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.