A Notable Woman: The life of a twentieth-century diarist
52 Week Writing Challenge: Week 9
On 18 April 1925, a fifteen year old girl called Jean Lucey Pratt opened a cheap exercise book and began to write: ‘I have decided to write a journal, I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it will be awfully amusing to read over later.’
She stuck to her word. For over sixty years, Jean kept a record of her thoughts and feelings, sometimes regularly, sometimes rather intermittently. In her early diaries, she is excited by all the possibilities of life, but worried that she won’t measure up in some way, whilst simultaneously considering the romantic potential of every boy she meets but finds them wanting. ‘I don’t think I could take a boy of my own age seriously enough to marry him’ Jean declares when she is sixteen.
After leaving school, Jean worked in her father’s architecture office, before studying architecture and journalism at University College London. She dreamed of being a writer, and starts her first novel. Later she moved to a cottage in Farnham Common, a village on the outskirts of Slough, and acquired her first of many cats.
Jean wanted to have a career, but also yearned to find a husband, and embarked on a series of fruitless affairs with men who either go on to marry someone else or are already married. These affairs are acutely observed and are often quite funny, but her failure to find a suitable partner leaves Jean trapped by a persistent loneliness. She wrote: ‘I have an appalling sense of failure, inferiority and insignificance about this that cuts deeply. It seems that something must be very wrong somewhere that I have failed to attract myself the right mate’. Even after seventy years, the raw emotional pain caused by this situation radiates off the page.
This failure to find a mate coloured Jean’s views on the role of women. She believed women are not equal or inferior to men but different, and that women in general are profoundly unhappy. Writing in the 1940s, she suggests that this is because ‘women can not now go back to their old way of living (and do not want to) and haven’t yet discovered the right way in a different world. This deep trouble has its effect on the men they bear and love’.
At the start of the Second World War, Jean was keeping two diaries, a war diary for the British social research organisation Mass-Observation and her own personal diary. Jean’s Second World War diaries have an immediacy undimmed by time. She recorded events as they happened, and unlike us she does not know what will happen next. The army requisitions land near Farnham Common. A bomber machine-guns the road as Jean travels home on the bus one evening. She talks to two children who excitedly tell her all about the house their father built. Their father was an architect who is now in the army. A few days later she hears that their father has been killed.
Despite all of this, she is quietly amazed at how everyone gets on with things. Jean announces to her diary that she has finally lost her virginity in capital letters, and reflects upon on the unromantic practicalities of wartime contraception. The Blitz provides a dash of excitement and a frisson of danger for her friends in London, until one of them is killed in a direct hit. She worries about her cats in case the same should happen to her.
By 1947, Jean is aware that her brother and his family see her as a ‘lonely, bookish spinster’. She is still hopeful of finding a suitable husband, or at least a suitably unsuitable lover. Her diaries veer from elation to despair, depending on the behaviour of her latest suitor. But this is a reasonably happy period in Jean’s life. She throws her energies into writing a biography of eighteenth century actress Margaret Woffington, which is published and gets reasonable reviews.
Buoyed by her success, Jean writes a book about her cats, but is unable to find a publisher for it. Around this time, Jean begins to give up on finding a partner, and the loneliness that has haunted her begins to solidify into a depression that never fully lets her go. In her later life, Jean’s diary entries become sporadic, with a few entries covering months or even years. During this time, she lived quietly in her beloved cottage with her cats, running the village bookshop.
Jean’s last diary entry is in May 1986; she died ten weeks later at a local nursing home.
Why did Jean keep up her diaries for so long? They provided her with a refuge where she can be searingly honest with herself without censure. On several occasions, Jean imagines a future audience reading her words. In 1948 she wrote ‘But I would like to think of other people, years and years hence, reading it with interest, sympathy, perhaps some admiration? It is a secret whim, a secret vanity and if I thought about it too much and began to write too deliberately for a future audience, visualising the audience as I wrote, the whole thing would crumple to pieces.’
Jean’s diaries give the reader a profound sense of a life taking shape. Her earliest entries are girlish and enthusiastic; during the middle period her writing has matured and takes on what she later disapprovingly calls a ‘cynical, woman of the world-ish’ persona. In the later period, she increasingly takes stock of her life, trying to figure out how it ended up where it did. The reader feels both privileged and slightly disconcerted. They are as close to being inside someone else’s head and reading their thoughts as is possible.
Jean’s diaries were published as A Notable Woman in 2015. She would have doubtlessly been pleased to discover that her diaries find a real-life audience. Maybe she would have been embarrassed by all the attention, and then sat down to write about it.