Monday, May 9, 2011

The Provincial Lady in Russia

I Visit the Soviets, E.M. Delafield

As I understand it, the official title of this book is I Visit the Soviets.  My copy, a Cassandra Editions paperback, has that title in small letters above The Provincial Lady in Russia in much larger letters.  Given the popularity of the Provincial Lady, this seems an obvious marketing idea, but it gave me a rather misleading idea about the book.

This one has been on the TBR pile for a long time.  I discovered the Provincial Lady through an article in the New Yorker back in 2005, and I managed to track down all the "Provincial Lady" books, including this one.  I read the others straight through - as fast as I could turn the pages, laughing all the way.  Even though I ended with the more somber The Provincial Lady in Wartime, I wasn't prepared for the seriousness of I Visit the Soviets.  I set it aside, meaning to come back to it after I'd recovered from the high of the first books.

So there it sat on the TBR shelves until last year, when I read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship.  I knew E.M. Delafield only in the context of the Provincial Lady; I didn't know about her work on Time and Tide as part of the circle around the 2nd Lady Rhondda, nor about the many other books she wrote.  Learning more about her inspired me finally to read this last book, and I'm glad I did.

In the opening chapter of I Visit the Soviets, Delafield described her (American) publisher's suggestion that she visit Russia and then write a funny book about it.  From the first page, she expressed her doubts that she could be funny about Russia.  She was persuaded to make the trip, and the book that results is funny. The humor, though, comes from Delafield herself, the irritations of travel, and her fellow travelers (including the godawful American Mrs Pansy Baker).  As she predicted, she found little funny about Russia itself, or its citizens.

The book starts with an account of an extended stay on a communal farm named the Seattle Commune.  The story then loops back to her ocean voyage to Russia and her visits to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Rostov, and Odessa.  All foreign visitors were of course under close supervision, assigned to guides who ensured they saw only what the government wanted them to see.  Unlike some of her fellow tourists, Delafield was not a Communist sympathizer or an admirer of Lenin and Stalin.  While admitting the major problems that Russia faced under imperial control, she could regret the violent overthrow of that society, and the deadening, depersonalizing, dehumanizing effects of the Soviet state.  The economic and social improvements, such as they were, carried a heavy price.

I think it's time for a re-read of the other Provincial Ladies.


  1. This is such an interesting book - Delafield manages to be quite amusing and very serious at the same time. What annoys me, though, is that it was ever published as The Provincial Lady in Russia - it was never intended as a PL book (and initially called Straw Without Bricks: I Visit the Soviets) but some later publisher obviously decided it would sell more if under the PL label. Very confusing!

  2. Simon, Straw Without Bricks is such a great title! I've learned more about EMD's books from your blog & others, and I'm keeping an eye out for them.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!