cream, rouge, powder, lip-stick. Foresee great difficulty in reconciling Robert to the use of these appliances, but decide not to think about this for the present . . .’ I wonder whether her creator E. M. Delafield led a similar life to that of the PL. According to her DNB entry, she was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica Ducarel de la Pasture in 1890, daughter of a noble émigré family that settled in England after the French Revolution. In 1919 she married Major A. P. Dashwood and they spent two years in the Malay States before settling at Cullompton in Devon. They had one son and one daughter, and Mrs Dashwood became a magistrate and ‘a great worker for Women’s Institutes’ which, with their members, are depicted with unsparing liveliness in the Diary. She was a prolific writer, mostly of fiction but also of plays and humorous sketches, and was a director of Time and Tide, in which The Diary of a Provincial Lady first appeared; it was published in 1930 with delightful illustrations by Arthur Watts, followed by The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932), The Provincial Lady Visits America (1934) and – perhaps least successful of the quartet – I Visit the Soviets: The Provincial Lady in Russia (1937). She died at Cullompton in December 1943. The verdict of her friends, according to the DNB, was that the Provincial Lady, ‘always ready to laugh at herself ’, presented a better clue ‘to the gentle and generous personality of the writer’ than her other, more satirical work. I love the Provincial Lady, and worry quite desperately that I have not shown her off to advantage. I love her old-fashioned reserve and detachment – when life goes a little awry, she does not wallow or over-dramatize, but stands back and records events with wry humour. To view things as the Provincial Lady might have done in her Diary is, I find, a very good way of keeping my own life in perspective.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 13 © Liz Robinson 2007


About the contributor

In semi-suburban South Gloucestershire, Liz Robinson lurks behind a barricade of box hedges and barking dogs. She keeps no diary but contemplates a ‘blog’ in Provincial Lady style.

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