EM Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady is being published as a Penguin Classic

Despite its age, the 1930s book is a fresh and funny take on what it means to be female even now, says Rachel Johnson

It pains me to think how many potential readers might have been discouraged by the ironic title of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, so self-deprecating it almost invites a good dusting. For this book may have been first published in 1930, but it has the same stay-fresh, pin-sharp quality of all the best comic work, from Stella Gibbons to PG Wodehouse, even though it ostensibly concerns the narrow and unpromising subject of running a small family and a large household in the West Country of England more than 80 years ago.

But, oh, it is so much more than that. Beyond being funny, which is reason enough to glue your face to its pages, and go about with the new edition as a faithful nosegay, there are many other reasons why The Diary of a Provincial Lady is such a good pick. It is a yeasty combination of domestic drollery and historic document that will never stale (unlike those cut loaves left uncovered on one occasion in the diarist's Devon larder).

It can, therefore, sit in the incomparable canon of books alongside The Diary of a Nobody, Lucky Jim and Mapp and Lucia, that invite the English to laugh at themselves. Yet it remains totally – as we say now, though EM Delafield would shudder at the neologism – "relatable". We can connect with it, on every level. "How was it that anyone living a comparatively sheltered, upper-class life could think and behave so exactly like me?" the writer Jilly Cooper wondered. And though Delafield predates Caitlin Moran by 80 years, and Shirley Conran by 40 years, in many ways she got there first.

Delafield was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture in 1890. Her father was a French count and her mother the writer Mrs Henry de la Pasture. After writing novels, many novels, there occurred one of those chance conversations that change the course of literary history. The editor of Time and Tide, then a large-circulation weekly of which Delafield was a director, wanted something chatty for the centre pages. "And so," her fan Jilly Cooper noted with approval, "in her beautiful house in Devonshire, she began to note down the routine follies and storms in teacups of life in the provinces. From the moment they appeared, the diaries enchanted everyone. They were incredibly funny, and yet, in a way, as homely and reassuringly familiar as the rattle of pips in a Cox's apple."

But Delafield was not merely the first English mummy columnist. She also wrote the first book (well, the first I've ever read with howls of pleasure at least) that reveals and shares how to be a woman.

So Delafield demands attention, even now, as she provides an entire Edwardian masterclass in how to juggle a grumpy husband, demanding children, help, garden, meals, rainy holidays, picnics, hats (hats are one of the many recurring themes, along with bulbs, frocks, conversation, correspondence). She is also supremely useful for those of us who are still keen to know how à l'époque a woman managed to escape domesticity (although she does not work in the home so much as supervise the staff) and slip away up to London without the entire household turning against her, and Cook threatening to hand in her notice, as this is just one of the many stealthy achievements of our author.

For it is my contention that our narrator and heroine, the scribing, Devon-dwelling and nameless mother of Robin and Vicky, loyal and baffled wife of the baffling, undemonstrative Robert, is the first woman in fiction, and perhaps the first woman ever, to "have it all", and then proceed actually to enjoy it. Not only does she try to be a good mother, a loyal wife, and run the household with the maximum of comfort and the minimum of outlay, she maintains a bella figura even when a malevolent hat has slipped to cover not only her head but half her face while on a shopping trip to Plymouth.

She is a pillar of the community. She is a leading light in the Women's Institute, but she is also, vitally, not "just" a housewife and mother. Our Provincial Lady also works.

She writes books and articles whose success has to be something of a private, lovely surprise to her, and somewhat hidden from her husband, in case he becomes cranky about her gadding about, and her writing. She goes on a book tour to America; she rents a flat in Doughty Street in Bloomsbury with her own money and so, as we say now, she manages to self-actualise, without ever foregrounding her achievements in a forbidding way that chills the reader's blood.

She instinctively knows that whether she's telling us about her bulbs or the Blitz, readers don't want to hear about her triumphs, because, like happiness, that writes too white. No interesting anecdote ever began, "we had a problem-free journey to Istanbul on the Orient Express" after all. She understands that, so when it comes to the glorious house in Devon, we don't want to hear about days without hitches, we want the interruptions to normal service. So the pantry sink blocks, tumblers break, skies cloud over just as chairs and rugs and lemonade are carried to the garden. As soon as something diverting and enchanting is planned, reality bites.

Her daily conflicts make for perfect exploitation in prose: we have the chatty female married to dour male. We have the perennial clash of Town and Country, traditional Conservatism vs. experimental Liberalism (Robert only comes to London once, and he makes a beeline for the masculine outpost of Simpson's in the Strand, where he feels at home among the carvers and the bloody sides of beef). There is conflict between the creative free spirit and the nesting, nurturing maternal urge, and a political clash between the solid Tory shires of Devon with her own more mischievous and metropolitan proclivities (the diarist is a free-spirit unattached to any party, we are led to suspect, which is almost unheard of then in the darkest West Country.)

So she has it all, and yet to our delight, everything conspires against her: from the weather to the children's health, her clothes, and especially her hats. A woman comes up to her at a literary party "and says I am what 'She Calls Screamingly Funny'. Cannot make up my mind if she is referring to my hat, my appearance generally, or contributions to Time and Tide. Can only hope the latter."

The Provincial Lady is keenly social, but husband Robert is one of those rural, rooted men who thinks he has a perfectly good home of his own, so has no need of the hospitality of others. The cue for any social event, whether a tea or a literary lunch or a London party, is of course immediate panic about clothes: which frocks – which are always known by special names; the Blue, the Grey, the Check, or the Tussore – should she wear? She goes to a beauty parlour and concludes, "Feel a great deal could be written on this experience," prefiguring in a few choice words a million magazine articles and websites.

But in the same way that she glosses over Feminism (the author's capitalisation) she tends to gloss over the endless round of admin that maintaining a respectable appearance at all times places on the female, then as now – probably because it's too dull to jump off the page, which is as good a reason as any.

By the standards of the time, our Provincial Lady has a life of exceptional achievement and interest, and her career follows the arc of the female from domestic to professional over the course of the last century. In the first third of the century, the woman's lot was almost unrelentingly domestic, even if she was cultured and educated.

It was only after the Second World War that they entered the work force and did jobs equal and opposite to men, beyond being nannies or cooks or nurses or secretaries or governesses or teachers. Of course, our lady is somewhat unique: she becomes a celebrity, too, as well as a war-worker, but we are still so lucky to have her take on not just Devon tennis parties, shopping in Plymouth by bus, and rice-mould, but also female emancipation and women's entry into the work force.

As Hitler is preparing an air-raid, she stands looking into a shelter, in a passage that combines her genius for social reportage, observation, and a typical twist of bathetic self-deprecation. "Stand at entrance to the underworld, with very heavy coat on over trousers and overall, and embark on abstract speculation as to women's fitness or otherwise for positions of authority and think how much better I myself should cope with it than the majority ... when ambulance man roars at me to move out of the way or I shall get run over. I go home shortly afterwards."

The war is a caesura in the life of a certain breed of English woman: as soon as war is declared in 1939, they rushed up to do "war work in London" and their lives were never the same again – not least because they find themselves, with glee, in trousers or "slacks" for the first time. This sense of excitement about breaking free from home and hearth is palpable, as is the desperate enthusiasm of women to escape domesticity.

In order to prove their employment chops in the war effort, women of all ages and classes did anything: they scrubbed floors, and one even made a perilous journey across London to retrieve a commandant's clean handkerchief. It is touching to read how desperate women of that age were to work, and to make a national contribution.

This progression of the female's lot is rendered with marvellous and welcome freshness. There is an early disdain showed for the modern curse of hands‑on, professional parenting. "Have very often wondered if mothers are not rather a mistake altogether and now definitely come to the conclusion that they are." And at another point: "A mother's influence almost invariably disastrous... and children always behave much more badly with mothers than anyone else."

Her beloved Robin is at boarding school, and as soon as she makes money she sends Vicky off as well, but her love for them – and it was the love that almost dared not speak its name in that buttoned‑up era – shines through on every page. There are silent tears when she drops him at school, or he wins the high jump at sports day, and of course mothers only speak well of other children, never their own. "Robin and I say goodbye with hideous brightness and I cry all the way back to the station."

Her leitmotif is a complete lack of sentimentality and display: "Most wonderful thing in the world would be to be a childless widow," she says, but she only says this, of course, because she isn't a childless widow herself.

When it comes to love, the Lady is unbelievably English, as is Robert: "A banking account, sound teeth and adequate servants matter a great deal more" than love, she thinks to herself, although she admits she is moved when Robert writes to her that he misses her. Such moments between husband and wife possess the powerful romance of understatement of Brief Encounter as they rarely happen between an Englishman and his wife, especially in the country.

EM Delafield has provided us with a faithful, funny and lasting record of having it all at a time when the concept was so alien that it didn't even exist, and even though she lists the Lady's responsibilities as "Robert, the children, the servants, the laundry, the WI, repainting the outside of the bath, the state of my overdraft," and never includes as a "responsibility" her writing or her career at all.

She died, far too young, in 1943, at the height of her fame and powers, but she would have been the last person to have made a fuss about it – such an event would only merit the lightest of quips in the imperishably crisp world of EM Delafield.

'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' by EM Delafield is published by Penguin Classics (£8.99) tomorrow

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