Book Corner – February 2020 (4)

The Provincial Lady In America – E M Delafield

They call it third album syndrome. The first is full of energy and fresh ideas, the second is more rounded as the artist learns the tricks of the trade but the third is a disappointment, repetitive and devoid of ideas. Although a prolific and accomplished author, the same comments can be made of Delafield’s third novel in The Provincial Lady series, published in 1934 and parts of which were serialized in Punch magazine.

The Provincial Lady (PL) is now an established writer and, at the behest of her publisher, is encouraged to go to North America to fulfil some speaking engagements and plug her book. As this is the 1930s, it wasn’t just a question of jumping on a plane but a sea voyage, courtesy of Holland America Line and the SS Statendam. The early part of the book is taken up with PL’s concerns about how to break the news of a prolonged absence to her husband, how she was to break the news to her staff and friends, preoccupations about what to pack and wear and, the continual theme of the books, how much it was all going to cost and how she could possibly afford it.

She is treated to a first class on the trip out, somewhat wasted as she is terribly sea-sick, whilst on the return she has to make do with tourist class. Such is the treatment of authors by their publishers. Photographed and fêted when she lands in New York, PL is engulfed in a whirlwind of parties with the literati and a tour of the lecture circuit. Throughout the trip PL is outside of her comfort zone, continually fretting about the suitability of her clothing and how to avoid being saddled with the inevitable bores.

Part of the charm of the PL series is getting to know some of the characters that she interacts with. The nature of her trip to North America, she pops across the border into Canada, is that we have a multitude of characters to contend with, most of whom rarely engage us for more than a page or two. It adds to the sense of a whirlwind, but the book loses some of Delafield’s acerbic barbs as a consequence.

It is a bit of a literary commonplace for an English writer to visit America and regale the reader with their views. Charles Dickens was particularly sniffy about what he found there and his disdain for the uncouth American way of life came through loud and clear in Martin Chuzzlewit. The PL is a more sympathetic guest, overwhelmed by the hospitality and vivacity that she encounters. She does, though, seem to have a bit of a cloth ear as to what is going around her. At the time of PL’s visit America was in the depths of the Great Depression, not that you would know it from the text. Perhaps the wealthy, who had survived the Wall Street Crash, and those who lionized literary figures were impervious to the economic downturn. It struck me as a bit odd, though.

Although PL does not go down to the southern States, there is a lot of comment about the Southern accent. To English ears it does sound odd, but it is hardly worthy of a major leitmotif for the book.

PL has definitely changed since her debut and not for the better. She is still a bundle of insecurities, but her warmth and observational powers which made her such an endearing character have been blunted. There is one more in the series in which she turns her hand to Land work in support of the war effort and another, which most critics regard as a stand-alone. I think I will leave PL here back in the bosom of her family. Her husband, surprisingly, seems to have missed her.

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