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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