E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady

Back in June Margaret Crompton came to the University and gave this fascinating talk about the many literary allusions in The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) and its sequels. The talk is called ‘The Special Collection of a Provincial Lady’ in a neat alllusion to our special collection of popular fiction at the University.

From Margaret’s talk:

The three faces of Edmee

This presentation stars three women – or rather, obedient to classical tradition – three aspects of one woman: namely an un-named Provincial Lady, E. M. Delafield, and Mrs Paul Dashwood. Mrs Dashwood had been born Edmee Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture in 1890 and translated her aristocratic surname into her authorial pseudonym. She married Major Dashwood in 1919, aged 29. The Provincial Lady (to whom I’ll refer as PL) was born at the age of 39 in 1929, exact but not identical triplet with her two co-characters.

The merging of these three personae sets a problem to the discerning reader. The events, characters and circumstances of PL’s life in many respects reflect those of both Mrs Dashwood and E. M. Delafield. Yet  it would be embarrassing to believe that PL’s attitudes towards, for example, her husband and neighbours truly reveal  those of her author.  So is the PL  a portrait of a ‘real’ person – or a fictional creation – and how is the reader expected to respond to her? We may wonder, too, whether the Diary  is code for the Life and Letters  of the illustrious EMD.

Once I realised that the Provincial  Lady wrote four Diaries – namely The Diary (1930) The PL goes further (1932) The PL in America (1934) and  The PL in Wartime (1940) I did exactly what Nicola Beauman advised against in her 1984 Virago ‘Introduction’ – and read the books ‘straight through’ – which  enabled me  to discern changes of mood and style, and to ask questions (pxvii). However, after number three I was becoming satiated with unremitting, even  desperate PL cheerfulness and was, in any case, deterred from reading PL in Wartime when I learned that Mrs Dashwood’s son had died in distressing circumstances in 1940.

Indeed, reading these Diary entries in book form at all may do the author ‘a disservice,’ for the material in all four volumes was designed to appear episodically in Time and Tide,  the feminist, left wing publication, founded in 1920 by its first editor, Margaret, Lady Rhondda. Her friend E. M. Delafield was a trustee and regular contributor.

I was immediately impressed by the plethora of literary allusions and titles (especially of publications between 1920 and 1940) and decided to call this paper, (rather elegantly, I think), The Special Collection of a Provincial Lady. My plan to read all the references was  rapidly abandoned  as the magnitude of task emerged but I was heartened by stumbling on the perfect opening quotation provided by Cook (PL’s, not mine – ):  ‘Reading is a sad waste of time,’ (p358). Although I reversed the sentiment by assuring myself that reading in preparation for this paper would be  the best possible use of my time.

The PL’s Special Collection proves to be a catalogue of which any writer could be proud. These references, often only a title, provided portals through which I began to identify some unexpected questions about the PL  and her parthenogenic parent E. M. Delafield. All references are portals, of all shapes and sizes – twisted tunnels, great glass  doors, tiny squints and romantic orioles. Many texts to which PL  refers themselves include important references which may illuminate the Diaries. Also, I made new discoveries about some texts which I had thought I knew well, and read others for the first time. And there are so many references to Time  and Tide that one suspects product placement.  

Download Margaret’s full talk here: Provincial Lady by Margaret Crompton

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2 thoughts on “E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady

  1. Very interesting, thank you. Reading the diaries I’ve often felt ‘I wish I had her problems’ but the humour keeps me going. I find Wartime very irritating. I want the PL to stop swanning around London fancying herself in a siren suit and go home to do something useful.

  2. I’m so pleased that this has been put online, I really enjoyed reading it – and was amused by how many of the quotations I had also used in my thesis! I don’t think I ever had any emotional problems reading PL, or even frustrations, but I do like the questions regarding the differences and similarities between EMD and the PL.

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