May 27th, 2008

woman's magazine

The Provisional Lady

I’ve been reading The Life of a Provincial Lady A Study of E M Delafield and her Works by Violet Powell. Lady Violet, wife of Anthony Powell, was well qualified through her contacts to write this life although she committed the, to me, unforgivable sin in a biographer of speculating that ‘probably’ so-and-so thought this or that. Edmée de la Pasture/ E (Elizabeth) M Delafield/Mrs Paul Dashwood is generally treated as though she were the Provincial Lady of her own creation. Reading the biography I’m pleased to find that she was nicer and more interesting and that her husband Paul was more than a dull ‘Robert’. Born into a ‘good’ Catholic family, with a dominating mother and a sister whom she outshone in looks and brains, the young Elizabeth struggled to find a way of life that was not simply marriage. Her first attempt at escape was her time spent in a Belgian convent as a postulant and the most interesting chapter in the book is her own account of that time. She realized that she did not, after all, have a vocation and later, when she married, converted to the Church of England. Her early Catholic experiences were later put to good use in her novels.

Her output was remarkable, especially once she was married and running a home: usually a novel a year plus plays, articles and scripts for the BBC. Her novels are very unlike the Provincial Lady books as they almost all deal with unpleasant people, ghastly family situations and bleak endings: very much the territory of the adult novels of Richmal Crompton and Noel Streatfeild. I don’t think The Provincial Lady has ever been out of print but her other works are hard to find, or to afford. Virago reprinted Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are but you can only get them second hand now. The Persephone Books edition of Consequences is still available. Browsing ABE I found that very few of her novels can be had second hand for under £20.00 but I did see the delightfully mis-titled The Provisional Lady in Wartime, which gave me the header above. Now that republishing is all the rage I’m hoping to see more of this interesting author’s books become available. I have to like someone who admired Charlotte M Yonge so much and who created Lady Boxe.