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Diary of a Provincial Lady

by E M Delafield
Persephone book no:

104 105 106

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155950

This great classic of domestic literature initially appeared in weekly instalments in Time and Tide, the feminist weekly. Some might find it an oxymoron that a book is both domestic and feminist. But this is the central remit of Persephone Books and the reason why Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) is a quintessential title for us; and why, although there are other editions in print (EM Delafield is now out of copyright) we felt we wanted it to join our list. An additional reason was that we knew our German printer, GGP, would make an excellent job out of reproducing Arthur Watts’s original illustrations. Most previous editions have ignored these, however we feel they are a crucial part of the fun.

For the Diary, which chronicles the day-to-day life of a wife and mother living in the country, is above all fun, in fact it is one of the funniest books ever written. And yet the humour is of a particular, Mr Pooter-ish type: an earlier EM Delafield novel had on its frontispiece a quote from The Diary of a Nobody: ‘I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.’ We recommend it to any Persephone reader who loved, for example, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love because, as the Afterword to the Diary observes: ‘Self-deprecation of this kind is a particularly English occupation, one which foreigners find rather hard to understand. From Emma through Cranford, to The Diary of a Nobody, EF Benson’s Lucia books, 1066 and All That and Mrs Miniver, to name but a few of the links in the chain, they are all books in which the English laugh at their own peculiarities. They are also books which make light of the potentially grave and which subtly transform tragedy into pathos and pathos into humour.’ Which is why the trivial (bulbs) is so often bracketed with the serious (the war) as in the opening entry: ‘November 7th 1929 Lady B stays to tea. We talk some more about bulbs, the Dutch School of Painting, Our Vicar’s Wife, sciatica, and All Quiet on the Western Front.’

In 1931 the New York Herald Tribune called the Diary ‘a delicious book, a triumph of art and wit: EM Delafield is writing of a group and setting peculiarly English. What she has done is to extract from them the universals, the pure essence of comedy. She arouses the emotion of recognition in any one who has ever risen from hard-earned repose morning after morning to face the terrible trifles of the day.’ The (London) Times made the same point when it said that ‘she had an almost uncanny gift for converting the small and familiar dullnesses of everyday life into laughter’. India Knight once said that she ‘re-read for the nth time E M Delaifled’s dry, caustic Diary of a Provincial Lady and howled with laughter’. And Jilly Cooper wrote perceptively in the Guardian: ‘Gradually one realises that, despite the short sentences and the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the prose and subject matter, here is a very subtle and deliberate talent at work, naturally satirical, with a marvellous ear for dialogue and an unerringly accurate social sense.’ 

Also available as a (free) e-book.


Endpapers taken from the Harper & Brothers, New York cover for Diary of a Provincial Lady 1931

Read What Readers Say

Fleur Fisher

I loved the way ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ seemed to capture her thoughts almost as she thought them. And I loved that it was witty and funny in the friendliest of ways. But there is much more here than humour. A certain generation, a certain class, and a way of life that would very soon be gone, is captured beautifully.

Northern Reader via Instagram

‘Diary of a Provincial Lady' is a well–known book, even a classic, and deserving praise for many aspects of its subtle comedy, insight into a woman’s life and relentless good humour in the face of trying events. The unnamed narrator is always caught in the midst of activity; this is not the artistic musing of an idle writer shut away from life, but the almost-notes of a busy woman, continually caught up in the family and domestic crisis which strikes a familiar note even in the 21st century. This is a book of its time, first published in 1930, but which can still amuse today, especially in the illustrated edition produced by Persephone. While it is far from poverty, money is often tight in this small family, which after all includes a governess, a cook and a maid. However, this book was written at a time when having at least one servant was normal for even the lower- middle class; in the days before labour-saving devices in the kitchen and vacuum cleaners for the rest of the house, help with cooking and cleaning was perhaps a reasonable expectation. Certainly the carefully noted expenses, overdraft and even pawning of a family ring give the impression of a woman having to manage her money. Not that this prevents her from spending money on carefully described clothes and having things altered. This was a time when social convention demanded specific clothes for evening functions and a hat for everyday wear. We recently discussed this book at a book group and found much to talk about. This book is a funny and enjoyable read, and while possibly an acquired taste, gives a fascinating picture of life in the interwar years.

The Bibliophile’s Adventures Club

‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ could very well be classified as chick lit; each entry could just as easily be a blog post. Just one lady, describing her day to another; while we may live in different times and places, we can laugh at that which we recognise. Needless to say, it’s a charming book.

Categories: Humour Social Comedy

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