strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
This was recommended to me by [ profile] glitzfrau because of my fascination with the 1930s, and I thank her for the pointer, because it was a lovely read. As the title would suggest, it presents the diary of an upper-middle-class Devon housewife, whose name we never learn - though this page makes pretty clear that the account is largely autobiographical.

We follow the diarist's life for a year as she struggles to run an evidently quite large house on the edge of a country village, navigating her way between financial disasters, servant problems and the demands of her social position. It's light-hearted and comically told, but at the same time presents a precisely-observed and often very poignant picture of English society in the 1930s. Moral codes, aspirations and social hierarchies are all deftly laid out and gently mocked - but only ever in a fondly self-deprecating way that brings a wry smile to the lips.

The diarist's world is also almost exclusively feminine. Her lifestyle is, of course, financially and socially supported by her husband, Robert. But allowing for that basic set-up, neither Robert nor any other man has very much influence at all over the day-to-day experiences of her life. Robert generally falls in line with the diarist's plans and activities happily enough, offering the occasional brief comment, but content on most occasions to nod, smile and fall asleep behind his newspaper. Meanwhile, the diarist has a busy self-directed life full of female friends, WI meetings, local community activities, visits to London, reading, writing and household management. For all her proclaimed self-doubts, she comes across as a highly autonomous character, who is fully in control of her own life.

Interestingly, the book also presents a critique of what must at the time have been the stereotypical face of proto-feminism. This comes with the arrival in the village of Miss Pankerton, an Oxbridge 'blue-stocking' with very fixed ideas about how the modern woman should aspire to behave. She swans into the diarist's world brandishing her artistic leanings and intellectual credentials, and tells her that she strikes her "as being a woman whose life has never known fulfilment", that she has "no right" to let herself become "a domestic beast of burden", and that she (Miss Pankerton) is "determined to scrape all the barnacles" off her. Meanwhile, the diarist fumes inwardly at being told how she should behave, and Miss Pankerton is quietly shown to be rude and narrow-minded without the diarist ever dreaming of spelling out any such thing. Before long she has realised that her efforts are wasted, and huffily removed herself from the diarist's society.

In other words, what we are shown is a conflict between an ostentatious but rigidly-defined form of female emancipation, and a sort of quiet, pragmatic feminism which just boils down to doing what makes you, personally, happy. Judging from synopses of some of E.M. Delafield's other books, it's pretty clear that she knew perfectly well that not all women are happy in the context of marriage, and nor do they have the luxury to pursue their own interests while someone else supports them financially. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see that she feels able to offer a critique of a model of feminism which in itself demands that women adhere closely to a particular set of pre-defined ideals.

My edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady came bundled into one volume with its three sequels; and I rather like the sound of Consequences, too. So you may just have started something here, young Glitzy!

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