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A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt (ed Simon Garfield)

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Canongate, 2015 (pb 2016)

This diary of an ostensibly unremarkable woman is the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year. Prolific writer and editor Simon Garfield came across Jean Lucey Pratt whilst conducting research on the Mass Observation project in the early 2000s. Jean had contributed to the project from its inception in the late 1930s – but she had also kept her own diary, totalling 1 million words, over the course of sixty years: from 1925, aged fifteen, to 1986, when she died of cancer aged seventy-six. Finding himself entranced by her story and after consultation with her niece, Garfield undertook to edit the diaries. The result is a masterpiece, coming in at 700 pages and missing nothing of the flavour of Jean’s life, described aptly as “Virginia Woolf meets Caitlin Moran.”

The daughter of an erudite north London architect, Jean grows up in comfortable middle-class suburban Wembley, going away to school before studying architecture at UCL, with the intention of joining her father in his practice. At UCL she makes life-long friends, most of whom go into the arts – actors, journalists and producers – and becomes interested in left-leaning politics. She and her female friends feel strikingly ahead of their time, leading lives very similar to those of young people working in the arts and media in London today.

Jean’s interest in architecture wanes and she switches to journalism, but fails to have much success in this field. During the war, she rents a cottage in Burnham Beeches - and ends up living there for the rest of her life. She has a modest private income, as well as the rent from her family home in Wembley which she and her brother let out after their parents’ death, and her two stated aims in life are to get married and become a published author: There are two things I feel I should possess as I possess hands and feet - a wedding ring and a publisher.”

Some of the many and illustrious reviewers who have provided quotes for the book have characterised this life-long single woman as plain, slightly hopeless and just wanting to be loved, but my reading is different. I’ll take each of her stated goals in turn.

To be fair, Jean is part of the generation whose men were killed in large numbers in the war, so she is already disadvantaged as regards her first goal. I wonder, however, how much she really did want to get married, as opposed to feeling social pressure to do so - even if she didn't admit this to herself.

Of course, everybody wishes for company at times, and I think we can all identify with Jean’s comment “I hate the feeling of restriction when people are here with me and the feeling of emptiness when they are gone”. But Jean is more self-sufficient than most, as she admits herself: “I want so badly now a lover interested in me positively, dynamically - but I guess all men are too selfish and much too egotistical. And I too bitter, independent and elusive.” She goes on: “Why have I this urge to be alone, this feeling of relief and pleasure when I am? … Always, the presence of another person or other people sets up resistance, barriers, obstacles.” And, on worrying that she might be pregnant (she isn’t): “I wish I had the courage to have an illegitimate child.” The idea doesn’t shock her – on the contrary, defying convention appeals as much as spending time by herself.

The other point to make is that Jean enjoys sex, and that she doesn't let not being married prevent her from looking for it. She isn't shy of recording her quest to lose her virginity, which (not for want of trying) she finally achieves at the age of 30 (“Now I can record it – the death of an Old Maid”). She subsequently begins sexual relationships with various unsuitable men, forming no emotional attachment to any of them, with the exception of a long-standing affair with a classic married my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me type – ie, the most unavailable of them all.

In short, I don’t see a wallflower here who is waiting for a man to come and solve all her problems. Jean is a sexually active, independent woman, slightly ahead of her time, who suffers from the need for company that all of us do on occasions. But, in her heart of hearts, does she really want to get married? Notably, she has no yearning for children (though she does own a number of cats). One is certainly left wondering whether a male version of Jean would have stated marriage as one of his life ambitions.

Turning to her second goal, Jean continuously has a manuscript on the go alongside her prolific diaries, and indeed she does manage to get one book published – a biography of the 18th century Irish actress Peg Woffington – but unfortunately it doesn’t take off and is remaindered pretty swiftly.

Jean suffers from “that deep sense of inferiority, of never being very good at anything”. The anxiety is real, but her diaries left me wondering if what she’s missing is not talent, but drive. She was never “bad” at architecture or journalism and has had all sorts of opportunities available to her, but she never sticks at anything. Perhaps what she's missing is that the “talented” people whom she envies are not just talented: they’ve also put in the proverbial 10,000 hours.

Jean’s modest private income is partly to blame - “I should have worked for these cottages, not inherited capital which places them at my disposal” …… “with unearned incomes to carpet the way for us we cannot help but become dilettantes to a greater or lesser degree” – but this of course would not stop the true entrepreneur. Although not a big spender, Jean is pretty terrible with money. When she finally gets a business endeavour under way (she starts a bookshop in the nearby village), it’s all rather too much like hard work: “I miss my leisured days very much .... I will not let myself be submerged, if I can help it, in this repellent race for enough lolly to keep oneself alive.” The absolute classic is when a wealthy local wants to invest in her (very much struggling) business and expand it into a larger premises, but a condition is that she must diversify into newspapers and magazines. Jean turns down the investment flat because she doesn’t want to get up at 5.30am every day to deal with the morning papers.

Along these lines, something which stood out was how much Jean enjoyed the war, with its clear rules, and suspension from real life. Afterwards, when yet again trying to decide what she should do with her life, she concludes: “in this mood I’d welcome another war. Then the decision would be taken for me.” It’s worth considering whether there is similar feeling in some quarters regarding the current pandemic.

In summary, what Jean really values is taking life as it comes, day to day, and this is precisely what is so wonderful about her: “I believe in neither love nor in happiness, but only in living. If they are real, they will come as the natural consequences of living” and on advising her young niece: “I should have said to her that it is not what one does, but what one is in the process of becoming that matters. Being is so much more important than doing...”.

It’s Jean’s observations about herself and the world, and her intellectual curiosity combined with a quiet sense of fun (she doesn’t mind the odd glass of sherry when she’s cooking or reading) which gives her such vitality, and led to my feeling of her being a real-life friend. Far from being a lost cause, she was a person of great depth, ideas and fun who I would dearly like to have spent time with. It's both rare and magical to feel like this about a character in a book, and leads to a great sense of loss on finishing.

As well as a personal journey, A Notable Woman is fascinating as a chronicle of everyday life in the mid-twentieth century. Early on, in 1934, Jean talks about “the twentieth century blues” to describe the sense of discomfort which comes with rapid change. The war is the most obvious catalyst, providing both camaraderie and opportunity for women to work, and there are some prescient details which resonate today, such as fake news, both German (otherwise known as propaganda) and pre-Twitter local gossip, which required “sensible people” (otherwise known as fact-checkers) to be employed to stop rumours in case of a breakdown in communications. In our age of social media, which we believe to be unique, this is worth bearing in mind.

It’s also instructive to read that, far from questioning the advisability of the war, the BBC were at that time generally behind the government on everything – so much so that allowing a dissenting voice in the guise of JB Priestly garnered a number of complaints. They did start to sway however, prompting one of my favourite quotes from the book: “I was suddenly struck by the thought of how extraordinary it was that the BBC should allow Labour propaganda such prominence.” Perhaps this was the turning point.

Another favourite is Jean’s comment about women not going back to pre-war ways: “but we do not know yet what being a woman means.” She doesn’t know how she feels about this (see quote above about war as a pretext to avoid decisions), and there’s the sense that she wasn’t the only one who felt this way: the war, with its rules and sense of pulling together, provided a comfort blanket for some in a way that I hadn’t quite appreciated, and there are widespread mixed feelings at the end of it.

After the war, technological change is rapid, catalogued by Jean’s acquisition of household conveniences, one by one, including her first car. A life-long Home Service / Radio 4 devotee (it turns out that listening to the Archers whilst cooking supper really is timeless), Jean discovers LBC as long ago as 1974: “astonishing phenomenon of the times, these phone call-ins.” And in 1986, we find her catalogue shopping at 3am when she can’t sleep.

Jean starts her bookshop after the war and, after a very shaky start, runs it for 25 years. But her personal development slows down, as it does for all of us with age, and she passes away from cancer at the age of 76.

It's wonderful that so many can now get to know this unremarkable yet remarkable woman posthumously. In the meantime, I feel the great loss of a friend.

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