Mrs Tim of the Regiment
The Provincial Lady
Clarissa Dickson Wright
When I started reading Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D E Stevenson, I noticed so many similarities of style with E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady that I had to check the dates: Mrs Tim 1940; Provincial Lady 1930. So she did get some tips. Like debodacious I much preferred the first half of the book, about regimental life, to the second, which is an account of a holiday in the highlands. Years ago I read the last book in the series, Mrs Tim Flies Home. I found it a cosy village story with a lot of snobbery in it and decided that you had to know and love Mrs Tim (Hester) to enjoy it. Hmm. To enjoy Mrs Tim of the Regiment you have to like not only Mrs Tim but her ghastly, snobbish friend Mrs Loudon and Major Morley, the rich officer whom dear Hester is too dim to see is in love with her. Really! I can’t believe a woman who’s been married for twelve years could be so naïve. And I don’t like Tony Morley at all and find the regimental types complete bores.
There are enjoyable things in the first part of the book, along Provincial Lady lines: the children, the governess with wounded feelings (see Mademoiselle, constantly blessée), the tiresome women of the regiment. In the highland part of the book there is too much of the aforementioned snobbery and too much sentimentalising about the Scottish landscape (a thing O Douglas easily gets away with). I’d like this book better if it were less ‘nice’; it lacks a Lady B and the acerbic note of E M Delafield. I might read this again but not before my nth re-read of The Provincial Lady.
Dandy Gilver also lives between the wars but is the twenty first century creation of Catriona McPherson. Dandelion (her parents were eccentric) is English but married to a Scottish landowner, Hugh. They have two sons and all three of her men-folk enjoy hunting, shooting, fishing and messing about with drains; Dandy’s idea of a pleasant day is to sit cosily by a fire, reading. She is frankly bored by Scotland and the way of life she has married into (though never really unkind about Hugh) and even admits to being sometimes tired of her children. So it’s a blessing when (in After the Armistice Ball) a friend offers to pay her to investigate the theft of some priceless diamonds. Money of her own! Little does she realise it will involve her in a great deal of unpleasantness and a murder.
In this first book she meets Alec, who is to be her collaborator for the rest of the series. Quoting from memory, ‘It was at that moment, if I were the sort of person to fall in love, that I would have fallen in love with Alec…’ Their relationship remains one of intelligent friendship. Dandy is liberal in outlook but is never going to rock the social order, though she’s sharp enough to see it crumbling around her; there are no annoying anachronisms in these books.
Clarissa Dickson Wright is not really a country lady, since she was born and bred in London. Like other privileged children of her generation, though, she had her share of country holidays and Pony Club fun and as a champion of country life she certainly qualifies here. CDW’s life story is pretty well known: the childhood abuse by her father, who beat both her and her mother; the alcoholism followed by sobriety; television success with Two Fat Ladies. What I like about Spilling the Beans is that it could have been a misery memoir and isn’t: CDW is completely lacking in self pity. She ascribes her alcoholism to genetically inherited illness triggered by the calamity of her mother’s death; her sobriety to God and the Twelve Steps to Recovery.
I think such a clever woman could have written a better book; it gallops along chronologically and doesn’t always hang together. For me, it ran out of steam after Two Fat Ladies. It’s still full of interest: plenty of strong opinions and some fascinating titbits about the famous. For example, Tony Blair’s fellow law students called him ‘Miranda’! It’s a very honest book and I think anyone, suffering any sort of addiction, could find hope reading what CDW has to say on the subject.
My favourite country lady? Dandy Gilver.