Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal in April 1925, when she was fifteen years old, and continued doing so for sixty years. She lived through much of the twentieth century, and experienced most of its principal events. She recorded the mundane happenings of her daily routine as well as disclosing the feelings, desires and experiences that occupied her mind. The editor has gone through the large number of exercise books that Jean bought from Woolworth’s and has presented the reading public with an all-encompassing picture of the diarist, though inevitably forced to be selective.
Her family (her parents and older brother) lived in a large house in Wembley, which at the time was still a semi-rural suburb of London. Her mother died when she was thirteen and her father remarried, to a woman whom Jean understandably found it difficult to like. Nevertheless, her relationship with her step-mother lasted throughout most of her life, long after her father’s death, and eventually developed into one of affection, much to this reader’s surprise.
Jean started studying architecture at London University but failed some exams and was told she would have to repeat the second year, whereupon she abandoned her studies and decided to study journalism. However, the friendships she made during her student days remained with her throughout her life. She endeavoured to forge a career for herself as a writer, and even managed eventually to get a book published. Her biography of the eighteenth-century actress, Peggy Wooffington, who was the mistress of George II, was published under a pseudonym in 1952, but she never managed to get anything else published.
She seems to have invested a great deal of her writing energies in her diary, and it was there that her character, loves and disapointments are revealed with disarming and sometimes heartbreaking honesty. There were too many failed love affairs, too many unreliable or simply dastardly men, leaving her pining for someone to love and be loved by. But it never happened. Time and again she was let down by the man she thought was ‘the one,’ and time and again she confides her stricken heartache to her diary.
I myself was living in London for some of the time she records in her diary, and it is interesting to read her accounts of listening to the same programmes on the radio, the broadcasts of plays or concerts, as well as to read her opinions of books that she read. She was an educated woman, went to the theatre and concerts, as well as to lectures and other cultural events, in which of course London abounds. In her early thirties she moved to a country cottage, which must have been in a very primitive state, as we learn that it had only one outside toilet, and no proper bathroom until she had been living there for some twenty years. But it had a large garden, was in a beautiful setting, enabling her to indulge in her passion for cats, of which she had many. Nonetheless, she bemoaned having to attend to many domestic chores even though she almost always had ‘a woman from the village’ to do the heavy work.
During the Second World War Jean worked in the office of an industrial fimr in Slough, riding there and back on her bike, as so many people did in those days, often having to make her way through the heavy fog which affected England at that time. Her work also brought her into contact with another of the philandering men who stole her heart and then broke it. She admits quite openly to her need for sex and her almost constant sense of hopelessness and physical frustration.
Eventually, as middle-age descends, there is a greater sense of contentment in the entries. Although having to contend with financial difficulties for most of her adult life, she never dreams of abandoning her cats. She tries several times to stop smoking, but fails every time until a sudden illness and consequent surgery completely stifles her desire for a cigarette (she had been smoking about 30 or 40 a day).
On the day the Nuremberg trials began in Germany she records a discussion at lunch at work about Jews, quoting the vaguely anti-Semitic comments her companions make, but making no judgment of her own (November 1945). One indication of her feeling on the subject may be inferred from the veritable tirade she writes in referring to the concentration camps in April 1945: “The horrors that have been revealed by the Allies are past belief…how any human being in a so-called civilized nation could treat other human beings like that… We just cannot understand it.”
She lived through the Second World War in which London and other cities were bombed, and expresses sympathy for all those forced into underground shelters. She even mentions the arrival of “Rudolf Hess (sic.) Nazi Party leader and Hitler’s deputy…It is the best piece of news we have been given for months.” (May 1941). She pronounces her disappointment at not having lost her virginity until she was well over thirty, but she eventually rejoices in being a virgin no longer. She also makes comments about current events, such as the unexpected death of King George and “the idea of that shy, charming young mother Princess Elizabeth as Queen now is too massive to take in properly (February 1952).” For the last twenty years of her life she ran a bookshop in the village, which caused her both happiness and financial difficulties.
All in all, the book constitutes a fascinating, well-written account of the daily life of a fairly average woman in the course of the events that shaped twentieth-century England.