Monday, May 13, 2013
The Diary of an Ordinary Life
I cannot resist a good book list. You know the kind... tips on what to read from friends, writers, journalists, bloggers, you name it -- I am interested in the books that other people love. After all, I am always looking for something good to read. I file the lists away in notebooks or my memory (not always the Most reliable source) and eventually obtain the books. But my favorite source for book suggestions comes from interviews with writers. The New York Times Sunday Book Review features an interview with a writer each week called "By The Book." Other newspapers and magazines do the same. The interviewer inevitably asks the following questions: what book is on your night stand right now, which book made you want to become a writer, do you prefer books that make you laugh or cry, which book do you return to over and over, which book has taught you important life lessons, and which book do you read simply because you love it and it makes you smile.
One book that keeps cropping up in these interviews (especially in answer to the last question) is The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. After hearing about it for so many years, I finally read it and am so happy that I did. This book is utterly charming and laugh-out-loud funny. It is one of those books that takes you by surprise. It sort of sneaks up on you and wins you over when you are not looking.
And so you might ask, what exactly is "The Diary of a Provincial Lady"? Many people today are unfamiliar with it. But when it was published in the 1930's, this book was very popular. It seemed to hit a nerve with many people who thought it sounded very much like their own lives. "The Diary of a Provincial Lady" is a fictional diary, a novel written in the form of a journal that covers the course of one year. The "lady" in question, who is never named, is a middle-class English woman with two children and a husband living in a country village in England during the 1930's. She is married to the remote and incommunicable Robert and has two adolescent children, a son named Robin and a daughter named Vicky, whom she adores. Her husband is the land agent to the local noble family, represented by the high-handed and superior-acting Lady Boxe. She has the irritating habit of just dropping in and always managing to make our "lady" feel inadequate. The other inhabitants of the house are the French governess, Mademoiselle; the parlor maid, Ethel; and the cook.
The heroine writes a daily journal of her domestic life and covers topics such as incompetent servants, the interminable visits of the vicar's wife, the village fundraisers of which she always seems to be the chair, keeping the peace between her disciplinarian husband and her spirited children, an incorrigible French governess, lack of hot water, a house that is never warm enough, and a perpetual shortage of money. She is insecure about her looks and her clothes, aspiring to but never quite succeeding in being chic. She has a dear friend Rose, the godmother to her children, who is widowed, childless and lives in London. Occasionally she goes to visit Rose and get a taste of her friend's glamorous and artistic life. These visits cause the heroine to write in her diary that she almost envies her widowed and childless friend, realizing with horror after reading what she has written the flawed nature of her thinking.
And this is where the humor of the book comes in. Although her diary entries record the quotidian events of her days and reflect the relentlessly domestic nature of her life, they also include biting and hilariously funny parenthetical asides that reflect her true feelings. She desperately wants to be known as a nice person and absolutely lives to keep the peace all around her, but she expresses subversive opinions and insightful observations about her household and village life. The contrast between her longing to please and the critiques displayed in her diary is where the comedy of the book exists. These parenthetical comments which usually begin with "Mem:" or "Query," are a humorous trope throughout the diary that allow the provincial lady a way to express her real feelings.
Many of the funniest diary entries involve the heroine's interactions her husband Robert, Lady Boxe, and the servants:
Here are a few examples:
December 11th. -- Robert, still harping on topic of yesterday's breakfast, says suddenly Why Not a Ham? to which I reply austerely that a ham is on order, but will not appear until arrival of R.'s brother William and his wife, for Christmas visit. Robert, with every manifestation of horror, says Are William and Angela coming to us for Christmas? This attitude absurd, as invitation was given months ago, at Robert's own suggestion.
(Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really materialize?)
December 16th. -- Very stormy weather, floods out and many trees prostrated at inconvenient angles. Call from Lady Boxe, who says that she is off to the South of France next week, as she Must have Sunshine. She asks Why I do not go there too, and likens me to a piece of chewed string, which I feel to be entirely inappropriate and rather offensive figure of speech, though perhaps kindly meant.
Why not just pop into the train, enquires Lady B., pop across to France, and pop out into Blue Sky, Blue Sea, and Summer Sun? Could make perfectly comprehensive reply to this, but do not do so, question of expense having evidently not crossed Lady B.'s horizon. (Mem.: Interesting subject for debate at Women's Institute, perhaps: That Imagination is incompatible with Inherited Wealth. On second thought, though, fear this has a socialistic trend.)
Reply to Lady B. with insincere professions of liking England very much even in the Winter. She begs me not to let myself become parochially-minded.
March 4th. -- Ethel, as I anticipated, gives notice. Cook says this is so unsettling, that she thinks she had better go too. Despair invades me. Write five letters to Registry Offices.
March 8th. -- Cook relents, so far as to say that she will stay until I am suited. Feel inclined to answer that, in that case, she had better make up her mind to a lifetime spent together -- but naturally refrain. Spend exhausting day in Plymouth chasing mythical house-parlourmaids. Meet Lady B., who says the servant difficulty, in reality, is non-existent. She has NO trouble. It is a question of knowing how to treat them. Firmness, she says, but at the same time one must be human. Am I human? she asks. Do I understand that they want occasional diversion, just as I do myself? I lose my head and reply NO, that it is my custom to keep my servants chained up in the cellar when their work is done. This flight of satire rather spoilt by Lady B. laughing heartily, and saying that I am always so amusing."
January 20th. -- Take Robin, now completely restored, back to school. I ask the Headmaster what he thinks of his progress. The Headmaster answers that the New Buildings will be finished before Easter, and that their numbers are increasing so rapidly that he will probably add on a New Wing next term, and perhaps I saw a letter of his in the Times replying to Dr. Cyril Norwood? Make mental note to the effect that Headmasters are a race apart, and that if parents would remember this, much time could be saved.
Robin and I say good-bye with hideous brightness, and I cry all the way back to the station.
January 22. -- Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold -- which he has hitherto ignored -- is better. I reply that it is has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.
Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt's diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be THIS time?
One of the most endearing characteristic of the heroine is that she has literary aspirations. She regularly submits essays and stories to literary competitions in her favorite magazines and frequently wins honorable mention if not the actual award. In addition to being literary, she is also very funny. She never complains or feels sorry for herself. She writes about her life in a dry and English way with a great deal of wit. Although she mostly leaves out feelings, clues to her emotions are scattered throughout and the reader can figure out what kind of person the provincial lady really is.
After finishing "The Diary of a Provincial Lady," I was happy to learn that there are several sequels. This is a good thing since I am not ready to say good-bye to her. I am looking forward to reading more about the adventures and misadventures of the "lady" of the house as she ventures outside the world of her country village and (hopefully) becomes a writer.
(Mem.: if ever asked do I prefer books that make me laugh or cry, I would answer books that do both. But if forced to choose, I would say laugh.)