Diary of a Provincial Lady

For this, my first post of the year I want to introduce the The Diary of a Provincial Lady (E.M. Delafield) to anyone who hasn’t come across her before. I have been meaning to read the book for ages (hence the need for this challenge and this blog in the first place) and I did finally get around to it last year. Although it isn’t a 2018 read, I wanted to talk a little about it before I put it back on the shelf. My edition is a Virago paperback (1984) which comprises four diaries of the Provincial Lady. It also contains an excellent introduction by Nicola Beauman. I have discovered that Persephone Books offer a lovely reprint, using the original illustrations by Arthur Watts and with an afterward by Nicola Beauman. This edition sorely tempts me (see illustration below).

Cover of The Diary of a Provincial Lady

The Provincial Lady began life as a series of articles for a weekly feminist magazine, Time and Tide when Delafield was well established as an author, already having eighteen books under her belt. The first Diary of a Provincial Lady was published in 1930, followed in 1932 by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America (1934) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940). My internet searches have also yielded the information that our PL also went to Russia (published 1937), this book slotting in between America and Wartime. That must be next on my wants list! I have read though all four books in my volume, but in this post, I will confine myself to the first volume to give you a flavour of the Provincial Lady and her world.

Before talking about our lady diarist, I will just sketch in a few details about the author. E.M. Delafield is the pen name of Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture (1890-1943) whose mother was a well-known author. This explains the transition from ‘de la Pasture’ to ‘Delafield’ when she came to publish her own work. Her father was a Count, descended from a family fleeing the French revolution; Delafield went on to marry Arthur Dashwood third son of a baronet and they eventually settled in Devon. Delafield’s Provincial Lady draws on her own provincial life and experiences in this part of the world, however the husband and children in the books were apparently only very loosely based on her own husband and offspring. Her first novel, Zella Sees Herself (1917) was published after Delafield had spent most of the First World War as a V.A.D. She went on to become a very successful author before her untimely death at only fifty-three.

The diaries humorously detail the ordinary life experiences of the un-named Provincial Lady, dealing with servants, school, children, balancing the household budget and those all important social duties. The characters include the snobbish and wealthy Lady Boxe, Our Vicar’s Wife, a couple of old school friends, various neighbours and visitors. The immediate household consists of husband Robert, daughter Vicky (her son Robin is away at school but makes his presence felt in  occasional unsatisfying letters), French governess Mademoiselle, Cook and Ethel the parlour maid. A common theme in the book is the Lady’s endless efforts to balance the financial books. Receipts go missing, the contents of the cash box is never what it should be and polite letters arrive from suppliers and bank managers requesting settlement. Great aunt’s diamond ring is regularly pawned (though at a suitable distance from the village).Illustrated Provincial Lady

I was surprised how many little incidents struck a chord, despite the 1930s setting and the fact that the social background of the character is somewhat removed from my own. Here is she espousing modern parenting by discussing the question of the existence of Hell with her daughter Vicky:

Am determined to be a modern parent, and assure her that there is not, never has been, and never could be, such a place. Vicky maintains that there is, and refers me to the Bible. I become more modern than ever, and tell her that theories of eternal punishment were invented to frighten people … (Query: Are modern children going to revolt against being modern, and if so, what form will reaction of modern parents take?)

While reading the diary entries on the vexed question of Christmas shopping, I was amused to note that her caustic reactions to the cost of gift ideas given in magazines in 1930 are eerily similar to my own (most recently given voice to in reading gift guides in 2017 Christmas supplements). Her gift guide makes suggestions ‘individual and yet appropriate-beautiful, and yet enduring’. It goes on to say, ‘Then why not Enamel dressing-table set, at £94 16s 4d or Set of crystal-ware, exact replica of early English cut-glass, at moderate price pf £34 17s 9d?’ The Provincial Lady’s response is a tart ‘Why not, indeed?’ After briefly surveying the section for ‘Giver with Restricted Means’ (5 guineas) she settles for a ‘one-and-sixpenny calendar with picture of sunset on Scaw Fell, as usual’. During an exhausting shopping trip to London she agonises over a ‘really handsome’ card for her old school friend Cissie Crabbe against an ‘almost invisibly small diary’. She eventually settles on the diary as it will fit into an ordinary sized envelope. The glamour of Christmas shopping on a limited budget!

Finally, I note that our diarist has the eternal discussion with her offspring whether hand washing before meals ‘is, or is not necessary’. She notes in an aside:

(Mem: Have sometimes considered -though idly- writing letter to the Times to find out if any recorded instances exist of parents and children whose views on this subject coincide. Topic of far wider appeal than many of those so exhaustively dealt with).

This reminds me of a John Drinkwater poem that I knew as a child called ‘Washing’ , which begins ‘What is all this washing about, Every day, week in, week out?’ It’s nice to know that some thing never change! All that washing business baffled me too.

I did actually read all four books straight through, which was probably not the best idea. As Beauman points out in her introduction, the diaries were not meant to be read straight through, so repetition of phrases and events is noticeable as you go on. However, I don’t think that detracts from the humour of the books, or the sharp observation that Delafield applies to the mundane round of life. I have since found myself dipping back to read entries here and there which is a better way to read the diaries I think. These are books you could return to over and over again for escapist humour with a dash of vim.

Now all I need to do is to track down the remaining volume for my collection.

Best wishes for a Happy Reading Year to one and all! Drop me a line below if you have any New Year reading goals.

Picture Credits: Additional image from Persephone Books online shop.

Yes, We Have No Oranges (Nor Bananas)…

Last year author Juliet Greenwood (We That Are left, Honno Press)) wrote a guest blog post on the topic of producing and preparing food for the Home Front during the First World War. In her novel, the main protagonist, Elin goes back to her mother’s old recipe book to help her produce nutritious recipes for wartime. Recipes from the period were reproduced at the end of the book, some of which you can find on Juliet’s guest post. I have gradually tried out Juliet’s recipes, most recently the seed cake, which I have blogged about over on Curiously Creatively this week. It was most delicious!

Few Eggs and No Oranges

Reprinted edition

As Juliet pointed out at the time, rationing only came about towards the end of World War I, and lessons learned from this conflict influenced rationing decisions in the Second World War. I was reminded of this when I was browsing recently in Hodges Figgis and spotted a reprint of a Second World War diary. Few Oranges and No Eggs (Persephone, 1991, 2010) was the work of Birmingham born Vere Hodgson (1901-1979) who began work in London in 1935 and stayed there throughout the war. She worked for the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association in a welfare role and helped to produce the association’s newspaper. The office was in a house (named The Sanctuary) in Lansdowne Road and Vere lived nearby in Ladbrooke Road, though she often spent the nights of The Blitz at The Sanctuary taking a turn on fire watch duty. Although the diary entries continue until VE Day, I have just quoted from the early part of the book to give you some idea of Vere’s life. The diary actually began life as letters sent around to family members and then posted out to a cousin in Rhodesia. Only one batch of letters ever got lost en route. Not bad for a war-time postal service!

As the book’s title suggests, one of the major preoccupations of the author was obtaining food during the lean years of the war. On 9th July 1940, Vere Hodgson was recording that “We are to have six ounces of butter cum margarine, and two ounces of cooking fat” and on 16th July she was writing of the shortage of eggs in London, declaring, “I shall have to switch over to baked beans”.   Rationing restrictions changed over the years, but began in January 1940 with bacon, butter and sugar. Later, several other food products were added to the rationed list and supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were limited, though not rationed. Tinned products were un-rationed but you needed points to buy the food. The chart I have included (taken from Wikipedia) will give some idea of the range of weekly rationing, from lowest to highest. Not on the chart are eggs (one per week) and milk (3 pints per week). There were increased milk rations for children, pregnant women and invalids and oranges, when available were usually only for children or pregnant women.

World War II Rations

Ration Chart

Vere’s observations marked the daily difficulties of obtaining scarce supplies and the alteration in the rations. Despite fruit not being rationed, imported fruits such as bananas and oranges were obviously hard to come by at all. Prices of homegrown produce varied a great deal as this entry from February 1941 shows, “Bought a pound of apples yesterday for one shilling…what a price. No oranges at all, at all. Very annoying.”  Later that month she notes that the cheese rationing will probably amount to a one inch cube per week. At that point, it was immaterial as none was available in her area anyway.

One of the effects of rationing and shortages appeared to be that people craved that which they would not ordinarily have eaten, such as in this case, onions. “Mr Booker was saying that though he hates onions, when once more we can get them he will sit down and really enjoy one. I think we shall go in for onion binges when the war is over”. (16th February 1941) I have a vision of Vere tucking into endless plates of fried onions after the war. In many entries such as this one, Vere displays that sense of humour and stoicism that enabled many people to carry on despite the shortages. I will just finish with this excerpt from 22nd February 1941, which details the proceeds of a shopping expedition:

Managed to get a few eating apples yesterday to my great joy. I treated myself – they are one shilling and one penny per pound. I carried them home as if they were the Crown Jewels. Also had some luck over cheese. Went for my bacon ration and while cutting it had a word with the man about the Cubic Inch of Cheese. He got rid of the other customers and then whispered, ‘Wait a mo’.’ I found half a pound of cheese being thrust into my bag with great secrecy and speed!

Then going to the Dairy for my butter ration I was given four eggs and a quarter of cheese! Had no compunction in taking it, for I went straight to my Mercury Cafe and gave it to them….they had said they did not think they could open the next day as they had no meat and only a morsel of cheese. I could not resist, when I got in, cutting off a hunk of my piece and eating it there and then. I always sympathised with Ben Gunn when he dreamed of toasted cheese on that desert island.

If you’ve never come across this diary, I recommend it for the day-to-day picture of war-time life. The experiences are particular to one educated, middle class woman but it does give you a vivid picture of what life must have like for Londoners and Brummies in all walks of life as they coped with the destruction and privation on the Home Front. This is one book that I am sure I will dip into again and again. Vere Hodgson’s voice is lively and compassionate; her conscientious recording of all that happens draws the reader into her world.

I have also written a piece for Headstuff if you would like to read it too: http://www.headstuff.org/2015/05/exploring-a-wartime-diarist-vere-hodgson/

Until next time!

Leskov and Shostakovich on The Landing

Following on from the Landing Book Shelves foray into Russian literature, with Tolstoy and Pasternak, we have Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) with The Enchanted Wanderer (first serialised in Russkiy Mir, St Petersburg, 1873) which was translated by Ian Dreiblatt. Technically this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Landing book, since I only bought it this year and it has sat on my bedside table more or less ever since. I have been reading it over the last week or so in between a couple of the inevitable library finds (I must do a library books blog post soon with a few ‘recommends’).

I had been browsing in the Rathfarnham Map and Bookshop but I was about to leave empty handed when this smart Melville House edition (2012) of the Leskov caught my eye. Melville House is another of those publishers that has had the smart idea of publishing lesser known classics (Hesperus  and Persephone are also publishers of forgotten classics) and in particular Melville specialises in novellas. The blurb on the back jacket says that many of the titles published have never been seen in book form before. I’m already lusting after more books from the publishing list, but they will have to join the mental book queue.

The Enchanted Wanderer

Simple and Elegant…

I hadn’t heard of Leskov before, but when I read the back jacket for some biographical details, I let out a small cry of delight. At this point you should be warned that I am about to digress somewhat from the topic of The Enchanted Wanderer. The reason for that unseemly public outburst was my discovering that Leskov had written a novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first published in 1865). The significance of that piece of information is that it provoked in me a burst of nostalgia. I went to see the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) on an Art College trip to London with my sister several years ago. The production was an English National Opera piece at the Coliseum. Our night at the opera was the final item in a packed day of sightseeing. I remember being in the bar of the coliseum feeling tired, footsore and too scruffy for the wonderful surroundings. Strangely enough, I don’t recall that anyone else batted an eyelid even though everyone seemed much smarter than we were.

I have been trying to pin down the date of the London trip because unusually for me, I don’t have a programme saved. As far as I can tell from my friend Google, it was the spring of 1987 though I don’t know the exact date as I’m not sure how long the  opera ran. This was to be my first opera and a dramatic start to opera going it proved to be indeed. Our seats were up the Gods, for the princely sum of £5 if my memory serves me correctly. It still amazes me that you could go to a production of such quality for so little cost at that time and of course, in such a fabulous building.

Leskov’s book ticks all the dramatic boxes for passion, murder and jealousy and it was turned into a four act opera with some changes in the action. I’ll just briefly set the scene so as not to spoil the plot too much. The plot of Lady Macbeth tells the story of  provincial merchant’s wife Katerina Ismailova, who is unhappily married to Zinovy Ismailov. She is Zinovy’s second wife and is  constantly berated by her father in law Boris for not producing an heir for the estate. Enter a new farmhand called Sergei who is attracted to Katerina and the plot thickens.  Set against the background of provincial life, Leskov tackles the themes of adultery, the subservient role of women and murder. Here’s a plot summary of the book if you want to know who dun what and to whom.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Programme from 2001 revival

Shostakovich’s opera was written in 1932 and first performed in 1934, but fell foul of Stalin in 1936 and disappeared from the public eye until the 1960s. I discovered from an article in the Guardian from 2004 that the sex and violence in the opera didn’t go down too well with the party leadership, though Lady M had been a great success with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. When it first re-surfaced, the opera was produced in a bowdlerised form but later staging of the opera returned to the original version. Here’s a review that I dug up from The Spectator of 5 June 1987:

No problems whatsoever with David Pountney’s shattering production of Shostakovich’s second opera. The tragedy is that it should have been his last: Stalin’s notorious denunciation of 1936 effectively silenced a 27-year-old opera composer of genius. For this reason if no other, Pountney’s updating the work to the 1930s and setting it in an abattoir is an act of neat gallows-humour revenge. Brimming with pole-axing coups de theatre, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder and graced with a central performance by Josephine Barstow [Katerina]that is remarkable even by that singing actress’s own Himalayan standards, this is without doubt the best show in the West End, and to miss it would be sheer insanity. Oh, and it was absolutely ready on the first night.

I remember that the whole production, from the music to the singing, to the spectacular set design absolutely overwhelmed me. It probably wouldn’t have been the opera that anyone would recommend as beginner’s choice, but for me it was a brilliant way to start. You were picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung in at the deep end. And it was sung in English, which helped considerably. I think it was also the first time that I heard Willard White (Boris) sing and though I can’t claim to be an operatic expert, even I can tell that he had (and probably still does have) a wonderful voice and a charismatic stage presence.

We might have been high up in the theatre, but the opening bars of the music made an immediate impact on us. You should have seen weary students (and me), preparing to settle down in the comfortable seats and recover from the day’s exertions, jerk upright at the first dramatic notes of Shostakovich’s score. This is the first time I’ve thought about that trip for years and even now I can remember the excitement and the shocking action of the plot. I don’t think it will surprise anyone too much if I mention that Katerina (Lady Macbeth) comes to a sad and sticky end, as tragedy seems to be a staple ingredient of operatic stories. I was reading about the later revival of the opera by ENO  a few years ago and I’ve included a picture of the programme as I can’t locate one from 1987. Maybe sometime I’ll get to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk again, but I’ll certainly look out for a copy of the book.

All this was quite a digression from The Enchanted Wanderer, so I may have to return to him in another blog post. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer reading. Any recommendations?