The Diary of a Provincial Lady

I have been so nervous about writing this post. I’ve been procrastinating and thinking, “Well, perhaps an angle will come up…” and all but wringing my hands. But the time has come.

I read Diary of a Provincial Lady and I didn’t love it.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady chronicles the unnamed Lady’s little day-to-day victories and struggles over the course of one year, with her servants, her children, her rather ungracious husband, her social-climbing neighbors, and her garden. Whether she’s dressing for a party, going to France, or having measles, her diary hears about it all in characteristic fashion.

I didn’t hate it! It was okay! There were several passages at which I chuckled aloud. But I just couldn’t really warm up to it much. I saw her as an interwar pre-Internet family-life blogger, of a sort, and while some of what she had to say was funny, or satirical, or even occasionally insightful, a lot more of it was repetitive (Mem. and Query at the end of nearly every paragraph, good Lord) and slightly whiny. How many times do you need to deal with overdraft before you stop buying yourself ball gowns? If you’ve solved your “servant problem” but it happens to be with the wrong gender, why wouldn’t you fall all over yourself trying to keep it solved?

I suppose the Lady didn’t seem keenly intelligent or outside her own box, to me, which is what I’d have liked. She was moderately observant of actual conditions, and moderately funny about them. Yes, I understand she was deadpan. Yes, I understand she was reflecting her times. I just found it a bit… dull. So I didn’t love it. I’m sorry!

Pretty much all my favorite bloggers adore this book and all its sequels. I am waiting for the tomato-throwing to begin.

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43 Responses to The Diary of a Provincial Lady

  1. Violet says:

    Glad to have found someone else who didn’t love this. I loathed the book with a passion, finding The Lady a complete dill who whinged and whined about everything. I know it was meant to be satire, but it just missed the mark for me. I like Delafield’s “serious” writing, but not her brand of comedy.

    I don’t think you should feel hesitant about voicing your opinion. It’s ok not to love books everyone else seems to love. :)

    • Jenny says:

      I was ready to put up with it until she went to the south of France for a two-week vacation by herself, I think. :) Still, comedy is so difficult. What is funny to one person is just grating to another.

      You’re not the only one to recommend her serious writing to me! I’ll have to look into it.

  2. I haven’t read it, so can’t join in the discussion in a meaningful way. But I’ve always been a little suspicious of this book. My fear being that it would have all the trappings of upper class self-entitlement – ‘oh, isn’t life a trial when you have a butler, half a dozen house servants and your husband owns half of Wiltshire’. Despite having remained popular for so long, it seems so determinedly of its era and not in a good way. I have a copy, and should give it a try, but…

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Victoria, that was only part of it. I understand that for the norms of the time, you could have house servants and send your children to public school and still have an overdraft at the bank; it was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses sort of thing. But I didn’t like how it was done, is all. It seemed unpleasant to me, not funny. I was expecting more charm than I got, I guess.

  3. Tony says:

    Haven’t read this, probably never will. I support your right to slate books at will though.

    Assuming they’re not ones I like ;)

  4. Mystica says:

    This is still a free country !!! I liked the book very much whinging and all but its always nice to see another side of the coin.

  5. Iris says:

    I recently read it, and did not love it as much as I thought I would, but I did very much enjoy it. I do understand how this may completely miss the mark for some.

    I do hope you will try Delafield’s other books! Consequences in particular. It is very different from this more “light” book.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendation. Several people here have mentioned that her more serious fiction may suit me better, and I promise, I’ll look into it.

  6. Simon T says:

    You should be nervous ;)
    This is one of those books that I love so dearly that I wince when others don’t, but fear not, I shan’t throw tomatoes (I am the wrong side of the Atlantic, for a start) – you can’t win all of ’em, and there are plenty of books we can agree on :)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Simon, I was thinking particularly of you when I said I was nervous. There are some books I love that I don’t mind when they don’t suit other people — no accounting for taste, I say — and other books I ruffle up as if they were my children. I’m sorry it didn’t suit me! I’m sure it’s all my own fault. And you and I will always have Lucia!

      • Simon T says:

        We will, we will!
        As others have said, EMD’s other books are so different – but quite tricky to find. Faster! Faster! is brilliant, if you can get your hands on that. Rather easier to get (Virago did it) is The Way Things Are, that might be up your street.

        The silver lining to this is that you’re making me want to reread the Provincial Lady immediately ;)

  7. This is one of those books I can read and read again whenever I’m feeling down (or could if my dog hadn’t decided she liked a good book too). Yes, it does repeat itself in places but that’s because it started off as a serial.

    Still it’s horses for course, I loathe some books that others love.

  8. Lisa says:

    If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like Downton Abbey – now them’s real tomato-throwin’ words! I enjoyed the Provincial Lady myself – some of the sequels more than others (like the one about a trip to America, where she is determined to visit Louisa May Alcott’s house), but to each her own!

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, Lisa, yes, I’m under Downton Abbey’s spell, but I have no urge to draw anyone else in to watch it. TV doesn’t inspire me with evangelism the way books do (cough-Lymond-cough).

  9. Nymeth says:

    There will be no tomato throwing! I enjoyed the book a lot, but now that I’ve read more of Delafield’s fiction I think it’s a great pity that this is the novel she’s remembered by, when works like Consequences and Thank Heaven Fasting are miles ahead.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for the recommendations! I trust your taste, and I think I’ll take a look. Several people have mentioned Consequences, so maybe I’ll check that one out first.

  10. Becca says:

    I can relate to this story… i think i will enjoy reading this story.
    heading to check this book on google cloud reader.

  11. Ha, at last! Another reader who was only lukewarm about the provincial lady. I sympathize wholeheartedly with your opinion of the book. No tomatoes from me!

  12. Deb says:

    I loved the Provincial Lady and all the sequels (which I gulped down in the course of a week via a wonderful Virago omnibus edition), but I’m not throwing any tomatoes, any more than you’ve thrown tomatoes in the past when I’ve posted about disliking a book that you’ve enjoyed. I think Delafield was really trying to show that a kind-hearted woman who had been raised a certain way was easily going to lose out to more hard-headed types (such as Lady B). I hope you won’t give up completely on Delafield; to me, she is similar to Henry James in seeing how limited (and limiting) the options were for women in the late 19th/early 20th century and how the more thoughtful a woman was the more often she had to rationalize her choices. Please try one of Delafield’s more “serious” books and see if you like it before you give up on her altogether.

    • Jenny says:

      I will! Do you have any specific recommendations? Several people have mentioned Consequences.

      • Deb says:

        How about NOTHING IS SAFE, about the consequences (that word again!) of irresponsible parents who divorce and don’t take their children into account. (I again see a Henry James parallel with his novel WHAT MAISIE KNEW.)

  13. Own your reaction! If it wasn’t good to you, it wasn’t good. I have no horse in this race, but I doubt you’ll get tomatoes.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I do own my reaction, or I’d have glossed over it. I was kind of being funny. It’s just that so many of my favorite bloggers, whose taste I trust, really love this book, like LOVE it, it’s in their top ten desert-island books, and you know how people get about those books. I wasn’t really questioning my reaction, just deferring to their good taste.

  14. bookssnob says:

    Ok, Jenny, you’re in trouble! ;)

    I do love this book and all of its sequels, but I think you maybe have to be British to find the class ridden humour endearing. That could be a sweeping statement but I do think much of it is based on eccentric character types that are quite quintessentially British. Also it is quite a tongue in cheek, self deprecating humour, which from my brief experience of living in America, I do find Americans don’t tend to like as much. It’s not that you guys don’t get it, it’s just not your type of humour, as much. Maybe….I could be digging myself into a hole here!!

    As has been said above, actually it’s a shame you started here, as the rest of Delafield’s books are NOTHING like this.

    I’d actually say, don’t start with Consequences. It is a bit relentlessly depressing. You should start with Thank Heaven Fasting – it’s really, really good. And it was recently republished by Virago so used copies are easy to come by. Try THAT and then see how Delafield strikes you. Deal?!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Rachel, I don’t think I’ll be able to agree with you here. Just as I don’t think I need to be Russian to enjoy Chekhov, or French to enjoy Colette, I don’t think I need to be British to enjoy British humor. So many of the books I love are based on just this sort of quirky, quintessentially British character type (you can’t get much more so than the Lucia books, or Wodehouse, or even Agatha Christie or Sayers) and I think I’ve got that particular bone in my body! This one just didn’t do it for me, that’s all. I know how much you love it, though! And yes, it’s a deal. I’ll try another Delafield, one you all have recommended. Though you know that neither Teresa nor I mind “relentlessly depressing.” :)

  15. softdrink says:

    No tomatoes from this direction…I haven’t read the book. And don’t plan to either.

  16. I’m not a fan of diaries. I love biographies, but I like having the biographer pick through the diaries and pick out the interesting bits for me, I suppose. Most are dull, even those of people who are interesting…unless they are knowingly writing for posterity, in which case they’re not really diaries.

    This book has been recommended to me a few times, but I’ve dodged it each time, besides, why waste a perfectly good tomato, especially in February?

    • Jenny says:

      This isn’t a real diary, of course, but a fictional one. So there isn’t the problem of picking out the interesting bits. I think you might actually like this one, knowing your taste! You should give it a try.

  17. I also gave it a rather bumpy review.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, Thomas, I saw yours, and I wrote this review secure in the knowledge that at least one other person wanted to “fix” the Lady rather than move in with her immediately!

  18. Pingback: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield | Iris on Books

  19. Aparatchick says:

    I adore the Provincial Lady books, but no tomatoes from me! We like what we like. I myself have never been able to make past Chapter One of “The Hobbit.” **dodges tomatoes herself**

    • Jenny says:

      Well, then, that’s your problem! Chapter one doesn’t give you the whole book’s richness. At least I read the whole Diary. :P

  20. Kathleen says:

    Since I haven’t read it I can’t say for sure but I am feeling like my reaction would be very similar to yours based on your review. I’d probably want to jump through the pages and give her a little shake!

    • Jenny says:

      I did react that way a bit to her financial woes, even if they were representative of the time. But I guess my shake was representative of my time, so there!

  21. Aarti says:

    Wow, I just finished this book today and felt MUCH THE SAME WAY. I liked it more than average, but it was hard for me to feel sorry for a woman having monetary problems when all she seemed to ever spend money on was her wardrobe…

  22. Sharon says:

    There were other books in the PL series that were similar, but might help by providing more context (The PL in wartime was a contemporary account of England gearing up for WW2, so was fascinating in its own right). Also, Thank Heaven Fasting was one of the most affecting, timeless (even though it was oh-so- a certain class and a certain time and place) … I don’t know what word I’m looking for but it just seemed to bring home what it has historically meant to be a woman, even a rich one… books I’ve ever read, and it was deceptive for being so simple. I would really recommend that one. And also reading about EMDs real life outside of PL, b/c she had a pretty amazing one. :) (but I can totally get not loving it and don’t hate you!)

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