Madeleine Moments: E. M. Delafield’s “Diary of A Provincial Lady”

I have been productive lately – and it is exhausting. My usual routine comprises reading English or Latin lit, while drinking coffee and listening to my Album of the Month at low volume (Rubber Soul). But this summer I am also making my way through a long, long list of classics. There ARE “Madeleine moments” of bliss in my reading, but quite often it is sweaty work. I cannot fathom why I thought it necessary to read Thucydides, but now I have checked him off the list.

Naturally, I am also relaxing with some favorite books, like Elizabeth Taylor’s superb novel, The Soul of Kindness. Oddly, Taylor’s occasionally bleak novels transport me to a place of comfort. The characters struggle with money, have complicated love affairs, are gorgeous but shallow busybodies, closeted gays in love with the wrong person, old people terrified of the future, and yet the details about domestic English life somehow fascinate and balance the quiet desperation.

I am always on the lookout for English women’s fiction, and so was absolutely delighted to find an essay by Sarah Lonsdale in the TLS (July 9, 2021) about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Sarah Lonsdale reports that, while others read War and Peace during lockdown, she enjoyed the six-volume Provincial Lady series.

tAlthough I do not agree with Lonsdale that the narrator of Diary of a Provincial Lady is a liar (she is diplomatic, but fantasizes in her diary about speaking her mind), I was inspired by Lonsdale’s enthusiasm about Delafield’s genius. “I must reread these!” It took an hour, with queries of husband’s knowledge of bookshelves and the use of a flashlight to find the books at the back of a double-shelved shelf.

In a way, reading the TLS was a case of deja vu. In 2005, Cynthia Zarin wrote a lively essay for The New Yorker about Diary of a Provincial Lady. I adored this uproariously funny six-novel series, written in the form of a diary by a middle-class English woman who finds herself at the beck and call of a taciturn anti-social husband, Robert; two precocious children, Robin and Vicky; Mademoiselle, a sensitive French governess; Lady B, the bossy wife of Robert’s employer; and the grumbling cook who blames lumpy porridge on the stove. Household management is somehow very funny, though there is also despair.

I am sure many of you have read these books, but in case you haven’t, here is the opening passage of Cynthia Zarin’s brilliant 2005 essay.

In September of 1925, the English novelist E. M. Delafield, who in private life was known as Mrs. Elizabeth Dashwood, was interviewed by the Western Morning News, Devon’s leading newspaper. The occasion was her appointment, at the age of thirty-five, as the first woman magistrate on the local Cullompton Bench. When the question turned from jurisprudence (Should women justices be required to attend hangings?) to women and fiction, she remarked, “As regards the difference between the male and female point of view in novel writing, I don’t think nowadays there is a great deal in it.” The only distinction remaining, she added, was that women writers lacked a sense of humor. She did not admit it was a lack she shared. Delafield began her career as one of the generation of primarily female writers who appealed to a primarily female audience – the so-called “middlebrow” novelists…. It wasn’t until four years later that she found her metier, in the diaries of a Provincial Lady – a chronicle of the foibles, domestic and otherwise, of an ostensibly ordinary woman – and became one of the most trenchantly funny writers in England.

Are you a fan? I have never cared for Delafield’s other novels, but adore the Provincial Lady series.

Two more in the series.