Life’s Little Vagaries

I’m going to subject you to a bit of a hodge-podge of a blog post today as I am out of practice with writing but have nothing coherent to say. I still feel as if my mind is dispersed into a thousand tiny pieces, each absorbing and assimilating the impact of the past few weeks, and that I cannot bring them all together to focus on the specific act of creativity. Well, that’s my excuse for why my writing projects are going so badly at the moment. I’m still struggling with the spine of my motherhood book, the underlying arc of argument that ties all the disparate material together. It’s not that I’m unsure what I want it to be, it’s that I’m having all kinds of trouble putting it into words. Having boiled it down to its thickest concentrate, I now can’t seem to dilute it enough with explanation to make it a) resemble any book I might actually write and b) sound like ordinary English rather than an academic treatise. I loathe this kind of writing, although it is awfully useful if you can do it. At the moment I sit there, picking away at 600 words or so of outline, switching around elements in a sentence, adding a bit, removing a bit, making it worse rather than better, moving further with every fiddly intervention from the clear, straight synopsis that I need. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll ditch it all and start again.

My reading seems rather fragmented at the moment as well. I thought I could catch you up on the books I’ve read over the past month but there aren’t that many of them. I must recommend E.M. Delafield’s Diaries of a Provincial Lady, however, as I could read it with pleasure and a sense of wonderful distraction even when I couldn’t read anything else. Have you ever considered how difficult it is to find a book in which nothing bad happens to anyone? I was on the point of giving it up as a bad job when I recalled Delafield’s Provincial Lady, who began life as a weekly column in the now defunct feminist magazine Time and Tide. Not that anyone in the 21st century would recognize the provincial lady as a rampant feminist, but for a housewife living between the great wars she managed to strike out with independence, publishing novels, renting a little pied à terre flat in London to enjoy the literary life and then traveling around America on a lecture tour. At the same time the great joy of her narrative is that it is wholly concerned with the kind of trivial details that really do hog one’s thought processes no matter how momentous the occasion might be. In fact, what she suggests is that there are no momentous occasions really, just the general traffic jam of life in which we are bumper to bumper with the irritating and the curious details of reality that only seem to cohere into landmarks once they are long past. Life for the Provincial Lady is a stream of dinner parties where people discuss books she hasn’t read, and neighbours who call at inconvenient times, and articles she’s about to write when some domestic disaster distracts her. She has an emotionally constipated husband, two rambunctious children whose flaws she knows and loves, no pretensions to literary grandeur and a taste for something jolly to happen. It’s a wholly ordinary life she leads and what really attracts about these books (apart from the 1930s setting, which just appeals to me as a slice of historical time that’s still recognizable and yet exotically different) is the delightful sense of humour that informs each and every line.

Like P. G. Wodehouse, E. M. Delafield is a writer who is intrinsically funny, rather than someone who strives to write about comic events. Anyone who begins a diary entry with: ‘Really very singular day, not calculated to rank amongst the more successful experiences of life’ wins me over. In many ways the Provincial Lady is an old-fashioned stoic using her sense of humour to combat the relentless ironies of life; she knows that she will come out with a head cold just before an important date and that it will rain when a picnic is planned. But what she most requires is insulation against the formidable power of her own catastrophising imagination: ‘Telephone rings and I instantly decide that: (a) Robert has died suddenly. (b) Literary Agent has effected a sale of my film-rights, recent publication, for sum running into five figures, pounds not dollars. (c) Robin has met with serious accident at school. (d) Pamela Pringle wishes me once more to cover her tracks whilst engaged in pursuing illicit amour of one kind or another. (Note: Swiftness of human (female) imagination surpasses that of comet’s trail across the heavens quite easily).’ When in car journeys on her trip to America, she puts her empty time to familiar use: ‘I lapse into thoughts of Robert, the children, and immense width and depth of the Atlantic Ocean. Have, as usual, killed and buried us all, myself included, several times over before we arrive.’ I found the genial, gently self-rebuking tone of her journal entries amusing and charming, and I bathed myself in the comfort of three volumes of the Provincial Lady’s adventures before I put the book back on the shelf. I told myself I was saving some Delafield for a future crisis but that wasn’t wholly honest. The final volume was entitled The Provincial Lady in Wartime, and much as I think it only covered the extent of the phony war, I calculated that the diarist’s son was of an age by then for conscription and I didn’t want to see her cheerful stout-heartedness in confrontation with real trauma.

The introduction to this collection is written by Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, and I was surprised how cool it was in tone. Beauman discusses a lot of other novels written by Delafield (who was effectively transposing her own experience into the Provincial Lady) but refers to the edition in hand with only cautious enthusiasm. ‘We must not take any of it too literally, or indeed take large doses […] repetition and exaggeration are inevitable (and sometimes the same joke is repeated once too often).’ I can only say this wasn’t my experience, but the Provincial Lady is the kind of book that responds to a particular mood. It’s the equivalent of watching Friends or a favorite cookery programme on the television. It’s like getting into a bubble bath with a drink and a snack lined up on the side. You don’t always want to be comforted and reassured, but when you do, the familiar is welcome indeed. And it may be that the Provincial Lady speaks to a certain kind of person, one who avoids conflict at all costs, who will be polite regardless of her own feelings, who will worry about ridiculous things, fully aware they are ridiculous and who only feels entitled to living a life on the quiet, when everyone else seems happily occupied elsewhere. If you recognize yourself at all in that description, then the Provincial Lady will offer you four volumes of wry pleasure.

16 thoughts on “Life’s Little Vagaries

  1. Oh, I absolutely adored the Provincial Ladies books. I think the books would probably appeal to anyone who likes Jane Austen. To me RM Delafield, like Austen has an edge to her even though the books are quite gentle reading and set on a small domestic scale. I seem to recall reading a biography or similar which mentioned that “the lady of the manor,” who Delafield is pretty scathing about, was apparently very shy and had married out of her class and she was very hurt and unhappy about the way she was portrayed.

  2. I didn’t so much recognize myself in the description, but it sounds an awful lot like you! All in a good way though. You are quite good at counterbalancing catastrophic imaginative tendencies with an excellent sense of humor😀

  3. If it’s any comfort, I’ve been twiddling my outline for months, sometimes with goodish results, sometimes not. I hope you find the clarity you need to write a compelling synopsis. Sometimes the way through is just writing and perhaps you’ll find the answer in the next chapter you write.

  4. Never heard of Delafield but this makes me very curious. Sometimes this type of book is exactly the kind I’m looking for, I will add this one to the list.

  5. I adore these books and love the opening paragraph of the first one.

    “November 7th – Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb bowls and the bag of charcoa, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa. Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September really, or even October is the time. Do I know that the only reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately, Vicky comes into the drawing room later and says: “Oh, Mummy are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”

    Priceless – I envy anyone who has yet to discover these books.

  6. Ms Make Tea – I would love to read a biography of E M Delafield and must look one out! I think you are spot on when you say they would appeal to Austenites – the humour is very similar, as are the situations. They’re also cousins to the E. F. Benson novels about Mapp and Lucia which I also adore. Dorothy – they are very restful and comforting reading! I would love to know how you get on with Delafield if you do take it with you. And have a wonderful holiday! Stefanie – LOL! I take that as a great compliment. If the choice is between laughing and crying, I know what I would rather do😉 Charlotte – I DO find it consoling to be in such good company! Aren’t outlines a pain in the neck? I’ve fiddled with mine until I got sick of it and sent it away – very professional, right? Verbivore – I’d love to know what you make of it if you do get a chance to read Delafield. She is very relaxing! Elaine – I thought I remembered that you enjoyed these. And you’ve just discovered the Mapp and Lucia books, yes? Oh I wish I had those to read for the first time again!

  7. I haven’t read anything by this author, but this book sounds like something I would like. I love the line you quote when she’s in America and imagining all the terrible things that can happen to everyone in her family. I actually laughed out loud reading this in your post. So, I think I’ll probably enjoy the books. I love this type of sense of humor. I’m currently reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society at the moment. I’m loving it, and I can see some similarities in these two books. Juliet, the narrator, has a wonderful sense of humor.

  8. Gawd’s sake, gel. If this is your version of a hodge-podge, what would your mish-mash look like? Leave the rest of us to our shapeless twitterings – you’re coherent, orderly, and your punctuation is peerless. Never apologise, and you know you don’t have to explain.
    x The Fugitive

  9. I’ve just ordered this (the Provincial Lady) as a present (which I also hope to read). Thanks for the review – Delafield sounds delightful.

  10. Love anything to do with DPL and love reading people’s comments. I fell in love with this book some 25 years ago and have a very old battered Virago copy which is falling apart but I love it. The Mapp and Lucia books (am in the middle of them at the moment and am rapidly becoming addicted) tellthe same life, in a small town or village, and are similar in that the humour is quiet, witty and understated and while you may laugh out loud now and then, most of the time you will be quietly grinning to yourself with sheer pleasure.

    I see the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been mentioned. This is my book of the year so far and I cannot see it being superseded, quite quite beguiling, witty, funny and with a serious story lurking underneath as well. I have reviewed it over on Random and can highly recommend it.

  11. Lisa – if you laughed at the quote then you will definitely like the book. Her style is consistently amusing in that way throughout all four volumes. I’ve heard about that Guernsey Potato Pie book from several bloggers. It hadn’t really caught my imagination, but if it has the same sense of humour as the Provincial Lady, I am much more interested! Fugitive – you are a darling and I send you a cyber hug. I am so often compelled to apologise and explain. Ann – it had been a long time for me, too, but the appeal hadn’t faded! Pete – I do hope the recipient enjoys her – she IS delightful! Elaine – I do believe we each have a copy of the same edition. I’m so glad you are enjoying the E F Benson, although I don’t think it’s possible not to! Your vote for the Guernsey, etc, has been noted and is making me think I really must look into this book.

  12. Hi, another E M Delafield fan here. I know she’s written other novels which I must read but just haven’t had the time yet. Life is Like That:-) Nicola

  13. These sound like just the thing for the mood I’m in these days. Delafield and some Barbara Pym could be just what the doctor ordered for these lazy, hazy days…

  14. This struck a chord on so many levels. I am trying my hand at my first book review (The Provincial Lady) and have been struggling for several weeks to establish the ‘arc of my argument’. Not to mention getting it down to a manageable size – I am now at seven pages and still mourning all the wonderful bits I have had to leave out.

    And I always skip the last book for the same reasons too.

    (I made the E.F. Benson link myself in one section of my review – nice to have this validated by an expert!)

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