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The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

Penguin Modern Classics, 2013

I’ve been meaning to pick up this twentieth century classic for years and, in line with expectations, it made for perfect summer reading.

Originally written as a serialisation for Time and Tide magazine, the Diary was subsequently published in four volumes: The Diary of a Provincial Lady in 1930; The Provincial Lady Goes Further in 1932; The Provincial Lady in America in 1934 and The Provincial Lady in Wartime in 1940.

The four volumes come in at 550 pages altogether and can be slow, but my attachment to the characters and the author’s perceptive humour meant that I couldn’t quite give it up.

Although fiction, the diaries are loosely autobiographical, following a protagonist whose name we never discover through the mundanities of her life. She’s married to the boring but loyal Robert, living with their two children in a house in Devon, with a cook, housemaid and gardener, and surrounded by the full cast of characters typical of a rural community. They’re well off, but not wealthy – indeed, our heroine seems to be perpetually battling a growing overdraft, often making herself feel better with a shopping trip.

It’s clear, however, that the “provincial” in the title is partly tongue-in-cheek. Our protagonist shared a flat in Hampstead in her youth and keeps up with independent-minded, artistic friends in London. When she has a novel accepted for publication (the nature and title of which remains obscure), she rents a flat in Bloomsbury with the proceeds, falling back into what we sense was her younger life.

She subsequently spends six months on a book tour of the US, and again moves to London when war breaks out in order to seek war work (in reality, volunteering in a canteen and doing lots of socialising). But what’s wonderful - and sometimes frustrating - is that she remains thoroughly loyal to the dull but steady Robert throughout.

A fascination with period detail on the one hand kept me coming back to this sometimes directionless read, and the surprising similarities to our lives today on the other.

It’s now 100 years since the interwar period, but, aside from technical details, the lives of the characters feel strikingly similar to our own. The seasonal activities and cast of characters in the rural community still resonate, but so do the drink-fuelled parties in basement flats and lunches at private members’ clubs in London.

It’s a reminder that the 1920s and ‘30s truly saw the birth of the modern age. Socially, these decades were worlds away from the Edwardian period: the difference was far starker than the difference before and after the second world war.

The other thing that feels decidedly modern about Diary is the humour, particularly when set in the context of women’s fiction over the last hundred years. The protagonist never feels quite good enough and is constantly self-deprecating in a light-hearted and relatable way, which makes this book a direct forerunner for Bridget Jones sixty years later. The latter was considered genre-busting, but one can’t help feeling that EM Delafield got there first.

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