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.
How 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 Heaven knows Miss Pratt struggled to publish in her own lifetime: her one novel and her two books on cats are still unpublished, while her first book, a biography of the Irish actress Peg Woffington, did overcome many obstacles, including the 1953 general election, to get into print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.
Miss 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.
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 katemacdonald.net.