Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930-1940)

[Note: The intention was to discuss in this post an interwar novel that has not been republished since its initial release. However, the continued closure of the British Library has prevented me from accessing this source for the time being.]

E.M. Delafield wrote four instalments of the Diary of a Provincial Lady, which were published in book-form in 1930; 1932; 1934 and 1940. The book started out as a weekly serial in Time and Tide magazine. As the title suggests, the books are fictionalised diary entries by an unnamed, upper-class woman who lives in Devon with her husband Robert and children Robin and Vicky. The books get a lot of their comic mileage out of the Provincial Lady’s attempts to keep her family afloat and keep up appearances whilst feeling decidedly out of her depth.

The characters are loosely based on Delafield and her own family, and the Provincial Lady becomes a writer like Delafield. In the first instalment the Provincial Lady writes a book which is well received, and which leads the character to become increasingly invested in her writing career.

Whilst a large part of the books is set in rural Devonshire, at choice moments the Provincial Lady visits London. This increasingly happens in the second instalment, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, when the protagonist rents a small flat in London as a base for her to focus on her writing. Throughout the books, London is presented in a very specific manner. It is not ever negative; there is no sense of the ‘country’ being superior over the city. Rather, London offers the Provincial Lady different opportunities and activities that broaden her horizons.

From the start, the Provincial Lady’s London life is largely coordinated by her friend Rose (or ‘dear Rose’ as she’s often referred to) whom the Provincial Lady knows from her ‘Hampstead days’, which were evidentially before her marriage to Robert. Rose remains unmarried and lives in a flat in London when not travelling abroad. From the outset, the Provincial Lady’s trips to stay with Rose in London are marked by recurring activities: shopping; attending beauty salons; visiting the theatre; and attending ‘Literary Parties’.

Early on in the first novel, Rose takes the Provincial Lady to a ‘Literary Club dinner’:

‘Am much struck by various young men who have defiantly put on flannel shirts and no ties, and brushed their hair up on end. They are mostly accompanied by red-headed young women who wear printed crêpe frocks and beads.’[1]

This passage immediately encapsulates both the appeal of London to the Provincial Lady, where she can mix with a wider range of people than in Devon; and the distance between her own life and that of the ‘literary crowds’ in London. The gentle mocking of London’s literary society continues throughout the novels even when the Provincial Lady herself becomes a successful author; her continued base in Devon ensures that she never feels fully part of the ‘smart set’. Indeed this is made explicit in The Provincial Lady Goes Further, when she attends another literary party where a friend gives her the details on other attendees:

‘Emma gives me rapid outline of many rather lurid careers, leading me to conclusion that literary ability and domestic success not usually compatible. (Query: Will this invalidate my chances?’[2]

The diaries are self-aware about the stereotypes that existed about both London and writers. Delafield on the one hand gives credence to the belief that writers must be based in London, by giving her character a Bloomsbury flat to write from. On the other hand, she challenges the notion that writers must be eccentric or have unconventional personal lives in order to be successful. Indeed, later on in The Provincial Lady Goes Further she finds that the constant stream of Literary Parties is keeping her from doing any writing at all. Because the Provincial Lady is always able – indeed, required – to return to Devon to deal with domestic concerns, she never gets sucked into the fast and bright life in London. Literary circles are shown to be fun but also shallow and self-centred.

Not everything about London is presented as trivial, however; the capital also allows the Provincial Lady to engage with culture in a way not available to her in Devon. Rose frequently takes her to theatre shows, although these also become an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication:

‘We go to see Charles Laughton in Payment Deferred, and am confirmed in previous opinion that he is the most intelligent actor I have ever seen in my life. Rose says, On the English stage, in cosmopolitan manner, and I say ‘Yes, yes’, very thoughtfully’[3]

London is also a place where the Provincial Lady can nurture a part of herself that gets neglected in Devon. Almost every time the Provincial Lady visits the capital, she makes sure to go to a hairdresser or beauty parlour, and to buy some new clothes. These visits are accompanied by apprehension and guilt at the expense, but ultimately they increase the Provincial Lady’s confidence. After a ‘very, very painful’ time at a beauty parlour:

‘Eventually emerge more or less unrecognisable, and greatly improved.’[4]

Similarly, after a visit to the hairdresser’s:

‘Undergo permanent wave, with customary interludes of feeling that nothing on earth can be worth it, and eventual conviction that it was. (…) am told that I look fifteen years younger – which leaves me wondering what on earth I could have looked like before, and how long I have been looking it.’[5]

In London, the Provincial Lady can spend time and money on her appearance, without being stopped by the thought that this is frivolous or a waste of money. When she’s in Devon, she is scrupulously careful with money and puts household and family expenses before her own. In London, she reclaims some of her own identity separate from her roles as wife and mother. This culminates in her taking out the rent on a flat in Doughy Street, Bloomsbury, under the encouragement of Rose.

This becomes her ‘room of ones own’ where she can write; although in true Provincial Lady fashion the diaries make more of the domestic and social concerns that the flat commits her to, than the writing she is able to produce in it. Yet throughout the series the Provincial Lady gains increasing literary success, quietly and committedly working away at something that gives her more space and time for herself.

By the end of the third book, there is not so much difference between her life and that of ‘dear Rose’, who she initially held in such awe and admiration. They can both hold their own at Literary Parties, they both travel and have acquaintances all over the world. London has given the Provincial Lady the opportunities to build this life for herself; the city allows her to assert her own identity as an individual and to meet a much wider range of people than she sees in Devon. For the Provincial Lady, it is not a matter of town versus country, but rather of balancing both.


[1] E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 27

[2] Ibid., p. 186

[3] Ibid, pp. 138-139

[4] Ibid., p. 51

[5] Ibid. p. 140