Archive for the ‘Diaries’ Category

The Seasons of RomeThere are places in the world that I have no particular longing to visit but which I love to read about.  Rome is one of those places.  For all the other cities and regions in Italy that I long to visit, Rome does not entice me.  Milan, yes.  Venice, absolutely.  Rome, not so much.  But I love reading about the city and so turned the pages of The Seasons of Rome by Paul Hofmann with delight.

Austrian by birth, Hofmann (who died in 2008) spent decades living and working in Rome.  By the time The Seasons of Rome was published in 1997, he had lived in the city for more than 30 years (including during the war) and the book reflects both his first-hand and his learned knowledge of the capital’s history.  In these short journal-style entries, he is able to examine a year in modern Rome and see in it the echoes of its classical heritage as well as the more recent past.

It is recognizably the work of a journalist.  Hofmann was chief of the New York Times bureau in Rome for many years and his writing is factual and understated.  He uses the first person but without gushing and emoting in the manner of many current columnists.  Essentially, he reports.

I was fascinated by the city’s never-ending appetite for papal gossip.  Neighbours gossip about the pope’s health constantly, with everyone seemingly having some connection, however tenuous, inside the papal state to provide private info.  In turn, the gossips then gossip about their sources.  One of Hofmann’s neighbours gets her (unerringly correct and days ahead of official new sources) updates on Pope John Paul  II’s ailments through the sister of her daughter-in-law:

She is an unmarried woman in her thirties who ten years ago was hired as a computer operator by an administrative office in the pontifical state; meanwhile she appears to have risen to a quasi-executive position under the supervision of a high prelate. ..I remember her as a chubbily attractive, fashionably dressed blonde.  Later I was told she lives in a nice apartment in a church-owned building not far from the Vatican, has a Filipina maid, and in August every year spends her vacations in Switzerland.  Inevitably there is talk that she has a clerical friend. 

Innocent that I am, I was a little shocked by the idea of a “clerical friend”.  But then I am rather surprised by the mention of modern-day mistresses in any context.  If you trust what you read by Italian and Irish authors, a mistress seems to be an absolutely essential accessory even for modest businessmen in Catholic countries.

Hofmann loves Rome and made his home there for many years but is far from blind to its faults.  What was most fascinating for me were the pieces (and they are many) which discuss the difficulties of Roman life: the mail lady who comes maybe two or three times a week (as opposed to the promised 9 times); the disruptive and never-ending strikes by unions and students; the nepotism and cronyism among politicians; the pervasive influence of the mob; the racism experienced by Asian and African immigrants…the list goes on.  But he is not negative, just truthful.  There is never any doubt that Rome is a city he loves and through his eyes even I could see its appeal.


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The Harold Nicolson DiariesWe all have our childhood heroes.  Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars.  Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway.  In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians.  At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered.  I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.

For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted.  His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace.  He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.

To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.  The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together.  Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita.  For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret.  His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson.  The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration.  He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues.  He is easily flattered and easily insulted.  He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most.  At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:

I am thought trashy and a little mad.  I have been reckless and arrogant.  I have been silly.  I must recapture my reputation.  I must be cautious and more serious.  I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application.  I must avoid the superficial.

Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)

Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways.  He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:

We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President.  We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings.  They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)

And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:

The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington.  It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion.  My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position.  My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it.  My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy.  My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well.  But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)

But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing.  Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection.   The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren.  For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man.  I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what  delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer.  He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character.  Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read.  Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.

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Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

I spent the weekend reading books off my own shelves, bouncing back and forth between High Wages by Dorothy Whipple and The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1907-1964.  While High Wages was undoubtedly my most successful Whipple encounter to date, the diaries were what delighted me most.  I had enjoyed what I had read of Nicolson’s diaries and letters in the past (he shows up frequently in history books focused on wartime Britain) so was looking forward to this but enjoyed it even more than I had expected to.

I plan to write more about this wonderful book soon but for now I just wanted to share a snippet that I found charming and which reminded me of A.A. Milne’s wonderful “Margery” pieces from his Punch days.  It is a letter written by Harold Nicolson to his infant grandchild, Juliet Nicolson, shortly after her christening (July 31, 1954):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

Wouldn’t you love to have a grandfather who could write such letters?  The importance of and thankfulness for a close-knit family is something Nicolson mentions throughout his life, whether he is thinking about his relationship with his parents, with his wife (Vita Sackville-West), or with his two sons and, eventually, their children.  It was so nice to read an interview with Juliet Nicolson and hear how fondly she remembers him.

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I read In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim in the place where it is set: the mountains of Switzerland.  I hadn’t realised at the time that it was set in Switzerland – I was reading it on my e-reader so there was no jacket blurb to remind me – but it was wonderful to begin the book on my first day in Wengen and discover the protagonist describing the very scene that had greeted me on my arrival:

I was prepared to arrive here in one of the mountain mists that settle down on one sometimes for days, – vast, wet stretches of grey stuff like some cold, sodden blanket, muffling one away from the mountains opposite, and the valley, and the sun.

It was quite reassuring to know that the weather hasn’t changed that much over the years, between the summer of 1919 when the book is set and the summer of 2012 when I was there.

The book takes the form of a fictional diary written by an Englishwoman returning to her holiday home in the Swiss mountains for the first time in five years, since the summer of 1914 when war was declared.  The years have not been good ones, for her or anyone else.  She has had a particularly difficult last year (we never learn the details) and is depressed and withdrawn, miserable with a “desperate darkness and distrust of life[…]in my soul.”  She has returned to Switzerland, to the home that used to be filled with friends and laughter and so much youthful optimism.  Now, almost all of those friends who used to join her there are dead and she is very, very alone:

Here I am once more, come back alone to the house that used to be so full of happy life that its little wooden sides nearly burst with the sound of it.  I never could have dreamed that I would come back to it alone.  Five years ago, how rich I was in love; now how poor, how stripped of all I had.  Well, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing matters.  I am too tired.  I want to be quiet now.  Till I’m not so tired.  If only I can be quiet…

Slowly, she begins to heal.  She begins to notice the beauty around her, to take joy in her letters and books, to feel interested in life again.  And then the tone of the book changes completely.  This first bit was quiet but lovely, full of the diarist’s humourous everyday observations and reflections on the rehabilitation of her soul.  But then she meets two widowed sisters, the very respectable Mrs Barnes and the very adorable Mrs Jewks.  They have been living in Switzerland together for some time, though they – especially Mrs Barnes – are still vocally patriotic Englishwomen.  Suffering from the heat lower down in the valley, our diarist takes pity on the middle-aged sisters and invites them to stay with her.  Though their presence makes life decidedly awkward – especially since Mrs Barnes appears terrified to share any personal details about their lives with their hostess and so is never relaxed in her presence – the company is good for our diarist and the mystery they present keeps her inquisitive mind busy.  As their visit lengthens, the diarist finally uncovers their quite innocent secret and the explanation for why they have remained in Switzerland for so long rather than returning to England.

With the introduction of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks, the story shifts from one of von Arnim’s thoughtfully introspective books towards one of her charming fairy tales.  Both women are so endearing: Mrs Barnes, though outwardly reserved, is incredibly devoted to her sister and would do anything for her, and Mrs Jewks is simply the sweetest, most loveable creature in existence, who likes nothing more than to please others.  They have had some difficult years – especially Mrs Barnes, who felt the shame of their self-imposed exile most keenly – but after they meet our diarist things began to change.  When the diarist’s terribly respectable uncle – for what could be more respectable than a dean of the Church of England? – arrives, a happy ending seems within grasp.  Uncle Rudolph, a widower, quite naturally falls in love with the entirely lovable Mrs Jewks, which would solve the sisters’ problems, and, as his niece observes, the acquisition of a sweet wife would be a welcome change from his lonely existence:

It must be a dreadful thing to be sixty and all alone. You look so grown up.  You look as though you must have so many resources, so few needs, and you are accepted as provided for, what with your career accomplished, and your houses and servants and friends and books and all the rest of it – all the empty, meaningless rest of it; for really, you are the most miserable of motherless cold babies, conscious that you are motherless, conscious that nobody soft and kind and adoring is ever again coming to croon over you and kiss you good-night and be there next morning to smile when you wake up.

It is a nice book but a rather odd mix.  I enjoyed the story of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks but I am more drawn towards the kind of writing von Arnim displayed at the beginning of the book, when the diarist may have come across other characters but only in passing: the focus was on her, on her thoughts and feelings, and no one could write those kinds of passages as well as von Arnim.  As I read more and more of her work, it is those introspective books where you really get to know the intelligent, outspoken and always humourous heroines I am most drawn to: Elizabeth and Her German Garden has long been my favourite, though now Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (to be reviewed soon) is challenging it for supremacy.  In the Mountains begins with the same kind of promise as those books but changes abruptly into something still nice, but not quite as wonderful.  It was the perfect book to read in Switzerland but that does not mean it was a perfect book.

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I cannot remember the last book that made me cry as much as Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle and I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Last month, Lisa posted a review of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle, a book I had never heard of before.   Like so many children, I grew up reading L’Engle’s children and young adult books but she was never one of my favourite authors.  I liked A Wrinkle in Time, was bizarrely attached to Many Waters, and still keep my copies of A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star on my bookshelf today but I never felt the urge as I did with other authors to find about more about L’Engle herself.  So, until I read Lisa’s review, I had no idea that she had written quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly about faith, but also a set of four memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals, named after her family’s home in Connecticut.

Two-Part Invention is the last of the four journals, published in 1988 but focused on the events of 1986, when L’Engle’s husband of forty years, the actor Hugh Franklin, was dying of bladder cancer.  Diagnosed in the spring and dead by the end of September, his illness was intense and very difficult to read about.  I always struggle to read about illness but this was especially tough, perhaps because the indignity of it felt so cruel, with one ailment piling on top of another and then another as his body weakened.  And, of course, it is made that much more painful since we are witness to L’Engle’s thoughts as she is forced to watch this happen to the man she adores.

The majority of the book is not about Franklin’s final illness but about his life with L’Engle: the subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Marriage”.  L’Engle takes us back to her childhood in New York City and, later, in Europe, where the family moved in hopes of finding a climate better suited to her father’s lungs, damaged during the First World War.  Later, there are her college years (now back in the States) and her early twenties in New York, where, after auditioning for Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster and Joseph Schildkraut, she found herself hired as an understudy for a Broadway play.  I loved reading about her years in the theatre, mostly because it is a world entirely foreign to me.  She was never going to be a great actress – nor did she aspire to be – but she was an excellent observer and her stories about the other actors and their experiences on the road fascinated me.  And it was in the theatre that she met Hugh and they began their courtship.

That background takes up only the first hundred pages or so and I loved it.  Then, moving on to the next section, I was in for a bit of a shock as L’Engle’s started talking about religion and its role in her life.  Since it had barely been mentioned at all until then, I wasn’t quite prepared but then I never am when religion makes an appearance in any book or conversation.  It has never been part of my life, nor have I ever been close to anyone even vaguely religious.  I find it fascinating to read books by intelligent, thoughtful believers, which L’Engle certainly was, but it can make for very strange reading.  For example, I am always momentarily taken-aback when I come across people asking others for prayers or when someone says they have considered a problem “prayerfully” (as their doctor did regarding Franklin’s treatment).  It is a lovely and tender sentiment but it is utterly foreign to me and it took some time to get used to the casual frequency with which prayer is mentioned.

But get used to it I did and, truly, I think this is one of the best perspectives on faith that I have ever read.  Her faith played a major part in L’Engle’s life and it was interesting for me to see what comforted her and also how her experiences made her reflect on her relationship to God and with her religion.  She is not pushy or preachy about her beliefs; this is simply her faith and it is what sustains her.  I really don’t think she could have cared less about trying to convince any non-believers among her readers (which I, as an emphatic non-believer, appreciated).  When she ponders questions of faith (as she does frequently), she does so for her benefit and understanding, not ours.  It makes for a deeply personal book, especially since these reflections and so closely tied to her feelings about her husband’s illness and decline.

Really though, the focus is not on faith or death but on love, specifically the love that sustained L’Engle and Franklin through forty years of marriage.  I grew up surrounded by wonderful examples of healthy, supportive long-term relationships and so the lessons L’Engle notes are ones I grew up hearing, especially “a long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship.  It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjured with other ways of love.”  That evolution wasn’t always easy but L’Engle recognizes that the difficult years played just as much of a role in cementing their marriage as the happy ones:

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static.  Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up.  There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs.  I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen.  The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.  I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over.  Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.

Throughout the book, L’Engle embraces all that life has to offer, both the joys and the pains.  I was struck by the warmth and love that filled her life, obviously in her marriage but also in the close bonds she maintained with her three children and grandchildren, and her many friends and godchildren.  She and Franklin seem to have had a gift for loving and accepting others and there was a real sense of tenderness in all their relationships, both the long term ones and even the short term ones with Franklin’s dedicated team of nurses and doctors.  I was left with a longing to belong to the Franklin/L’Engle circle of friends – it sounds like a wonderful group to be part of and their marriage, rock solid but always evolving, was at the heart of it.

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When I finished reading the last diary entry in Storm Signals by Charles Ritchie, I was reluctant to put the book down.  I have been a fan of Ritchie’s diaries since I was twelve years old and first discovered them on the shelf of my school library.  I always enjoy any time I spend reading his books and never tire of rereading them.  It is impossible not to grow attached to a diarist when you’ve followed him over the course of almost fifty years.  He is wonderfully familiar to me; I know him as a reckless, enthusiastic youth, a sophisticated, heartless bachelor about town, an eager new ambassador, and a middle-aged veteran who is granted the very best postings.  When I come to the end of the diaries, it is always difficult to say goodbye.

Since last autumn, I’ve reread all four volumes of Ritchie’s diaries in chronological order.  I started with An Appetite for Life, covering Ritchie’s late teens in Canada and England, moved on to The Siren Years, a record of Ritchie’s wartime experiences in London and easily one of my favourite books, and enjoyed Diplomatic Passport, chronicling Ritchie’s first years as a diplomatic representative (as opposed to staff member) in post-war Europe and America.  The final volume, Storm Signals, is a selection of Ritchie’s diaries between 1962 and 1971, during which time he served as Canadian ambassador to the United States before moving on to his final diplomatic posting, as Canadian High Commissioner in London.

As usual, the focus of the diaries is more personal than professional.  A reader looking for specific details about the business of the day would be disappointed.  Ritchie records his impressions and opinions without ever dwelling on anything that could be considered sensitive information.  For the general reader, this is more than enough detail.  We learn what he thought of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, of the political crises of the day, and of the tensions between the Canadian and American governments at the time that created a rather stressful working environment for Ritchie in Washington.  Both presidents kept their distance from Ritchie because of disagreements between the two nations about major issues like nuclear weapons, economic sanctions for communist nations, and the war in Vietnam.

These tensions did keep Ritchie busy during his US posting but he still had plenty of time to keep his diary, thankfully.  One of the delights of Storm Signals is that he takes this time to look back on his life and ponder the strange workings of fate.  Finally, the reader gets to learn a little of how Ritchie spent the undocumented decade between the end of An Appetite for Life and the start of The Siren Years.  He was briefly – and unsuccessfully – a schoolmaster and then in the early 1930s, with few other options available, applied for a fellowship at Harvard (where he had studied for a year after leaving Oxford) that would, as he says, ‘prove a turning point’:

There were two fellowships on offer: one to proceed to France to explore the significance of the word ‘sensibilité’ in eighteenth-century French literature, the other to advanced studies in the origins of the First World War.  I coveted the first and obtained the second.  It was to prove a turning point, for had I been delving into ‘sensibilité’ in the cafés of Montpellier I should not have been in Boston to take the examination for the Department of External Affairs and ergo I should not now, as an aging Ambassador, be sitting at my desk in Washington wasting the government’s time with this excursion into the past when I should be studying the statistics of Canadian lumber exports. (8 July 1963)

I would just like to say how enjoyable I think either subject would be, though I can easily understand how in 1931 he was more drawn to the idea of studying in Paris than in going back to Cambridge.

After Washington, the London posting was a dream.  Ritchie got to return to a city he loved, to live in a gorgeous house, and to be near many of his oldest and closest friends.  It was an undemanding, pleasurable appointment and Ritchie welcomed it:

I looked forward to it in a spirit best expressed by my friend Douglas LePan, who wrote, in congratulation, that my motto should be that of the Renaissance Pope – ‘God has given us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it.’

A large part of what makes Ritchie so irresistible to me is his tendency to spout rather romantic images.  He could be, I think, a rather reserved man, as befits a career diplomat, and certainly his early affairs were more about physical pleasure than any kind of spiritual fulfilment, though he did find that in his thirty-year long relationship with Elizabeth Bowen and in his happy marriage to wife Sylvia.  But his sentimentality does show up in his writing and I love when it does:

Voices and music from a next-door party sounding from behind the screen of heavy-leafed trees bordering the garden.  The music plucks at some lost feeling.  The women’s voices sound languorous and exciting.  It is true, no doubt, that the encounters between people at that party are as forced as at the party I have just left, that most are looking beyond each other’s left ear to sight someone more important to talk to.  The laughter in most cases does not contain in its volume one hundredth part of real laughter and is as tasteless as frozen ham, but perhaps it is worth coming to a garden setting under the glossy, unreal light of late evening if two people on the outskirts of the party remember it as the moment when they first met, and carry the memory that it was there that it all started.  (30 June 1962)

I also loved this image (and could certainly relate to his wish):

When I woke this morning and saw sun on the melting snow I closed my eyes, pulled the eiderdown over my head, and wished that I lived by myself in an isolated autumnal château in France with high walls round it, with books, a fire in the library, the smell of leaf mould in the garden outside.  (22 December 1962)

And, of course, there are Ritchie’s credentials as a reader.  He is always reading, frequently something I have never heard of.  His notes on reading remind me of Alberto Manguel, not because they read the same books (though there is some overlap) but there is something about the way both men approach reading and the way they both write about it that seems similar.  How could I not be drawn to someone who says “I can’t go on reading Vanity Fair as I am bogged down among Amelia’s tender tears and rhapsodies and I will not skip to get back to Becky Sharp”?  Or who finds Shakespeare’s plays so stirring that they hinder his recovery from illness: “I spent the afternoon recovering in bed.  Read Antony and Cleopatra and became so moved and inflamed by it that I could not get to sleep at night.”  Ritchie reacts to books like the best kind of reader.

Though Ritchie’s relationship with Elizabeth Bowen was intense and long-lived, it is rather nice to read about his appreciation of his wife Sylvia in these entries.  Though, it must be noted, he edited these diaries for publication himself and they are highly censored, holding back the most personal and potentially hurtful details about his affairs.  Still, both his casual and more thoughtful comments about how much he loves Sylvia are very welcome.  He seems to be almost surprised at his real affection for her and at how highly he values her company and misses her during her absences.  Theirs was a pragmatic marriage but, at least from his viewpoint, a very successful one – quite surprising given Ritchie’s heartless promiscuity in his youth.

As I finished reading, knowing that I had come to the end of Ritchie’s elegant and entertaining diaries once more, I felt the same way as I always do when I finish this cycle: thankful for Ritchie’s gifts as a diarist but frustrated that he did not publish more.

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Can I ever resist a volume of wartime diaries?  No, not really, which is why I picked up Mrs Milburn’s Diaries: An Englishwoman’s Day-to-Day Reflections, 1939-1945 by Clara Milburn, edited by Peter Donnelly.  I had come across it in history book a year or two ago and since then have seen other bloggers reference it, always enthusiastically.  Because of that, I really did not expect to be so underwhelmed by this book.  And yet I was.  I was dreadfully bored before I was even half done and have to admit to skimming the remainder.

Clara is dull.  There are moments where we glimpse what Clara’s day-to-day life was like – discussions of gardening, Women’s Institute meetings, dentist appointments, and her husband’s ailments – but there aren’t really enough to build up a strong idea of how this woman spends her days, who her friends are, what she reads…all the cosy, personal details that make diary-reading so delightful.  Mostly, she keeps very detailed records on the progress of the war, marking down the number of planes lost or ships sunk with the diligence of a war-mad adolescent boy.  Clara has an accountant-like dedication to personally meaningless details.  As a record of what the people were being told, I suppose this information is valuable, and it certainly does show how closely some people were following war reports, but it makes for very boring reading.  Clara’s editorial comments are basically limited to ‘Hurrah!’ when things go well or ‘death to the Germans!’ when things go poorly.

What does make this book special are Clara’s experiences as the mother of a prisoner of war.  For that reason alone, this book is well worth reading.   Alan Milburn, Clara’s only child, was captured at Dunkirk in June 1940 and his absence haunts her for the remainder of the war:

One’s mind seems numbed, and the last day or two I go on, keeping on the surface of things as it were, lest I go down and be drowned.  Every moment Alan is in my thoughts, every hour I send out my love to him – and wonder and wonder.  This queer unreal world, carrying on in some ways here just as before, with this gorgeous weather and summer heat heartening us, and yet most other things so sombre and heartbreaking.  (11 June 1940)

The Milburn household (Clara, husband Jack, and devoted servant Kate) delights every time one of Alan’s letters arrives and views all war news in terms of when it might mean Alan could come home.  They write him faithfully and keep in close contact with the families whose sons are in the same POW camp, sharing news among themselves any time someone receives a letter.  Mostly, they just miss him.  Every Christmas is marked with longing, every birthday spent wondering if he’ll be home before the next.  I found the details relating to Alan’s time as a POW fascinating, especially learning how he spent his time in the various camps and what sort of things his parents were able to send him through the Red Cross.  When Alan does return in May 1945, when the phone call comes to say he was back in England and would be with them soon, I found myself crying.  For Clara, the war was now truly over and she stopped the diary only a few days later; with Alan’s return the “bad years of war begin to fade a little” and “the house is one more a real home” (12 May 1945).

As affecting as I found Clara’s devotion to her son, she never really grew on me.  I did not feel antagonistic towards her (as I did with the excellent but seemingly rather mean diarist Nella Last) but I never came to respect her.  Clara does not seem particularly intelligent and I was annoyed by her fervent patriotism.  My lip curls whenever I come across sentimental tosh like ‘God bless Winnie!’  Clara, who never expresses a sentiment not already emblazoned on government propaganda, seems perfectly happy to follow the guidance of others without ever pausing to consider why she agrees with them.  If there had been some evidence of this ability to reason, I could almost have respected her.  But there wasn’t.  I know there is always going to be a large portion of the population who will be happy to be told what to do and think (as long as the person doing the telling is skilful and Churchill certainly was that) but it also follows that such mindless sheep make for dull diarists.

I know how fascinating ordinary lives can be in the hands of gifted diarist – but Clara Milburn did not particularly have that gift.  She was a nice woman with a very ordinary life and very ordinary thoughts and a very ordinary way of expressing them.  Still, if simply as a glimpse of how families handled the long, uncertain years while family members were in POW camps, this is worth a read.

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