Jean Pratt isn’t anybody famous. She isn’t a film star, a writer or blockbusters or even married to a wealthy man. Quite the opposite in fact – a spinster, she ran a bookshop near Beaconsfield and kept cats. She also kept a diary, pretty regularly, from 1928 until her death in the late 1970s. As a document of social history, it’s a pretty fascinating read, and fortunately for me, fairly easy and quick to get through.
Jean herself, however, is very much the product of a forgotten era. Born into privileged middle class (her father was a successful architect), she was privately educated and went to university to study architecture, but didn’t fulfil her promise. The deaths of her father and maternal uncle ensured that she had a sufficient independent income allowing Jean to drift from daydream to daydream. It took the realities of the Second World War to force her into the workplace – which only served to demonstrate how detached she was from the real world. She was bright, she was educated, but didn’t have a shred of common sense.
She calls these her “romantic journals” and she certainly seems to lurch from imagined love affair to imagined love affair. In a girl of fourteen it would all be faintly amusing – and probably the stuff of a thousand Mills & Boons – but given that Jean continues this line through her thirties and forties, it quickly becomes embarrassing. She doesn’t seem to realise that she increasingly resembles a desperate middle aged woman. This is the main reason the book had such mixed reviews – readers seemed to love the social history but tended to find Jean a silly, conceited old woman with no idea of how people lived outside her cloistered little bubble.
Unfortunately, for a significant proportion of the population at that time, life was very much like that – the middle class seemed completely unaware of how the working classes lived, and the upper classes were an echelon only to be fantasised and gossiped about. Royalty were another world entirely. But they were the ones who had the leisure to write the letters and journals that social historians rely on – so no wonder it’s all a bit skewed.
Am I pleased I’ve read this book? I am, actually. It’s been an easy, enjoyable read on the train home from work. Could it have been a bit shorter? Probably, but it is only one sixth of Jean’s total output so perhaps I ought to feel grateful it’s the length it is. Would I recommend it? Probably no, even though I already know who I’m going to pass it on to. I can’t see many people reaching the end of it without wanting to throttle our not so humble narrator, to be honest.