Monday, 17 January 2011

Bad Housekeeping and More Bad Housekeeping by Sue Limb

Or, the Provincial Lady goes much, much further.  Like her illustrious predecessor Sue Limb wrote this comic fictional diariy as columns for the Guardian Saturday magazine, where I first read them; she subsequently published four volumes of the diary in book form.  Dulcie Domum, our heroine, has much in common with the Provincial Lady: a writer living in rural Rusbridge, which might be in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire from the other geographical references; mother of two young children; and married to a distant and uninterested husband, an academic specialising in the history of the seventeenth century, always known as Spouse. 

The first two volumes deal with Dulcie's efforts to write a novel with lots of sex in it - she christens this book the Bonkbuster - and her relationship with the much younger Tom from the Anarchist/Buddhist Plumbing Collective.  The first third of the first book is taken up with a great deal of will-they-won't-they - I can remember someone writing to the Guardian to complain that Dulcie was a tease - but eventually they embark on an affair.  The progress of this affair is interspersed with extracts from the Bonkbuster, which has been inspired by Dulcie's lust for Mikhail Gorbachev, and her struggles with family life.  Unlike the Provincial Lady's children, who are only moderately naughty and in any case away at boarding school for much of her narrative, Henry and Harriet are ever-present grotesques, requiring advanced childwrangling skills.  They are also the source of most of the best humour.

The diaries have dated a little - we haven't heard much about the Greenhouse Effect for a while, or about Gorbachev for that matter - and the first volume, at least, suffers from a tendency to provide a summary of the last episode at the start of each entry.  This was perhaps necessary for a weekly appearence in a newspaper, but palls quickly in book form.  By the second volume the text has been tightened up considerably, and there are some excellent jokes.  My main problem is with Dulcie herself - her passivity, at times, made my slapping hand itch - and also with Tom, who, as Dulcie comes to realise, is altogether too perfect.

I found most interest in the commonality of themes between the Provincial Lady's world and that of 1990s Rusbridge, particularly the intolerability of life in the country, the apparent hopelessness of companionate marriage, and the difficulty of producing literary work acceptable to publishers.  Dulcie also shares the Provincial Lady's love of clothes and tendency to extravagant purchases when her spirits are at a low ebb, as well as her tendency to Capitalise for Emphasis. 

Secondhand copies of the books are still widely available if, like me, you're pursuing to the death an interest in the diaries of fictional feminists, but I'd recommend reading Jill Tweedie's Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist first, mainly for the better jokes.

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