thoughts on reading slowly and the diary of a provincial lady
This is the first year I haven’t set a reading goal on Goodreads since 2010. I like tracking my books and tending to my little digital shelves filled with reading memories, but I have been trying to focus more on being present in my reading this year. Last month was the first time in several years I didn’t post a picture on Instagram of my monthly book stack, I just didn’t feel inspired to and turns out it was FINE, nobody missed it.
I have spent close to a month reading The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, a collection of four books (at least the edition I have) consisting of the diaries of a well-off woman living in the British countryside. Originally published serially in a 1930s newspaper, these missives paint a picture of a woman busy with both domesticity and social obligations who takes it upon herself to write it all down, the only thing she really does for herself.
“Robert says, Why don't I go to Bed? I say, Because I am writing in my Diary. Robert replies, kindly, but definitely, that In his opinion, That is a Waste of Time. I get into bed, and am confronted by Query: Can Robert be right? Can only leave reply to Posterity.”
The title is, I think, very tongue-in-cheek because the diarist isn’t provincial at all, she’s quite modern and feminist for her time, adventurous even compared to some of her friends. The book offers heaps of social commentary marked by intelligence and wit, accompanied by her keen observations — all noted down, of course.
The first book is primarily of her day-to-day life in Devonshire, and we get to know the children, Robin and Vicky, her taciturn husband, Robert, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife who is often in for tea and a quick favor, and Lady B. with whom many disagreements are had over the planting of flower bulbs.
The subsequent books allow us to follow the provincial lady in acquiring a flat in London where she intends to write, then to America on a book tour as a minor celebrity, and finally to the brink of World War II. The final book caused me to feel a pang of emotion, because realistically the reader knows what’s coming, and I had grown so attached to Delafield’s stories and family that I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. Mostly though, she goes charging about, gas mask concealed in a fashionable leather tote, volunteering and trying to make herself useful to the war effort.
“Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.”
The ending is ambiguous, but The Diary of a Provincial Woman is a book that changed me and, perhaps, even changed the way I read. It was a pleasure to pick it up and read a few entries at a time.
Perhaps that’s why I am so drawn to journals in general, I feel as though we are living through the days together – Anne Truitt and Heidi Julavits, two of my other favorites, come to mind. First person accounts are always fascinating to me, but especially when they are primarily from women just living their lives quietly, creatively, or otherwise. I recently acquired Selected Letters by Madame de Sévigné who wrote elaborate correspondence about France during the time of Louis XIV and am looking forward to those as well.
I bought Diary of a Provincial Lady quite at random in Notting Hill Bookshop during our trip to the UK this summer. I feel as though my heart will always belong to British literature, and that there is so much out there I will never discover or read. Amusingly, Delafield recommends Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory to a friend and notes it in her diary and Whipple’s book was one languishing in my BookDepository cart. As is often the case, I tend to discover my next book in the one I am currently reading. And underneath it all is my own memory of dashing through the rain with an umbrella we’d just bought at Tesco to be sure and hit every bookstore along the cobblestone walk, sharing the streets with Delafield.
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