I must admit that I have have been shy of meeting the Provincial Lady for such a long time.
You see she was so popular, I read so much praise for her wit and her charm, that I became the bookish equivilent of the shy child, who was so often tongue-tied and could never quite keep up with the leading lights.
I resisted a green Virago Modern Classics omnibus containg this book and its three sequels; I resisted a lovely anniversary edition clothed by Cath Kidson; but when a new Persephone edition appeared I could resist no more.
Three copies of a book I hadn’t read would be too silly!
Now that I have met the Provincial Lady I am inclined to say that the dove-grey Persephone garb suits her best. And that the I found her such wonderful company that I quite forgot my shyness.
I should explain first that the Provincial Lady wrote her diary in the 1930s, and that she lived in a very busy life in a lovely village in the south west of England. She had a lively household to manage, and a welter of social obligations.
“Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.”
I loved the way the diary seemed to capture her thoughts almost as she thought them, almost as she might have reported events on her own head. And I loved that it was witty and funny in the friendliest of ways. I never doubted that the Provincial Lady understood, that she cared, and that she poked fun at herself just as much as she did at others.
The household was a joy to watch. There was a taciturn husband, usually to be found behind a newspaper. There was a son away at school, and a daughter being educated at home by a French governess, who was sometimes highly capable and sometimes terribly sensitive. There was a cook who had to be carefully managed, and there was usually a parlour maid, though good parlour maids were dreadfully difficult to find and even harder to keep.
And I sympathised with the Provincial Lady’s social struggles. She never seemed to have read the book, seen the play, visited the exhibition, that everybody else was talking about. Her indoor bulbs never seemed to do quite as well of those of her neighbours. And he children never seemed quite as well behaved, quite as accomplished, as other people’s children. She took it all with good humour, but there were moments, particularly when she was patronised by Lady Boxe:
“Find myself indulging in rather melodramatic fantasy of Bentley crashing into enormous motor-bus and being splintered to atoms. Permit chauffeur to escape unharmed, but fate of Lady B. left uncertain, owing to ineradicable impression of earliest childhood to the effect that It is Wicked to wish for the Death of Another. Do not consider, however, that severe injuries, with possible disfigurement, come under this law – but entire topic unprofitable, and had better be dismissed.”
I noticed that the Provincial Lady’s social circle brought different things to the story, Her dear friend Rose showed the value of friendship, of somebody who could offer sensible and practical support and advice. Mrs Blenkinsopp, who missed her newly-wed daughter and had to cope with the ridiculously hearty Cousin Maude brought pathos. And old school-friend Cissie Crabbe, who lived in a bedsit in Norwich brought a different kind of humour.
But there is much more here than humour. A certain generation, a certain class, and a way of life that would very soon be gone, is captured beautifully. It is dated, especially in its attitude to money and to domestic staff, but I accepted that it came from a different ages, and there were more than enough good things for me to let go of that.
Especially a lovely strain of bookishness, and the knowledge that the Provincial Lady was an aspiring author.
“Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Shold like to make charming and whimsical reference to these, and to fancy myself as ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’, but am interrupted by Cook. saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock, and the haddock doesn’t smell too fresh, so what about cod?”
In the 1930s my grandmother lived in a big house, with a young family and a small staff, She loved to read and I do hope she read this book, because I am sure she would have loved it too.