Flitting desultorily looking for an interesting book to pick up at the second edition of “buy books by the kilo” sale, I chanced upon Margaret Forster’s “Diary of an Ordinary Woman” just as I was about to give up hope of getting anything worthwhile. A good six months later, forced to stay in bed for what seemed like an unbelievably long 72 hours, wiped out of action by a virus, having already devoured a lighter read from the second heist, I pulled the book from my bookshelf. I read through more than half the book on the first night itself and had to force myself to put it aside and sleep.
Margaret Forster, best known for Elizabeth Barret Browning : a biography and Daphne du Maurier : The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, presents us a novel in the guise of an edited diary of an ordinary woman, whose life spans the entire twentieth century. Born in 1901, Millicent King starts writing a personal diary on 26 November 1914, when she is just 13 years, recording the dramas of her life till the age of 94.
Starting on the eve of the first World War, the diary entries reveal the thoughts of an intelligent and extremely self-willed adolescent girl, her first crush, her preoccupations and her complaints against life, as she is forced to start dealing with the horrible realities of life. The family, touched by war several times during the narrative goes through a period of financial crisis, but survives to see some good times, as does Millicent who grows into a smart, independent career woman in the 1920s and 1930s. As a young adult Millicent’s professional experiences range from teaching in a school to being a governess for young girls, of which she befriends the latter for life. As she strikes out more and more on her own, refusing to “settle down” like society expected her, seeking adventure in her love life, I sunk deeper into the narrative, marveling at how so many of the dilemmas she faced back then are those of so many women even today.
1 August 1930
“I really do not know if I am attracted to Percy in that way or not. I like him. We get on well….I would like to feel within me when Percy touches me what I feel for Frank – oh that is clumsy and badly put but I know what I mean. But I don’t like Frank as much as I like Percy and I am not nearly as comfortable with him.”
She refuses to marry both Frank and Percy, much to my surprise. Yearning for something meaningful, she finally settles down when she moves from her teaching career to social work and that’s where she meets Robert and falls in love. But Robert is a married man and she is forced to keep the relationship a secret. And then war is declared.
3 September 1939
“Oh God, it has happened, war declared and no hope any more, and yet I still cannot believe it. Why has it happened again, so soon after all that nightmare which went before? If only women were in charge, such a disaster would never have been allowed.”
Alone once Robert leaves to fight for England, Millicent joins the WVA (today the Royal Voluntary Service) and drives ambulances through the bombed streets of London. As the war rages on, Millicent loses most of her siblings, but the biggest blow comes when her sister Tilda and her husband are killed in a blitz bombing, forcing her into the role of a guardian and mother. Her life turned upside down, the diary’s tone changes…
Even though the book is a fictional account and Millicent never lived, the social and political background are meticulously accurate, from the accounts of the two wars to the discussions of women’s right to vote and the feminist movement. The narrative has everything one would expect from a personal diary – accounts of personal drama, with periods of apathy and petulance, signs of petty prejudices and selfish rants completing the diary writer’s personality.
Margaret Forster made me forget that this was but a novel, as I shed tears over Millicent’s losses and smiled at her victories. Though labeled “an ordinary woman” Millicent’s story is far from ordinary.
A must read.Recently published book reviews: