Monday, November 24, 2008

E.M. Delafield

The Virago Modern Classics printed by the excellent company Virago Press contains some little gems destined to expand and even redefine the notion of classic by adding to it female writers who wrote at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and who, by the very act of writing, take pains to study women's roles in society, try to understand the relationship women have with the world (domestic or broader) that surrounds them. This year proved to be a great one for me as I discovered several Virago writers, including some of my very favourites : Sarah Waters, Rosamond Lehmann, Miles Franklin, Rebecca West, Angela Carter, Pat Barker, Charlotte Gilman, Kate Chopin.

E.M. Delafield, whose real name was Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture, was, besides a journalist (she was one of the first to visit concentration camps after the Second World War) was a successful writer and published several collections of short stories. At the very beginning of the 30s, the editor of the feminist magazine Time and Tide, Lady Rhondda (who, just like her magazine, became more and more conservative as time went by), asked her to write a series of texts she would publish. The result didn't take long to come : Diary of a Provincial Lady was crowned with success and was followed, in 1932, by The Provincial Lady Goes Further. The following year, the humorous magazine Punch published her Provincial Lady in America, and in 1940 she wrote The Provincial Lady in Wartime. These short books, full of faultless humour, left people desperate to get hold of more by E.M. Delafield and somehow this is still true (Diary of a Provincial Lady has never been out of print). Even the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan personally wrote to the author to encourage her to publish a sequel.


I own this omnibus which is a collection of all these fictional diaries and I spent hours savouring them : the humour is scathing, very detached. The narrator, who owns a lot to the author, comments on her life which so much irony that we can't read one book right after the other. One page was taking me forever to finish as I spent my time bursting with laughter. It's a very caustic, deadpan sense of humour. E.M. Delafield's writing style can be compared to Grossmith's, the author of the Diary of a Nobody or to that of Nancy Mitford or P.G. Wodehouse. What is depicted is the conformist everyday life of Britain's good society, where husbands are forever asleep behind The Times, where the wife is constantly dealing with her servants (the portrait of Mademoiselle, the French governess, is particularly spot-on) and with her circle of friends. The problem with this kind of book is that it can be only be appreciated when you put aside some personal convictions : the Provincial Lady's ideas of class are particularly despicable and conversative. "The servant problem" made me feel ill-at-ease for several pages, but she tries to bury that with some more humour. Also, the fact that she seemed completely oblivious to the world around her, to any kind of world, really, that would go beyond her parish, had me sigh as well. My issues with this kind of books that focus on British middle-class in the first half of the 20th century are well developed and explained in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel by Nicola Humble and I already talked about it. I didn't identify with the main protagonist to say the least, but it was entertaining. I can't help typing a random passage, just to whet your appetite :

Ask Robert whether he thinks I had better wear my Blue or my Black-and-gold at Lady B.'s. He says that either will do. Ask if he can remember which one I wore last time. He cannot. Mademoiselle says it was the Blue, and offers to make slight alterations to Black-and-gold which will, she says, render it unrecognisable. I accept, and she cuts large pieces out of the back of it. I say Pas trop décolletée, and she replies intelligently Je comprends, Madame ne désire pas se voir nue au salon.
(Query : Have not the French sometimes a very strange way of expressing themselves ?)

E.M. Delafield has also published other works : I Visit the Soviets is an account of her 6-month visit in the USSR in 1935 and Consequences, reprinted by Persephone is worth reading although I wouldn't recommend buying it, I found it quite odd.

E.M. Delafield's daughter, R.M. Dashwood, who appears under the name of Vicky in her mother's books, has also written a book and apparently it's just as good as the Ladies ones (and it's already in my TBR pile). It is entitled, quite smartly, The Provincial Daughter. I highly recommend this website dedicated to E.M. Delafield if you're interested in reading some more about her.

E.M. Delafield