If you like E M Delafield’s comic classic Diary of a Provincial Lady, you’ll like Provincial Daughter, because it’s written by her daughter, R M Dashwood, and she’s even funnier. This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’ve been reading her story of a doctor’s wife in the late 1950s in Berkshire, one of the Home Counties near London.
This book was Dashwood’s only novel, and was deliberately written in the style her mother made famous with the three Provincial Lady books: in a diary format, with shortened sentences, and many terse and funny observations about her family and domestic nightmares. It was written in the late 1950s, when details of a modern housewife’s life are all about hands-on cooking, cleaning, washing and childcare, whereas the Provincial Lady had servants to do all that. The Daughter suffers just as much from the water tank that needs replacing, the washing-machine that explodes grubby water all over her new lino, and from the German au pair who needs almost as much care as do the three very lively and adorable boys whom she is supposed to look after.
The Daughter, who is nameless, is a doctor’s wife, but he (his name is Lee) works in the local hospital rather than in the village surgery, so this gives her a certain status in the village. However, there is also an expectation that as a doctor’s wife she will know all the cures for ailments that her friends have, particularly the more obscure obstetric ones. She is university-educated, apparently in English literature, which produces an arch expectation that she is terribly learned. Unlike Barbara Pym’s educated women, the Daughter is simply cheerful about her love of literature, and not at all interested in showing off. She is a secret writer, has had a few articles published, has a book on the boil, and at the beginning of the novel she has just been commissioned by a newspaper to write an article.
Earning some extra money is quite important, more so than getting into print, because their class expectation that all three of their boys must go to prep school, and then a public school of some kind, school fees are a looming problem. There is also the pressing need for house improvements and car repairs that seem to dominate the family’s lives. So the 15 guinea commission from the Daily Tabard, and the request from the BBC that she come to London to do a voice test for a broadcast, are wildly exciting for the family. These are the most sophisticated highlights of a life that otherwise submerges this Provincial Daughter in cooking, cleaning, making beds, doing laundry, chasing after children, and a vast amount of physical work. I was amazed at the effort she puts into the two elder boys’ lunches for school. Sandwiches didn’t seem to be an option: a hot lunch was expected, and there were no plastic tubs or Tupperware, obviously. So she makes, BEFORE SCHOOL, a cottage pie in a small dish for each boy, for the teachers in the village school to heat up beforehand, and added a jar of blancmange each. Cottage pie means chopping, cooking, mashing, creaming, so I hope the blancmange came out of a packet. It probably didn’t.
This perfectly normal and educated housewife works unbelievably hard at the daily servicing of her family’s life. It seems inconceivable now that anyone could have had any life at all beyond housewifery with all this daily work and no help, so the moments when the Daughter gets the family out of the house and has an evening or a few hours to herself are a relief. And what does she do with them? She has good intentions to Get On with Writing her Book, but she daydreams, fritters away time looking at old letters, distracts herself with odd jobs that don’t need doing. None of this seems wasted because, if a hard-driven worker can’t break away from the iron routine of running a home, into aimless, purposeless pottering as simple mental relief, she’ll be miserable. And this Daughter is not at all miserable; this is a gloriously happy book about her life with her charming, adorable children, even if they are also occasionally demonic, and a very attractive husband who knows his value socially.
How does she fit into village society? She is patronised by the local county aristocrat, who clearly has a thing about her husband, but the county lady is a lot less selfish than Lady Boxe who terrorised the Provincial Lady, 20 years earlier. The Daughter lives a scrambling, chaotic life compared to her friends in the village, whom she repeatedly describes, grumblingly, as looking as if they’ve been dressed by Dior. Her own clothes are less smart and don’t fit, her hair and skin are reproached, she is constantly accused (by her friends) of letting herself go, and endures a visit by what must be a very early literary description of an Avon Lady. The Americans who live locally are even more beautiful and well-turned out, but do not make themselves popular: the English village ladies are totally taken advantage of by the American Maybelle, who gets them to do all the work at her children’s party. Another visiting American, invited for drinks, spent the entire evening complaining about the terrible English shops and the awful way of life in this backward land, so this does not make her popular. Ruth the Divorcée, a new woman who moves into the village, has dramatic and glamorous things expected of her (presumably this was a time when divorce was rare and thrillingly wicked?), but she turns out to be nice and normal, becomes a friend, and is of great practical help.
The village shop is still central: the Provincial Daughter keeps having to dash there in the car or with Ben in the pushchair to buy things that have been forgotten, with not very much money. The school is also a hub, as is the church, and she spends a lot of time waiting in the hospital for various child health appointments. One of these was for a Ben-related emergency, when he cut his hand and needed stitches, and she had to run out of the front door to grab the first passer-by to hold him while she got the car out to get him to hospital. The passing stranger, a nice but unknown woman, came along to the hospital, stayed for the stitching, and was dropped off back in the village, all without exchanging names in the stress of the moment. The Provincial Daughter only found out who she was months later, when she went to a newsagent to buy chocolates, spotted the helpful stranger behind the counter, and presented the chocolates to her instead. This human contact, the easy communication and expectation that since we live in the same place we will all muck in together, is what makes this book a great village story. It is also so different from village society twenty years earlier, which was far more divided by class and servants and psychological distance.
I particularly enjoy the truculent attitude that the Provincial Daughter brings out to protect and stand up for her village. The tyrant town librarian accuses all ‘your village’ of routinely handing their books back late, to the Daughter’s fury: so interesting how stories of public shaming keep coming up in small-town and village life. The hospital staff in the local town are uninterested in her wait of an hour and half for a missed appointment. To her annoyance she finds herself pulling rank, because she knows the Professor concerned socially, through her husband, and she magically gets a new appointment. She is persuaded to attend a lecture on English literature by a friend who insists that it will be good for their minds. So they sit in a hall of earnest women taking notes from the lecture by an arrogant young man, who seems to epitomise everything to be loathed about professional academics, and he is patronising about this village audience. She goes to London to have her hair cut, and is delighted to feel able to face down the glittering ranks of glamour queens who preside over the reception desk of the hairdresser’s, simply because she knows that the new cut suits her. The new cut is also impossible to maintain at home, without a full hairdresser’s staff, so she ends up, a week later, recutting it herself at home with the kitchen scissors.
Mostly though, this book is about a housewife at home with her family in the village in the late 1950s, and it is sheer delight. I happen to find it laugh-out-loud hilarious, so I hope you will too. It is beautifully written, charming, heart-warming, entertaining, instructive, and delightful.