Jean Lucey Pratt was born in October 1909 and began writing her journal in 1925, filling up 45 exercise books until her death in 1986. Her diaries have been edited by Simon Garfield in the collection ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’. As a young woman, she lived with her widowed father in Wembley before going on to study architecture and pursuing a career in journalism in London. She moved to a cottage near Slough in 1939, taking a job in the publicity department at a metals company during the Second World War and later ran her own bookshop. However, it was her ongoing search for a husband which preoccupied her the most throughout much of her adult life.
As with any diary, both real and fictional, a lot of extraordinary things happened to Jean alongside the ordinary events of her life. The sixty year period covered in her diaries saw a huge amount of social change in Britain and a lifetime of her personal challenges and triumphs. The most poignant passages are those where Jean makes predictions about the future – sometimes they are eerily prescient while on other occasions they are very far off the mark. As well as her personal diary, Jean kept a separate diary for the Mass Observation social research project for many years and it was through these archives that Garfield came to discover her other journals, kept in the attic of her niece Babs after her death.
The majority of the entries here concentrate on the 38 exercise books from the 1920s up to the end of the 1950s. Extremely self-conscious of her shyness and loneliness throughout much of her life particularly where men are involved, Jean oscillates between self-pity and determination often on the same page. Many of the entries can be contradictory and I suspect Jean may have been prone to exaggeration on some occasions. Consequently, she does not always come across as a particularly likeable person, but her diary was clearly an important outlet for her most private feelings. From 1959 onwards, she wrote much more sporadically and her entries in the later years are mostly concerned with running a bookshop in Buckinghamshire, financial worries, health issues, looking after several cats and attempts to give up smoking.
The length of ‘A Notable Woman’ – over 700 pages in print – may appear quite daunting but reading it was never a chore. This is partly because the entries are spread over the course of several decades which makes it feel relatively fast-paced but mostly because Jean is such an engaging diarist. She inevitably changes over time, eventually becoming less obsessed with feelings of self-doubt and more content with her independence as a single woman. However, her personality always shines through and much of what she writes, particularly on the subject of loneliness, will resonate strongly with readers today. ‘A Notable Woman’ is therefore equally valuable as a document of 20th century social history as well as a timeless memoir of the trials and tribulations of an ordinary woman’s life.
Many thanks to Canongate Books for sending me a review copy of ‘A Notable Woman’ via NetGalley.