The Diary of a Provincial Lady

E. M. Delafield,The Diary of a Provincial Lady
(London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2014)
First published: 1930

Telephone rings at the extraordinary hour of eleven-eighteen p.m., and extremely agitated voice says Oh is that me, to which I return affirmative answer and rather curt rider to the effect that I have been in bed some little while. Voice then reveals itself as belonging to Pamela P.—which doesn’t surprise me in the least—who is, she says, in great, great trouble, which she cannot possibly explain. (Should much like to ask whether it was worth while getting me out of bed in order to hear that no explanation is available.)

This interwar series of texts—(The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932), The Provincial Lady in America (1934) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940)—reflect the shift from letters, postcards and telegrams to the use of the telephone. In the first text, Diary of a Provincial Lady, the telephone is rarely mentioned, but correspondence takes an inordinate amount of the lady’s time. In The Provincial Lady Goes Further, from where the quotation is taken, the telephone is commensurate with a more glamorous and independent life in London, where, as an increasingly successful writer (with two children at school) the lady takes a flat. In this extract, the telephone enables subterfuge, and elsewhere it is used to make last minute invitations and work arrangements (both of which cannot be refused on the phone as they may have been in writing). The telephone reflects a kind of modernity, and this is particularly clear when the Lady undertakes a book signing tour in America. Another interesting point is that, in this series, ‘to call’ represents an in-person visit, raising the question of whether the telephone call has the same resonance of a drop-in visit without pre-arrangement. In terms of narrative device, the telephone in these books allows for reported speech which imitates the speaker: ‘Telephone calls five times interrupt us, when Pamela is effusive and excitable to five unknown conversationalists and undertakes to meet someone on Friday at three, to go and see someone else who is being too, too ill in a Nursing Home, and to help somebody else to meet a woman who knows someone who is connected with films’. By the third book in the series, The Provincial Lady in America, the telephone has a variety of purposes. It is an access route for advice: ‘Ring up dear Rose and consult her about clothes for America’, and a means of making practical arrangements: ‘Telephone appeal from Caroline Colcannon saying can she move into Doughty Street immediately…’. Mrs Tressider also needs to make arrangements of a serious and urgent kind (about which boat crossing to make), but rather than telephoning she sends what is described as an ‘Imperatively worded postcard’, followed by another a paragraph later, when ‘Second postcard from Mrs T arrives’. So the telephone denotes informality, perhaps, but it also reflects a contrast between the lives of the younger and older women.

Once the Lady reaches America, phone use is more widespread and again, is connected to modernity. Returning from a shopping trip, the Lady finds ‘five telephone messages waiting for me, and am rather discouraged—probably owing to fatigue—but ring all of them up conscientiously, and find out that senders are mostly out. Rush of American life undoubtedly exemplified here’. The phone has replaced the letter as a form of correspondence requiring an answer.

By Rebecca Cullen