Like many wartime accounts of the 20th century, the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt conjure the fear, uncertainty and gusto of the early decades. Spanning over sixty-one years, Jean’s writing is infused with the regret and melancholy of a woman motivated by desire and racked by absence.
We meet our heroine on 18th April 1925, the first entry of many more to follow. From the outset, it is clear that Jean possesses a biting wit, kind sensitivity and sharp eye for observing the quiet, yet fascinating details of everyday life. Sentiments of loss cast their shadow in the years of adolescence, with Jean’s mother – a concert pianist – dying when the diarist was thirteen, and her brother – an expatriate – leaving the young Jean to live with her doting father and irritating step-mother. Concerning herself foremost with the dramas of her local tennis club and social dances, as well as her passion for amateur theatre, a sense of romantic longing pervades even her earliest documentations of teenage life.
As the years pass by, Jean’s forays into architecture and journalism dwindle into insignificance in comparison to her quest for a husband. Whilst at times endearing, the loneliness of the adult years coupled with the threat of foreign invasion is frequently wistful, and at times, desperately sad. After all, Jean was one of the three million women left without love owing to the great male casualties of the second world war. However, the strength and survival instincts of our narrator sees her move from the dangers of London to the haven of Burnham Beeches, providing a turning point in the development of Jean’s story.
Despite the depth of historical context, A Notable Woman is primarily a character driven novel, imbued with individuality and poignancy. A born iconoclast, Jean’s resolute voice serves her in posterity as not only bearing witness to the last century’s most defining moments, but also embodying the deepest fears of women, which have transcended the decades since. Worries of becoming suburban fuel our diarist’s avoidance of the parochialism of her elders, suggesting that perhaps Jean simply wasn’t destined for the normal life for which she so wished.
Although the dark cloud of normalcy could have stayed with her after death, Simon Garfield’s grand feat of compiling such a vast tome of diary entries – not even accounting for one sixth of her total writings – brilliantly indicates that even in our hours of loneliness, we are capable of creating great work. Regardless of heartache and fruitless romantic efforts, Jean’s journals are a testament to the power of self-determination and reflection that, although not instantly gratifying, are amongst the most valuable of our qualities.