A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt
21st Dec 2015
Jean Lucey Pratt was a diarist, a journalist and published author in her own time. Her secret diaries, which she kept between 1925 and 1986, were not intended for publication. Thirty years after the passing of this unknown woman, a sense of voyeurism creeps over whoever reads this hefty collection of private ephemera.
Not as intricate and as elusive as Sylvia Plath’s 1950-1962 diaries (published in 2000), or as strongly profiled as Virginia Woolf’s 1915-41 ones (published in 1977), Pratt’s diaries are prosaic to the bone. Her legacy is one of attention to detail in the material world, and a subdued character full of self-doubt and self-deprecation. Bemused and mesmerized by the goings-on of high society, Pratt is less amused about society’s perception of unmarried women, of which she is one.
Written right across the mid-20th century, this diary of a single woman, who at some point begins to claim the term “spinster”, lets readers look through the keyhole into the rather musty and cumbersome world of dating in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
The abortive douche makes an unsightly appearance (grim as some may already know it to be, from Chabrol’s 1988 film “Story of Women” about a woman who performed such abortions on willing women during the war time in France, and was guillotined for her actions in 1943).
In today’s age of gramophone and blitz parties recreating the hedonistic 1940s, darker elements like this have no place. Yet Pratt’s diary is full of the heartache of a single woman not only because of her lack of a husband, but also because of her isolation in a society ill equipped to accept and nurture her. An attitude that, with a changed face, is alive in the present day. For this realization alone, it is worth following the struggles of this lovely lady from the past.
Her legacy is one of attention to detail in the material world, and a subdued character full of self-doubt and self-deprecation. Her romantic difficulties are hardly made up for by the hardships of domestic life during wartime and post-war austerity. Private reflections on family, sex, relationships, cooking or gardening interlope with a subdued chronicle of contemporary political events, sometimes with news clippings.
This publication should be a treasure trove to any historian of the middle classes and their everyday life in Southern England in the 20th century. Pratt notes down things she debates with herself, such as how to manage her fortune, and what the banker said; or the price of things (food, travel, clothes and tailoring); and the mores of society.
Not merely narrative, the text of this diary also abounds in “notes to self”. Imperatives on what must be done in the future appear again and again: “must do more x, must never do y again”, etc. As anyone who keeps old to-do lists in the house in the hope of one day getting all those things done will know, an archive of to-do lists can be a heavy burden on the psyche of its keeper.
The result of seeing them all collected in a big book is an almost magical record of futures past, potentialities and dreams. Which of the notes to self were heeded, and how much of the planned life ended up really happening, Pratt didn’t always write back to her diary. And the posthumous reader is left to fill in the unknowns.
As the editor, Simon Garfield, advises in his introduction, copious chunks of manuscript pages were cut out for the published version. One wonders if perhaps, those pages had the answers. But at 713 pages, this book is already inordinately thick, to the point of it looking gimmicky.
Perhaps, the idea behind this bulky formatting was to enact the encyclopedic character of such a long series of years covered. This is not a memoir or a novel, but a diary, composed in real time as things unfold, without hindsight or design. It perfectly reflects the formless and elusive shape of life and its purpose, and yet brings plenty of joy, because it discovers the emotional world in another someone, that all too often has to remain a secret and a mystery.