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.

Her family are an echelon or two below what George Orwell, an old Etonian, called in The Road to Wigan Pier the ‘lower-upper-middle-class’, his family’s shabby-genteel world peopled by clerics, servicemen and Anglo-Indian officials who were reduced to living on ‘virtually working-class incomes’. Pratt’s antecedents are in trade and business and she grows up in a semi-rural Wembley. Her father is an architect and a freemason; her brother an engineer with Pacific and Cable (the Pratts are possibly middle-middle-middle class or perhaps lower-middle-middle but not lower or middle lower-middle class). Jean’s home life between the wars initially seems to belong to someone in a Betjeman poem. She prays that God will help get her elected to the ‘upper sects’ of the tennis club committee; she accompanies her father to the Anglican church where he is a warden, to Conservative Club dinners in ‘pale blue georgette’ or to the Ladies’ Night at the local council, where she swoons over Harold Dagley who wears ‘such wonderfully creased flannels’ (alas! he is fatally ‘weak-chinned’). Becoming Jean means learning a finely tuned language of discrimination. What matters are the differences between the middle classes. The lower orders (‘the plodding workers’), like the upper classes, are a race apart. Throughout the decades Pratt nervously patrols her class boundaries; she is easily embarrassed, frequently judgmental and perennially insecure. (Will bobbing her hair make her look ‘cheap’?)

Her outlook begins to change when she attends classes in architecture at Ealing Institute and then at University College London, paid for by her father. Fitzrovia, where she rents a flat, takes a dim view of Wembley and its ‘flaccidness’: ‘I am still stamped with the stamp of suburbia … this is sick-making.’ Intense political conversation with male students take her further from home: ‘Roy’, who is ‘delicate’ but ‘intensely selfish and lazy’, expounds proto-fascist views of British superiority and male supremacy, while artists, actors and other acquaintances are ‘socialistic’. ‘Why shouldn’t India be allowed to rule herself?’ she wonders, and, aged 22, undertakes a student tour of Soviet Russia on her own. Her daydreams, however, are all of rising above her station, imagining a soignée life as a dress designer perhaps, ‘superbly accoutred in black velvet moving suavely up and down softly carpeted luxuriously lit rooms’. If only she had ‘pots’ of money, ‘enough anyway to provide me with an adequate number of servants, trained people who will look to the care of my wardrobe and meals and all these petty irksome little details that take up so much of one’s time’. At college she cultivates an image of herself as worldly and cynical. Sex, she announces airily, ‘is only of relatively minor importance’, too often ‘sentimentally confused with love’. But while she talks the talk, her behaviour is less advanced. Feeling sexy makes her feel a ‘bad woman’ or – in the new jargon – ‘oversexed’ and she won’t go further with any of her ‘lovers’ than ‘a petting party’.

Pratt sets out to be entertaining. She keeps up a sprightly, unforced conversation with herself and nearly every entry reads as if it is hot off the press; sometimes lyrical, often droll. She becomes adept at deflating her more elevated sentiments, juxtaposing them with domestic mishaps and often banal titbits of everyday life. Her editor thinks she picked up lessons in parody from The Diary of a Nobody and that her comic timing owes something to the music hall. Debunking the Victorian or fuddy-duddy in a flip tone, however, is more Coward or Waugh than Pooter. (In later years she would look back and ‘wriggle’ at her facetiousness.) She is not always high-spirited. Her diary is also a commonplace book where she transcribes passages from authors whose wisdom inspires her – the popular left-wing novelist Ethel Mannin, for instance, who tells her that love is ‘the greatest human happiness’ or Walt Whitman, who advises that life is best seen as ‘a series of episodes’. Her youth – she was born in 1909 – is overshadowed by the memory of the First World War and its heroicised losses. But is life, she asks herself, really a matter of giving things up for a higher ideal or is it made up of ‘little things – washing up, typewriters and shoulder straps’? As a modern young woman with a modicum of education and a decent allowance, self-fulfilment, not self-sacrifice, becomes her mantra.

‘Pretty mediocre’ at architecture, Pratt transfers to a course in journalism, vowing to become a writer. She joins the Tomorrow Club, precursor of International Pen, but finds its literary milieu ‘alarmingly refined’ (Stephen Spender lectures on Poetic Drama, ‘loathing the suburbs’). She gives up the Daily Mail and starts reading the New Statesman. In 1936 her father dies unexpectedly. At 26 Jean has £300 a year, rent from the family home, and a portfolio of stocks and shares, almost the amount of unearned income – £500 – that Virginia Woolf thought a woman needed to write and have a room of her own. Pratt takes the top floor of a house in Hampstead, buys a car and a fur coat (‘a good dyed squirrel’) and starts a novel. She encounters Hampstead communists and works briefly for the Popular Front (‘What will the Conservative relatives say?’) but finds the comrades sour, ‘midgets with a grievance’. She keeps on falling in love but her romances come to nothing; her novel is rejected, as are her short stories and other novels that follow. Afraid that she is ‘an engaging rabbit who will not leave its burrow’, she turns to psychotherapy, embarking on two sessions a week for a month with Graham Howe in Harley Street. Howe proposed a course of enlightenment called ‘The Open Way’, integrating psychoanalysis with Eastern philosophy (he was to influence R.D. Laing). ‘Learn to make the best of what you have,’ he advises. ‘If you can’t have that, you have this. Learn to love this.’ With war looming, and friends panicking, Jean decides London is bad for her and for her writing. In 1939 she moves to an isolated cottage surrounded by acres of woodland deep in Buckinghamshire.

Simon Garfield first came across Pratt as one of the anonymous volunteers who kept a diary for Mass Observation, the organisation set up in 1937 which sought to capture the mood and mores of the British public; he included her in three earlier anthologies of contributors (Our Hidden Lives, We Are at War and Private Battles, where Pratt appears as ‘Maggie Joy Blunt’.) But Jean, he subsequently discovered, also kept what she called a ‘real diary’. A Notable Woman includes material from both though the differences between them are hard to judge: neither here, nor in the anthologies, are the extracts from Mass Observation complete; they occasionally overlap but the MO diary has been heavily truncated. Pratt was certainly ‘addicted’ to her diaries (her word) during the war, sometimes writing twice a day at some length. Self-pity or spleen, her shame at being lonely or periodically ‘manless’, the savage moods that come with PMT were kept for her private diary, but that too is dodgy evidence: ‘Blue Moods’ journal, she dubbed it at one point. Anything to do with sex was also not for official eyes. While her MO diary comments on the Blitz and Churchill’s broadcasts, Pratt’s other journal obsesses about ‘F.’, and whether to go to bed with him. As a German invasion threatens, she determines, aged 31, not to join the ‘DUVs (Dried Up Virgins)’. ‘Ought I,’ she asks herself, ‘to lose my chastity by this particularly unspectacular and neurotic little man with whom I am not in love (nor is he with me)?’

Taking a job in the publicity department of High Duty Alloys, an aluminium works making aircraft parts, she embarks on a series of ‘amorous adventures’, foggy though she is about biology – can she get pregnant without intercourse? And oh those Lotharios! ‘F.’ with his dirty nails and ‘hideous’ cap: ‘I never felt less romantic about anyone in my life’; dapper men with toothbrush moustaches like ‘H.L.’, a journalist and soldier, who has a Greek wife but misses Jean ‘damnably’; the ‘feckless’ Tommy Hughes – Irish, of course – a doctor and a communist; and ‘Mac’, the office philanderer, who has five girlfriends (three in Sheffield), a liaison that goes on for years. The ‘sex war’ is in full spate and Jean unbuttons: ‘I could have knifed him!’, she writes, when ‘Mac’ has the office junior in his sights. Women in respectable tweeds and twinsets are ‘bitches’, ‘bits’, ‘blouses’, ‘husband-chasers’; men are ‘mother-swathed’ egotists or – if they are any good in bed – deemed ‘Latin’ lovers. Sex may be enjoyable but it ‘oh, it MUST mean something!’ Promiscuity is morally dangerous; being left ‘on the shelf’ even worse. Marriage is still the ultimate goal: ‘I’d tackle it as a full-time job demanding all my intelligence and wit and charm. I’d have to submit myself to rigorous discipline, housekeeping, catering, cooking, grooming, clothes, health all kept at 100 per cent efficiency – but without any jarring or nagging!’ Faced with this dauntingly tall order, she concludes: ‘I’d better get on with my life as it is.’

With her Mass Observation entries kept to a minimum, Pratt’s official despatches are more like bulletins in this volume. They cover more familiar ground. Yet it was a novelty for her, as for the majority of the population, to feel entitled to enter history and speak for the nation. Wartime gives her the licence to think about what history is and how it ought to be written: ‘We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles and party politics.’ ‘Feel like Pepys,’ she writes, as she notes her diet. War intensifies her feeling of transience so she makes lists of commodities that ‘are now part of the fabric of the nation’, including Kruschen health salts, Pepsodent toothpaste, Senior’s fish and meat paste. The sense of the past, however, is evoked as much by what she sees as unremarkable, like her anxiety that cakes in wartime will definitely have less sugar or her constant mincing of food for her cats’ dinners. She dreads having to volunteer for anything, which is endearing. War planes are often overhead but she doesn’t have to experience an air-raid to dread death by bombing: her imagination is on full alert. Typically, she mocks her own Sarah Bernhardt tendencies when she keeps herself awake half the night after writing a last letter disposing of her worldly goods, so moved and fascinated is she by inventing the scenes that might take place in her home after her death.

Pratt’s small cottage on the edge of Burnham Beeches was hardly remote from civilisation but conditions were basic. Fending for herself – lighting fires, cooking, doing chores – was unusual for a woman of her class and generation. True, she has her ‘Mrs Mop’ to do ‘the rough’, whom she treats with the requisite condescension, and tradesmen to help out (in Home Counties parlance they are always diminutive, as in ‘a little plumber came today’); neighbours within reach, occasional visitors and lovers, but most of her time is spent learning to enjoy her own company. She is, she realises, ‘one of 3 million surplus women in Great Britain’ and increasingly an oddball. Gradually she breaks with some of the shibboleths of her tribe, reckoning that inherited income makes one ‘fat, flabby, feeble’ and that she likes other people far more than she does her relatives. The casual racism of her sister-in law writing from Trinidad saddens her and she fears her niece despises her ‘for not being a Tory’. She even sells her fur coat.

Pratt’s experiment in living alone becomes a lifetime. Yet she rarely sees this as an achievement. Drawing on her sessions with Graham Howe, she believes herself a casualty, ‘crippled psychologically – just as much as a child’s leg may be crushed and made useless by a careful car driver’. Her mother’s death, her respectable upbringing – who knows what the ‘accident’ was? The feeling of ‘being left by the roadside’ persists, but her journal may offer ‘a warning and an example’. Looking for models, she is particularly impressed by the ‘fine scientific clarity’ of W.N.P. Barbellion’s Journal of a Disappointed Man, ‘a nude study’, as he put it, of his sufferings, including an account of multiple sclerosis. At the very least, she concludes, she might in time be considered as some sort of ‘specimen’.

At the end Pratt’s journals filled 45 exercise books. Thirty-four were written before 1952. Thereafter, a single volume is enough for two or three years; some years are missing altogether. She begins to fall out of love with ‘prancing before mirrors in one’s mind’. Far from being therapeutic, the journals are ‘aspirins’, stopping her from feeling; reading old journals is suffocating; old patterns repeat and there is no progress. Instead she looks for affirmation and approval in half-serious visits to palmists and clairvoyants, graphologists, and has her ‘auragraph’ taken at the Marylebone Spiritualist Association. She goes to Quaker meetings, studies Buddhism and Theosophy – ‘I am a little put off Theosophy by Theosophists’ – and reads Jung. For months on end her journal becomes an anti-diary, with lengthy quotations and meditations drawn from Krishnamurti or Marcus Aurelius, aimed at renouncing the ego. When she finally publishes a book (under a pseudonym), a biography of David Garrick’s mistress, the actress Peg Woffington, she worries that success may change her. But ‘nothing shattering has happened. What I expected I do not know. Did I think I would wake up famous?’

As her capital dwindles, she is preoccupied with money-making schemes. She contemplates running a cattery but takes in paying guests instead, a 1950s version of Airbnb, feeding them on ‘cream cheese and grated sprout’ sandwiches. Finally, she plunges into village life and sets up a bookshop, despite its being partly ‘menial work’: ‘Sluggard, slut, craven and snob in me all shriek: “Oh you can’t! You couldn’t!”’ ‘Bringing culture’ to ‘those rich, starchy, atrophying Farnham Common women’ is hard work; one borrower flings Sylvia Townsend Warner’s stories back at her, crying ‘filth!’ and saying: ‘I hope the author is not a friend of yours?’ Jean runs the shop for 25 years, often at a loss, but without lowering herself to ‘sidelines’ of tobacco, sweets and stationery: ‘oh God, I will not descend to that level!’ In her sixties she is treated with Trimipramine for a lengthy depression – ‘Why have we lived? Have we lived?’ – though she self-medicates by getting ‘tight’ on Dubonnet. As parish clerk, props manager for the local am dram, and bookseller, she keeps busy, spasmodically chronicling change in the village and at home: the National Health Service (‘really not as bad as has been made out’); a boiler for baths, though its behaviour is ‘surly’; years spent fighting the M40; the blessings of formica and ‘knotty pine’; the shock of a new hairdressing ‘salon’: ‘Scores of little teenage girl assistants in pastel overalls attending two male operators. It was like a launderette … We are all being moulded to one pattern, made to look as the hairstylist and fashion designer dictates. We haven’t a chance to be individual.’

In old age there are lapses into reaction, Wembley no longer has any ‘good people’ like her parents, but she writes with grace and humour about her frailties, game to try a long distance ‘psychic operation’ on her cataracts and gin and tonic as a cure for cancer. In her last years her journal is a rare indulgence rather than a necessity: the romance with her ‘self’ has all but evaporated.

A Notable Woman is a much reduced version of Pratt’s journals, one million words winnowed down to a fifth of that. Garfield’s edit has no doubt excised much chaff but four volumes of an equivalent length is a lot to lose. Despite a few deft summaries of ellipses, it is impossible to know what and where he has cut. He has also tidied up Pratt’s garbled grammar, added punctuation, and tempered her use of exclamation marks. Frustratingly, there is no index. An editor, he rightly notes, cannot predict what will interest future readers. There was too much on cats, he says. There is plenty left. Jean got her first kitten (Cheeta) after her father’s death, kept eight cats at one point, well aware of the spinsterly cliché and that at least one friend found they ‘gave her the pip’. Cats were her longest lasting relationships and by her own account, her greatest loves. She reported on the fate of animals in wartime and was a regular at cat shows (including the annual meeting of the Red, Cream, Tortie, Blue-Cream and Brown Tabby society). In her bookshop cat books were her most successful line and after retirement she went on with a mail-order service. She was touched that the Cats and Catdom Annual of 1980 called her ‘the Fairy Godmother of the Cat Fancy’.

Listening to Jean’s voice across six decades creates a powerful intimacy and even, strangely, a feeling of responsibility, as if one were helplessly watching another human being drifting alone on a raft. The effect, perhaps, of a single volume spanning an entire life. Her longings to be elsewhere or to be someone else are utterly recognisable; her frustrations and disappointments poignant, and her dying with so much undone inevitable. It is also a tribute to her writing that she appears so vulnerable. Foolish, even self-deluded as she is at times, she seems brave in just keeping going. Ultimately nothing tells her who she is. Money, men, work, writing, cats, family, including a lengthy spell as a ‘guardian aunt’ – are only sufficient for the day thereof. Yet she cannot throw away her journals. The desire to be read and understood outlasts all else. For most of her life she wanted two things, ‘a wedding ring and a publisher’ but perhaps she was a better diarist for getting neither. These journals are a priceless find. I hope Cats Protection, the agency where they are now lodged, takes good care of them.