When I finished Charlotte M. Yonge's Heartsease the other day, I wanted to leave the Victorian era far behind. I needed something light, bright and sparkling, and above all modern, where women didn't have to be pressed down into proper passivity. A chance comment I saw on a blog reminded that I have been meaning to re-read the adventures of the Provincial Lady, particularly this 1934 book. I first learned about E.M. Delafield from an essay in The New Yorker, but I had trouble finding her books. I finally ordered the modern Virago omnibus edition, only to come across a complete set of the Cassandra Editions at Half Price Books. I bought them hoping to cancel the online order, but it was too late. I decided to keep the omnibus edition and share the individual volumes with a friend (though I kept The Provincial Lady in Russia). I wish now I had kept the single volumes instead. With omnibus editions, I tend to binge-read straight through the volume. As a result, I don't remember much now about any of the four PL adventures. I wish I had heeded the words of Nicola Beauman in her introduction: "it would be doing E.M. Delafield a disservice to sit down and read the four Provincial Lady volumes straight through," in part "Because they were written as weekly installments..."
I first read this book in 2005. All I really remembered about it was how much EMD wanted to visit Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, Massachusetts. Reading it again ten years later, I was struck by all kinds of things that I didn't know the first time around. I enjoyed the set-up, with the PL at home, preparing for her trip, dealing with her version of The Man of Wrath (or at least of Grunts), and all the humor of her adventures. But even more I was enjoying all the connections I was finding. Most importantly, this time I had a much better understanding of who EMD was, from reading Vera Brittain's Testaments. That first time, I noted that the PL columns were originally published in Time and Tide but didn't give it much thought. Now I know something of the journal, Lady Rhondda its publisher, and the other contributors. I'd like to learn more, so suggestions for further reading would be appreciated! I also noted the discussion at one point of how well Testament of Youth was selling in the United States. I just checked my copy to see that it was published in 1933.
In New York, EMD met the critic Alexander Woollcott, who seems to have taken quite a fancy to her. He was instrumental in finally getting her access to the Alcott house:
He has, it appears, read in a paper (Boston Transcript?) that my whole object in coming to America was to visit the Alcott House, and of this he approves to such an extent that he is prepared to Mention It in a Radio Talk, if I will immediately inform him of my reactions to the expedition.I had no idea who Alexander Woollcott was then - now I know better. From what I've read, it's lucky that the mercurial Woollcott did take a liking to her. But I can't help thinking of the version of him in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's "The Man Who Came to Dinner," now one of my favorite Christmas movies. I keep picturing Monty Woolley getting ready to Mention It in a Radio Talk.
Immediate volte-face now takes place in attitude of Pete, Fanny and everybody else. If Alexander Woollcott thinks I ought to visit Alcott House, it apparently becomes essential that I should do so. . . Am much impressed by the remarkable difference between enterprise that I merely want to undertake for my own satisfaction, and the same thing when it is advocated by Mr. A.W.
I also know a little bit more about Louisa May Alcott now, from reading her letters, so this time I knew that the "Mrs. Pratt" who showed the PL all around the Concord site is connected to "Meg," aka Anna Alcott Pratt. Louisa adopted her two sons later in life (not the twins Daisy and Demi). I was envious of her personal tour, with guides "prepared to show me everything there is to see." But knowing that the guides were Alcott connections makes that envy so much worse. I enjoyed the Alcott references sprinkled through the book, particularly her immediate association of the Boston Common with Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl. I'm happy that she enjoyed seeing the 1933 film of Little Women. I can't cope with Katharine Hepburn as Jo myself.
The schedule arranged for her took EMD to Chicago, where the 1933 World's Fair was in full swing. There she was to speak and sign books in the book section of a department store. When I read, "Department store is the most impressive thing I have ever seen in my life, and the largest," I sat straight up and said, "Marshall Field's!" The reference to Marcella, the head of the book department, with her office "entirely plastered with photographs, mostly inscribed, of celebrities," confirmed it. Emily Kimbrough, in her memoir of working there, described Marcella as one of the most powerful women in the store, a loyal friend once you got to know her. The PL was less impressed. I couldn't help picturing her, like Emily, coming in through Charley's door. Kimbrough was no longer working at the store at the time, unfortunately. If EMD met her during her visit to Philadelphia, she didn't mention it. Her descriptions of traveling by train and meeting groups to speak reminded me of Kimbrough's later book, ...It Gives Me Great Pleasure.
To top off all her other excellencies, I will love E.M. Delafield forever for her description of the Lincoln Memorial as "the most beautiful thing, without exception, that I have seen in America."
I had such fun touring the eastern U.S. and Canada with the Provincial Lady. I wish that she had made another tour, of the west. And I look forward to revisiting the other books in this series - one at a time, this time!
N.B. This is the only the second book that I have re-read for my Century of Books. I may fill in a few of the Victorian years with Louisa May Alcott.
N.N.B. My escape into more recent literature means that I will miss the Trollope bicentennial event this month, drat it. I hope to get back on track with Doctor Thorne next month, for #6Barsets.