Book Review--A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt



I am fascinated by how people used to live. What did they eat? What were their clothes like? How did they feel and act? What were their working conditions? What were their homes like? Who were the people behind the history?

Recently I have been reading a book that I highly recommend. It provides wonderful insight into a life and a time that is gone. A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt is a satisfyingly thick book that fully submerged me in Jean Pratt's life. The book is edited by Simon Garfield who also edited volumes of diaries pulled from the Mass Observation archives. Jean Pratt featured in those under another name. Now, her diaries, over a million words in 45 exercise books, are compiled on their own. They are fascinating. Jean Pratt wrote with an eye to publication but was amazingly honest in recording what was happening in her life and her opinions on various matters. She writes such amazingly relatable things.

Never have time to do anything thorougly, to think or feel or dream. Half an hour at this, an hour at that, and interruptions every 20 minutes. Half a dozen pages of Shaw, two scenes from Shakespeare, an act from Dryden, half a tale of Maugham and a chapter of Virginia Woolf. A paragraph in The Times, the headline of the Herald, the photos of the Mail, the glimpse of an article in the Spectator, a rapid survey of the Bookman. No time to digest them or form one's own opinions or remember what one's read, too busy planning the hours to be spent on Boswell, Matthew Arnold and Tennyson, on Plato and Kant and John Macmurray, plans that never materialise because of a pair of stockings that have to be darned, nails that must be manicured. Then a telephone bell rings or a letter arrives. Little bits of scattered knowledge cling uselessly to one's memory. So much to do, so much worth doing, but in trying to do it all, one does nothing. 

I have never planned to read Plato or Kant but I do recognize the feeling of never having time, never getting to everything I want to do. Jean Pratt also writes about what diarists do. I like it because it sums up so nicely why I like to read diaries.

The diarist must do what other writers may not. His emotions are not recollected in tranquility; his ideas are not necessarily formed after long and studious reflection. Nor is his narration of events picked from imagination or memory. His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallise moments on the wing so that 'This,' future generations will say as they turn his glittering pages, 'was the present then. This was true.' 

My copy of the book is full of sticky notes. So many things she wrote resonated with me. Here is another one.

I have got Elizabeth Taylor's Wreath of Roses at Foyles. I remember vaguely the glowing reviews when it first came out, and Liz M. reading it, unable to put it down. And N.'s friend Ara telling me she had met Elizabeth Taylor:  'A little, quiet thing. She said she had written a book and I said, "How nice, what?" in a patronising way.' A year or so later I met Ara again with N., and she said I reminded her a little of Elizabeth Taylor, not in looks but in her quiet manner. It fills me with rage, a rage of which I am ashamed when I analyse it, that people like Ara (whom one thinks of as intelligent, cultured, sophisticated and therefore perceptive) should express astonishment when they find that quiet little things have depth.

 Here is one final quote. I suppose I can't include everything I have marked or this post would be a ridiculous length.

Perhaps the real difficulty is this:  that I want to watch the play and act in it at the same time. I want to watch the evolving of my own drama. 

Jean Pratt wrote with all her flaws and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes she annoyed and frustrated me, especially in her love life, but she never bored me. She was real. She lived a life I haven't but, through her diaries, I have experienced it and gotten to know her. You should do the same.

8 comments

  1. "So much to do, so much worth doing, but in trying to do it all, one does nothing." That's a good description of how the disease of busy-ness eats away at our wholeness and peace of mind.

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    1. Yes, it is such a good description of everyday life. Some things never change.

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  2. I bought this book to read last year after reading excerpts from her diaries in Simon Garfield's compilations of Mass Observation Diaries. She was such a good writer.

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    1. That is why I bought it too. I thoroughly enjoyed the Mass Observation compilations and was thrilled to read more about her life.

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  3. Thanks for this, I'm definitely putting it on my list, it sounds like just my sort of book. I love social history, especially from that era.

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    1. Then this should be perfect for you. I hope you enjoy it. Do you have any other social history books you particularly enjoyed? I am always looking for recommendations.

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  4. Thank you for a really great review. This has been on my tbr for ages, and you have enticed me to pick it up at last.

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    1. Good. It is such an interesting book. Enjoy!

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