Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Notable Woman. The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

pratt-1How do you edit forty-five exercise books of diary into a readable account of one woman’s life? Had Jean Lucey Pratt been an important politician, or a fabulously careful recorder of glamorous lives from the inner circle, there would have been volumes and volumes in print long ago. She was a reserved Buckinghamshire bookseller, cat-owner and biographer, and had no obvious market for her diaries, though she wrote and kept them for unknown future readers as a record of a life worth living. Heaven knows Miss Pratt struggled to publish in her own lifetime: her one novel and her two books on cats are still unpublished, while her first book, a biography of the Irish actress Peg Woffington, did overcome many obstacles, including the 1953 general election, to get into print (remaindered some years later). The very existence of her diaries was unknown to anyone but her niece and literary executor, Babs Everett, until Simon Garfield began work on Miss Pratt’s wartime Mass-Observation diaries, which he published as part of three books: Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War, and Private Battles. On going to meet Mrs Everett, he was told about her aunt’s 45 other diaries in her attic, privately written and kept even more privately. Garfield edited them into a two-inch-thick volume. It’s been a smash word of mouth hit, and has been publicly raved over by big selling names and literary luminaries alike.

I do like this book very much, and think it a valuable addition to social history, and to the record of ordinary women’s lives in the twentieth century. I was enchanted by it, absorbed and moved. I wanted to leap into Burnham Beeches, where Miss Pratt lived, and be the kind of friendly neighbour she appreciated, and to buy books in her bookshop that she kept in the last twenty years of her life. I’m not sure that I would have liked her company so much in her younger years, because the impression the edited journals give is of a desperately lonely woman who succumbs again and again to the blandishments of unscrupulous and unreliable men, all because she longs for sex, love and emotional commitment. This compulsion for love is pretty much the most important thing in her life, or so the edited extracts lead us to assume. This impression has to be grossly misleading, but that’s the effect the editing has produced, and on which A Notable Woman has been sold. It’s human, and relatable, but not very edifying, and probably not the impression Miss Pratt would herself have wanted to make. My feeling after emerging from the book is that she would have wanted to have been known as a strong, enduring, dogged survivor of casual treatment, and as a warm and loving owner of generations of cats, who were her most beloved companions. I’m not a cat person myself, but I can appreciate a lifetime of devotion to animals when I read it. She wanted to give, and to be given to, and cats did this best for her, rather than people who let her down.

pratt-2Miss Pratt began the first volume in this diary in 1925 when she was fifteen, and the last entry was written in 1986, a few months before she died. Since nobody would publish the whole text (she was not famous, a politician, or a confidante to the famous, etc), Garfield had to make some stringent editorial choices as to what he could include. In effect he’s used one entry per month for sixty years. It’s a skimming stones approach, and it gives the merest hint and impression of what Miss Pratt’s life was like. Garfield also had to choose which entries he selected, and thus what story he wanted to tell, since this book is the narrative of Miss Pratt’s life and times. The subtitle ‘romantic journals’ is horribly misleading, but that’s marketing for you.

Setting aside the irritating and attention-seeking label of being just a lonely woman who longed for sex, Miss Pratt had a life. She studied architecture (to join her father’s practice in Wembley, in north-west London), changed to journalism, worked on the Bath Chronicle for some months, and moved to Buckinghamshire after her father’s death, where she rented a cottage in the woodlands of Burnham Beeches, near Slough. She tried to become a writer. Just as war was looming, she found work in the publicity department of an aluminium factory that made parts for planes, where she excelled as a copywriter for posters. Losing her job in the late 1940s, she wrote her Peg Woffington biography for five years, and took in lodgers for holidays. She started a small bookshop and lending library in her local village in 1953, became a long-serving parish council clerk and finally retired in her seventies. Obviously, she never married, or had children, but had good, strong relationships with her stepmother, her brother, sister-in-law and her niece, and a big circle of friends. She travelled to Jamaica and other relatively exotic places, but didn’t own her own car until she was in her sixties.

On top of all this, she was an impressive writer. I can’t do more to persuade you of this than paste a few of the lines that made me laugh out loud, stop in admiration, or reread, to work out how she achieved such immediacy, and personality.

  • (1932, when she was 22) ‘At times I am consumed with a terrible lust for power. Power over men, power to make that light come into their eyes like I have sometimes seen with Peter’s when they look at me. That is the beast in me. I doubt whether anyone suspects it. “The Wee Bear,” says Peter. “Something soft and fluffy.” Me. Me! Soft and inoffensive and wholly ineffectual – Christ! Is it any wonder I lust for power?’
  • (a year later) ‘ … as a man I despised him utterly, and that I compared him to some rotten undeveloped kernel, green and mouldy in a dry and brittle shell.’
  • (in 1934, working on the Bath Chronicle) ‘I have today done nothing but write up weddings, weddings and yet more weddings. Dear God! What fools these mortals are! Brides in satins and suede georgettes and heavy crepe white and cream and pink and blue. Bridesmaids in chinions and silks carrying bunches of tulips and roses and lilies and pearls and ponchettes and crystal necklaces, the tawdry gifts of the groom. It’s enough to make one a spinster for life.’
  • (30 August 1939) ‘Another long day of uneasy waiting. We still don’t know what Hitler’s demands are, or what our reply is. Report has it that he insists on the return of Danzig and the Corridor. Russia is fortifying her Polish frontier. Holland and Belgium have offered Poland their services. France is requisitioning all her railways tomorrow and has already handed over her broadcasting stations to military authorities. Switzerland has appointed a commander-in-chief. All over Europe I see doors closed on secret government conferences.’
  • (1940) ‘Perhaps I am just to be a proof that talent and desire and opportunity are not enough to make an artist. Or perhaps I’m struggling along a road I’m not and never have been meant to follow. All that I want to do crumbles and seems nothing. I think I know what a flower might feel that was not pollinated. I think now that I shall never be anything else: fit only to rot in time.’
  • (1941, about a potential lover) ‘He thinks he knows all there is to the art of making love. He does not even know how to begin. It does not begin in his room with port wine and a verse or two of Keats.’
  • (1945) ‘And having coped with the British Army it now seems possible I may have to cope with the American. That attractive young Irish New Yorker phoned again last week. He is stationed once more in Wycombe and says he wants to meet me, and would I put him up for the night if he came over? Fantastic. Do wish someone would come and rescue me from this situation. I like making new friends and entertaining the Services enormously, but really I do not want to have affairs with every one of them.’
  • (1946, after having ditched M for multi-timing her) ‘M in [the office in] Slough again today. I sit now near a partition which divides our offices from the main office corridor – and I heard his voice late this evening. A few minutes afterwards in comes D H, red in the face, and all secret dimples. I know that expression. I know what she was feeling. He had said something extremely flattering, highly provocative. She is only 18, very pretty and just spoiling for experience. A very succulent young virgin. I could have knifed him.’

If these don’t persuade you to buy this book, you will have saved yourself an extremely heavy weight on your lap, and a lot of space on your bookshelf. Also, you won’t have the worry of working out where to shelve it. A Notable Woman. The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt is history, it’s memoir, it’s autobiography, it’s definitely a diary, if a highly filleted one, and it’s a marvellous read.

A Notable Woman. The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield (2016, canongate) ISBN 9-781782-115700, £20 hb

When not staggering under the weight of hardbacks Kate writes enthusiastically about books on


About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

One comment on “A Notable Woman. The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield

  1. A Little Blog of Books
    September 18, 2016

    I absolutely loved this book and really cared about Jean and felt like I knew her very well by the end. Definitely one of my top books of the year.

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2016 by in Uncategorized.



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