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Journal ArticleDOI

Writing and Reading Diaries in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain

21 Mar 2018-Literature and history (SAGE PublicationsSage UK: London, England)-Vol. 27, Iss: 1, pp 47-61

AbstractUsing the diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt as a case study, the article assesses the impact of the availability of published diaries in mid-twentieth-century Britain on conventions in diary-writing practice. Consideration is also given to the effect of Pratt’s involvement in Mass-Observation on her perception of her diary, and to the wider influence of Mass-Observation on twentieth-century diary-writing, given that this project troubles the idea of the diary as an individualistic, private form of writing.

Topics: Reading (process) (52%)

Summary (1 min read)

Mass-Observation and the Diary

  • Even before her involvement in Mass-Observation, then, Pratt was aware of the diary as both a record of events and thoughts kept for private purposes and as a literary genre.
  • The juxtapositions created by this procedure illustrate what the authors might have already guessed: that, just as, in Sheridan's view, individual diary entries veer from the subjective to social reportage, so there is no clear-cut line between private and public diaries.
  • It is fair to say, though, that while historical events find their way into Pratt's personal diary, the more intimate details about her personal relationships, such as this pregnancy scare, are absent from the Mass-Observation diary.


  • On 4 May 1945, in her M-O diary, Pratt describes hearing the announcement that the war in Europe will officially end in the next day or so.
  • The atmosphere is charged with a release and potentiality.
  • The self-consciousness in this juxtaposition of world historical news and the mundane annoyance of a worn bed-sheet would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to convey in any other kind of life-writing.
  • Diaries, Autobiography and History', a keynote talk I gave at 'Writing Herself in the World', Université Paris Ouest, October 2016, also known as This was true".
  • Many thanks to Dr Corinne Bigot and the other members of FAAAM for inviting me to this event.

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Writing and Reading Diaries in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain
Keywords: Diaries; Jean Lucey Pratt; Mass-Observation; 1930s-1950s
Abstract: Using the diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt as a case-study, the article assesses the impact of
the availability of published diaries in mid-twentieth-century Britain on conventions in diary-
writing practice. Consideration is also given to the effect of Pratt’s involvement in Mass-
Observation on her perception of her diary, and to the wider influence of M-O on twentieth-
century diary-writing, given that this project troubles the idea of the diary as an individualistic,
private form of writing.
On Christmas Day 1934, twenty-four-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt, read back through her diary for
the year just ending, an activity that prompted some self-critical reflections:
The major difficulty with which a diarist must contend is this: that since he jots down the
day’s activities as they occur, he cannot work to any preconceived plan. He cannot collect his
facts first, as does the novelist, and from them make a unified and symmetrical pattern. But
that doesn’t mean he need make no pattern at all. Facts are showered upon him
indiscriminately day by day, and these he must sort and arrange into a kind of mosaic which
only a biographer may round off and frame. And he must have intuitive knowledge of the
values of those fragments which pile up around him hourly. He must know what to chose, and
having chosen, how to arrange them in an intelligent and interesting manner. […] Really, I
believe a good diarist is born, not made. And I’m not a good diarist. I always want to say too
Her sense of her own short-comings as a diarist did not deter Pratt from continuing to keep a diary
and she did so until her death in the mid-1980s. This is not the only moment at which she reflects
on what it means to write a diary, or what constitutes a successful diary, and, if the diary is
conceived of as a form which has as its goal the revelation of the self to the self, Pratt’s critique of
her own diary practice may seem strange. Pratt’s comments imply that the diary is not simply an

outpouring of personal thoughts but that it is a genre that can be executed with more or less
success. This challenges the convention that the diary is likely to have only one implied reader: its
author. Considering eighteenth-century diaries, Felicity Nussbaum notes that at this period, ‘the
most prolific diarists were individuals with secrets to tell’, and she characterises the diary as a
‘self-reflexive narrative.’
Nussbaum suggests that the association of the diary with secrecy
persists into the contemporary period: ‘Though the diary is not always strictly secret, it usually
affects secrecy, and it is often sold today with lock and key.’
Pratt’s estimation of her
effectiveness as a diarist indicates the extent to which, in the nineteenth and especially the early
twentieth century, the diary was increasingly a form that, though it might have been written for
private purposes, found a readership through publication. Discussing the fact that in their raw,
unedited state, other people’s diaries even one’s own diaries - can be quite boring to read,
Patricia Meyer Spacks suggests that this in fact contributes to the ‘fantasy of intimacy’ between
the author and the reader: ‘The special pleasure of conversing about “nothing” belongs primarily
to those close to one another, those who share our lives or live in close touch.
It is this quotidian
detail, and the illusion of intimacy it creates, that diaries can give us in a much more sustained
way than other kinds of autobiographical writing. The possibility of reading other people’s diaries
in published form evidently has an effect on the writing of diaries, as is borne out by intertextual
references in the published diaries to which Pratt herself refers. The present-day reader of Pratt’s
diaries can experience an ‘illusion of intimacy’ with Pratt while reading about her own sense of
her connection to other diarists.
The idea of the usually solitary activity of diary-writing forging a connection to a community
underpins the best-known twentieth-century British manifestation of the diary: the soliciting and
analysing of diary entries that formed part of the activities of Mass-Observation. Founded in 1937
by anthropologist Tom Harrisson and journalist Charles Madge with the stated aim of producing
an ‘anthropology of our own people’,
M-O sent investigators to look into aspects of daily life in
particular communities, as well as recruiting a panel of diarists who were invited to contribute
opinions on specific topics via ‘directives’, but who also described their personal experiences in

diary entries submitted monthly to the organisation. This type of prompted diary writing would
appear to move the diary definitively from the private to the public sphere, but as Dorothy
Sheridan, archivist of the M-O collection at the University of Sussex notes, the wartime entries in
particular show acontinual slippagebetween ‘what might be defined as “pure” subjective
writing on the one hand and social reportage on the other.’
Sheridan’s placing of ‘pure’ in
quotation marks points to the fact that, even in diaries that present themselves principally as an
exploration of the self, that subjectivity will always be embedded in a socio-historical context. As
Ella Ophir notes, citing Lynn Z. Bloom’s formulation, ‘ “public private” writing’ of a ‘largely
self-explanatory rather than cryptic’ kind, is ‘common to many diaries’, even those not explicitly
written with a view to publication.
This, like Sheridan’s observation, reminds us that the
relationship between the public and private aspects of diary writing constitutes a spectrum rather
than a binary divide, and these two aspects will necessarily be closely intertwined, even when the
diarist is writing in the knowledge that their observations may be made public (albeit, in the case
of M-O, anonymously). Pratt, who had kept a diary since she was a child, became a Mass-
Observer in January 1940. Indeed, it is because of her involvement in M-O that a selection from
her life-time’s worth of diaries was published in 2015.
As Simon Garfield, the editor of Pratt’s diaries, explains, during the years when she was
involved with the project, Pratt, in common with many other Mass-Observers, kept one diary to
send in every month and another to retain for herself. In the published text, Garfield identifies for
his reader which entries belong to the M-O diary, labelling these as the ‘War Diary’, and which do
not, though this is also sometimes clear from internal evidence. My concern here is not so much
with the contribution Pratt made to M-O, nor with the relationship between her M-O and non-M-
O diaries. Rather, in what follows, the published version of Pratt’s diary, especially the entries
kept between the 1930s and the 1950s, will be used to explore how, in the early and mid-twentieth
century, what might be termed a canon of published diaries came to be formed, and to map the
influence of this canon, and of contemporary discourse about diaries on an inveterate diarist such
as Pratt. Mass-Observation, as Margaretta Jolly suggests, ‘provides an interestingly particular

development of genre’, moving as it does between ‘collective terms of reference […] and the
private interrogation into one’s mortality that a private diary involves.’
But M-O can also be
situated as the product of an existing and vibrant culture of reading and writing diaries which was
already troubling the fragile boundary between the diary as private and as public discourse.
The majority of diaries published during the early and mid-twentieth century were the work
of diarists who were either well-known as authors or who had achieved renown in some other
walk of public life such as politics. Still in circulation, often in popular editions, were the works
of diarists from earlier periods whose fame among a twentieth-century general readership rested
largely on them having kept a diary: Pepys would be one example. Pratt’s life, in this context, was
‘ordinary’. She was the daughter of an architect. Her mother died when she was very young and
her father remarried when Pratt was a teenager. She initially intended to follow in her father’s
footsteps and went to the University of London to study architecture, but she also nursed
ambitions to be a writer. During the war she became an administrator for an aluminium company,
and in the late 1950s, after the disappointment of being unable to find a publisher for her novel,
she managed successfully to place her biography of the eighteenth-century actress, Peg
Woffington. During this period, after her war-work had ended she lived on a modest inherited
income, and her diaries often detail her concerns about her finances. She later opened a bookshop
in the village of Burnham Beeches in Berkshire, where she had lived alone since early in the war;
she also kept and bred pedigree cats. Like Nella Last, the Barrow-in-Furness housewife who was
a prolific contributor to M-O both during and after the Second World War, Pratt is a diarist whose
writings would have been unlikely to come to light had she not been involved in M-O, but, as I
will show, this does not mean that she did not have aspirations to be a published diarist, even
before the advent of M-O. As the damning self-assessment quoted above illustrates, even before
M-O gave her diary writing an explicitly socio-political purpose, her reading of published diaries
was already teaching her to be self-critical about her practice as a diarist.
The History of the Diary

In late November 1952, Pratt was reading James Boswell’s London Journal, and was prompted to
look through her ‘ “library”’ of published diaries ‘and see what others did on a last Sunday in
In 1662 Pepys woke on the morning of the 27
to find “the tops of the houses covered with
snow” […] Kilvert does not seem to have recorded many last Sundays in November […] On
Sunday November 28
1897, Arnold Bennett’s friend Webster told him a true ghost story. In
1914 Barbellion heard a Sir Henry Wood concert at the Albert Hall. Katherine Mansfield
seem only to date the first months of the year in her journals.
Pratt’s selection includes the work of authors who are known principally as diarists, and diaries
that can be seen as supplementing or illuminating other published works. Bennett and Mansfield
would fit into the latter category; Pratt also later read A Writer’s Diary (1953) a selection from
Virginia Woolf’s diaries edited after her death by Leonard Woolf, describing it as ‘enthralling’
and writing a review of it to submit to a competition.
Francis Kilvert’s diaries, published
between 1938 and 1940, record the author’s experiences as a clergyman in the Welsh borders
during the 1870s. Probably the least familiar to a contemporary reader, but a book which achieved
something approaching cult status in its day, is W. N. P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a
Disappointed Man (1919). Barbellion (the nom de plume of Bruce Frederick Cummings) was an
aspiring author with depressive and at times suicidal tendencies, who managed to secure a
research post at the British Museum. He married, but discovered soon after that his recurrent ill-
health was the consequence of multiple sclerosis. The journal, published shortly before its
author’s death, veers between egotism, self-pity and undeniable pathos. Pratt’s comparative
exercise, a sort of prototype for diary anthologies such as Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor’s The
Assassin’s Cloak (2008), which similarly juxtaposes entries for the same date in different years,
has the result of putting her own experiences, and her own record of her experiences, into
perspective: she spends her own late November evening cleaning up after one of her cats, which is
suffering from diarrhoea. Pratt is not unaware of the bathos here; surveying her library of diaries,
she notes that she also has a copy of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody

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