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A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

Jean Pratt was 15 when she began her diaries.

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later. (Saturday 18th April 1925)

She did write it for years and years, sixty-one years, until 1986. And it is awfully amusing to read it later. The version by Simon Garfield is necessarily edited, yet is still over 700 pages. But she lived long. She did not always prosper.

History

Most history, as we know it, was written by men, and about men. When I was at school our teachers tried to break away from the rote learning of dates, events involving famous men. Their approach, to try to understand what had happened, influenced my decision to read history at university. There I came in to contact with the great EP Thomson (Making of the English Working Class) and came to see that what interested me was the ordinary, the everyday.

We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles, and party politics, but an unending story of events created by living people moved by emotions, ideals, passions …

We shall learn not that the Duke of Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and so saved Vienna from the Elector of Bavaria and the line of James II from being restored in England, but why this battle was fought. We shall ask questions back and back until we come to the motives that governed the actions of people. We shall find them – the people, crippled with jealousy and greed and fear; we shall ask why and go seeking further. (Monday 28th October 1940)

I am old enough that my childhood is now history, post war history. I am interested enough in history to want to read about those things that affected me, such as the post war years. Here is a great resource.

Jean Pratt

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). Her mother died just before the diaries begin, and her father just as the Second World War broke out. She grew up in Wembley, her father was an architect, and she had an older brother who soon went off to work abroad for the Cable and Wireless Company.

She was a woman of her time, ruefully reflecting, from time to time, that she was one of the 3 million ‘surplus women’ of her generation. She never married, although she dearly wished to. The phrase ‘surplus woman’ reflects the view of the time that a woman is only of value when married to a man. Jean argued against this position, but felt it emotionally. She also reflected on her requirement for a companionship in marriage, a man she could respect. She met few men like this.

The question of marriage. I cannot help now and then reflecting that there is much in what N. [a friend] preaches (and Joan, but with less virulence) – that marriage is not necessarily the only fulfilment for a woman. I have always found ordinary day-to-day living with someone else fearfully irksome. I enjoy my solitude and independence and take it now so much for granted that when I get these spams for ‘love’ and marriage I don’t take into account what it would be like to have to adjust myself to someone else day after day, however deeply in love I might be. I am a self centred selfish creature – it is so much easier, so much more comfortable and convenient to live alone.

And yet, and yet … No one has ever wanted (or said so at least) to live with me. That is what at forty makes me feel such a failure, that I have made such a poor show of my personal life. All my lovers slip away, as DB has done, without saying goodbye. Away they go, ghostly, unsatisfying, across the sea, to their death in a car, to study medicine, to Australia, to write plays, and that is the end. (Friday 21st October 1949)

As a young woman she took courses at London University to become and architect and then switched to journalism. She made many friends at this time, friends to whom she remained loyal until death. At the start of the war she had not yet made a career for herself, and rented a cottage in Burnham Beeches in Surrey, where she lived for the rest of her life.

To support herself during the war she took up work in High Duty Alloy Company, as well as volunteering with the Red Cross. After she tried to earn a living through writing, taking in paying guests in her cottage, and finally ran a small local bookshop, specialising in books about cats. Money problems dogged her throughout her life, although she was able to buy Wee Cottage eventually.

Burnham Beeches pond

The times

Jean Pratt lived through the most interesting of times. Society was changing, and she records her own beliefs, her explorations of new ideas, and reflects some of the contradictions and shifting attitudes of the time. Her attitude towards sex and marriage, for example, might have shocked her mother. She flirted with socialism and Fabianism before finding a roost in the Liberal Party. She sought psychoanalysis to help her with her dissatisfactions as early at 1939. She loved to have her fortune told, and believed in faith healing for a while.

The defining events of her lifetime were those of the Second World War. Just about to enter her 30s when it began, England had changed utterly by the time it ended. As early as 1934 she was trying to understand what it would mean. Remember she was an architectural student at the time.

War … war … the muttering goes on on all sides. War in the air. England’s lovely countryside devastated. No escape anywhere.

Yet supposing it happened. Bombs dropping, bombs bursting away the slums of London and Leeds, and the dirt and depression of all our big cities. Life will be lost of course, blood will flow in the streets, beauty will be desecrated. But afterwards – for it couldn’t last long this war in the air – if any of us have survived, if any of us can still pick up the torn threads of our lives and go on, what a magnificent chance for us to begin again. Given men of foresight and wisdom and sensitiveness, we have every opportunity of creating an age more golden than the Elizabethan. (Thursday 26th July 1934)

One of the charms of the diaries is that they lack hindsight. We know what happened, but as the war years dragged on those living through those times could not have known how long it would last, or what the effects would be on their lives.

It’s a long book, but is full of wit, humour, humanity and a questioning stance. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. 714pp

Related posts.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (November 2016). A Blitz memoir.

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Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf

The first line jolts the reader:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)

Surely that should be flowers?

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)

The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street – my choice for this third contribution to #Woolfalong. The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later.

Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out, then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. I think we can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.

252 VW SH Stories cover

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster to the glove shop in Bond Street.

The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa. She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop.

There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)

And so the story ends.

The appearances of Mrs Dalloway

We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.

‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)

After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman:

‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)

I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’.

In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story.

She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)

She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40)) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class, in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

Septimus is absent, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she buys her gloves:

Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)

The story grew, as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).

188 Mrs D cover

Through writing Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. (October 1923. 61)

And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:

I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) (August 1924. 65)

In my view Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.

Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.

In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.

So much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing.

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

More Mrs Dalloway

The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was a title Virginia Woolf once had for Mrs Dalloway.

There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)

252 The Hours cover

So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.

Clarissa works so well for writers. Perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?

Texts used

A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick. Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915. Penguin Modern Classic.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925. Penguin Modern Classic.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4th Estate. 226pp

Related posts

Previous posts for #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I have also written Mrs Dalloway is ageing

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.

209 To_the_Lighthouse

The Story of To the Lighthouse

The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.

Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.

The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.

Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.

Writing To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.

…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)

Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)

By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.

I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)

She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.

And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes

Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)

The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Reflections from the slow read

The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.

Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.

Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.

And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)

The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)

227 To Light cover

To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)

It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later

I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)

Other stuff

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,

I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)

My copy is falling to bits.

I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.

Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?

For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Related posts

Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks

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