Oh those Lotharios

Alison Light

  • A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield
    Canongate, 736 pp, £12.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 78211 572 4

The early entries in Jean Lucey Pratt’s journals brought to mind Cecily’s diary in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Wilde sends up, among other things, the predictable script of boy meets girl. Long before she knows Algernon, Cecily has charted the progress of their romance in her diary, but when they meet, and Algernon falls instantly in love as planned, Cecily won’t let him read it: ‘Oh no. You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.’ Cecily’s diary is a ruse just like her modesty. It’s a cover for her unladylike ambitions – to be an author and to be in charge of her life. Romance offers girls the opportunity to gain the upper hand, but a diary, to adapt a Wildean aphorism, gives a more lasting pleasure, the chance for a lifelong romance with oneself.

Pratt began a journal in 1925 and carried on writing until her death in 1986. She imagines her public from the start. ‘Reader please be kind to me!’ she writes winningly: ‘I am only 16 at present, and just realising life and beginning to think for myself. It’s all very thrilling in its strange newness.’ Jean wants to be a romantic heroine rather than a bespectacled schoolgirl, and diary-writing gives her the leading role. Bored and restless, with only her widowed father for company, she is a fan of Rudolph Valentino and melodramatic tales of unrequited love or forbidden marriage. She longs to be an actress and ‘live in a real world of Romance’ (i.e. cinema): ‘I should love to feel that I sway men’s hearts to a danger mark, and women’s too for that matter.’ In search of her ‘Ideal He’ – ‘someone slightly overpowering who dances divinely’ – she wishes she were ‘light and amusing and attractive’ (she is podgy, shy and often tongue-tied). Pratt writes her journal in the holidays from boarding school, ‘that strangely bittersweet prison’. She begins by breathlessly totting up her past ‘beaux’, who include a waiter in Worthing (‘he used to gaze at me so sentimentally’), a nameless choirboy at the local church ‘with rather deceitful blue eyes’ (‘he makes eyes at Barbara Tox and Gwen Smith now’), and ‘Ronald’, ‘quite a common sort of youth, but rather good-looking’, and ‘another romance where I never said a word’. Next she lists her ‘cracks’, or crushes, at school, no longer conjuring the world of the silent screen but of Angela Brazil whose stories fed the appetites of those emotionally starved young ladies new to private education. Jean sighs after ‘J.R.’ (Jean Rotherham) – ‘there is no sweeter sight on earth’ – despite her inamorata being incommunicado for six weeks in the ‘sicker’ (sickbay). Her current ‘wayward passion’, she confesses, is for ‘A.W.’, Miss Wilmott – ‘everyone knows I am gone on her.’ Naturally this too is a hopeless love: ‘she lives in a world of games and speed and swift thought … and straight, slim, eager girls.’

Jean is no dupe. She knows how mass-market romance is pedalled and how easily the heartstrings can be plucked. On holiday with her father, she watches ‘filmacting’ from a ‘topping’ perch in Mullion Cove, noting sardonically that the actress’s hair is ‘suspiciously fair’ and that the shooting of a love scene supplies ‘some sob stuff gratis’. She becomes adept at writing sob stuff herself, imagining, for instance, how nobly she will behave when her father announces his intentions to remarry, ‘“Why Jean, aren’t you pleased?” Perhaps then I’d say, bravely gulping down the tears and smiling: “Oh yes, Daddy, I’m very pleased, but Daddy, have you forgotten mother so soon?”’ Her anguish is no less desperate for being heightened or sentimentalised. In her stuffy home, crying in public is seen as vulgar; affection is rarely expressed. Jean is both pampered and neglected. She dotes on her older brother – ‘Pooh’ – who works abroad but comes home a stranger. ‘I anticipated too much,’ she writes as the train takes him ‘heartlessly’ away again. ‘The anticipation was far sweeter than the realisation,’ a leitmotif that recurs in Pratt’s diaries, and one of the prompts for writing them.

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