I absolutely adored Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough? (review here) when I read it back in 2017, and think that her biography of Daphne du Maurier is superb. It has been a surprisingly long time since I picked up another of her novels, but I selected the rather chunky Diary of an Ordinary Woman as my next Forster because it sounded splendid. It sounds, on the face of it, as though it has rather a lot of themes in common with Have the Men Had Enough?, and I was intrigued to compare the two.
Diary of an Ordinary Woman spans an entire century, from the birth of its protagonist in 1901, to her old age in 1995. It is presented as the ‘edited’ diary of Millicent King, who takes the decision to keep her journal just before the outbreak of the First World War. In it, she ‘vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles.’ Of Forster’s decision to include such a vast time period in her novel, The Guardian writes: ‘Not only is the background of social and political change meticulously accurate… but there is everything one would expect from a well-kept diary. This is fiction, yet it is true.’
The ‘diary’ begins with an introduction written by an overseer, an anonymous author who has been asked to read Millicent’s many diaries by her great-niece by marriage, and assess their literary worth. The author comments: ‘I pointed out that it is quite dangerous letting a writer loose in a field of very personal material – I might run amok and trample on sensitive areas.’ However, upon reading the earlier diaries, they note: ‘The writing was fluent and lively, and seemed driven by some sort of inner energy which, though the content was mundane enough, gave it a sense of drama… If she could write with such vigour at 13, how would she write at 23, 33, right up to 93?’
Millicent shows her diaries with some satisfaction: ‘Inside [a cupboard], there were three shelves packed with hardback exercise books, most of them red but some black. She stood back and surveyed them, telling me that whenever she looked at them like this, she felt her life must, against all the evidence, have amounted to something after all.’ The introduction of this anonymous author-cum-editor ends as follows: ‘… there was nothing ordinary about this woman. Indeed, I now wonder if there is any such thing as an ordinary life at all.’
To continue with this idea of Millicent’s diaries being edited, entries are sometimes interspersed with comments from the anonymous author, which give more background to the social climate, or which explain why several months – or sometimes years – have been omitted from the ‘edited diary’. From the beginning, one really gets a feel for Millicent’s quite prickly character. As a young lady, she certainly feels hard done by, particularly with regard to her position in the family: ‘I am most unfortunately placed in this family, coming after Matilda and before the twins and Baby. I am special to nobody, and that is the truth.’ Her humour, which is not always deliberate, comes through too in the earliest entries. When she stays in Westmorland for a family holiday in 1915, she comments: ‘There is no place or time to read and in any case I must be sparing with what I have to read because there is no hope of getting to a library. I have made Lorna Doone last for ages and I do not even like it.’
I found Diary of an Ordinary Woman immediately compelling. Forster has perfected an intelligent but accessible writing style, which seems to give us access to Millicent’s every thought, however dark. Due to the span of almost the entirety of the twentieth-century, Forster has allowed herself to engross one in the details, creating such depth for Millicent and the changing world in which she lives. There is little which is remarkable in Millicent’s life, but the very fact that such a huge chunk of it has been recorded by herself, is remarkable.
One is really given a feel for the huge shifts which occurred during the twentieth century, and the impacts which this could, and would, have upon one individual. Her life unfolds against the century; her childhood lived in the First World War, the role of fascism in Italy where she later works as a teacher, the Mass Observation Project which she takes part in, and the Korean War, amongst others. In many ways – having a career, deciding not to get married or have children, and even wearing trousers in the early 1930s – Millicent subverts what was expected of a well-bred woman.
The element which I found a little tiresome in this novel is the emphasis placed upon Millicent’s romantic conquests. Whilst mildly interesting at first, these soon begin to follow the same pattern, and the men whom she falls so wildly for become quite similar figures. This detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel. Had this part been more succinct, or less spoken about, I imagine that I may well have given Diary of an Ordinary Woman a five star rating.
Millicent King is a singular woman, but she is also presented as Everywoman here. Forster makes it clear that Millicent shares a lot of her concerns with women living within the twentieth-century. Of Forster’s protagonist, the Independent on Sunday stresses the ‘whole-hearted’ belief which we have in Millicent, and the element of heroism within her ‘that George Eliot would recognise.’ Whilst there were some later decisions in which I found myself questioning Millicent’s judgement, I could not help but warm to her. She feels realistic, particularly for all her foibles and complaints.
In Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Forster has created something quite remarkable. Whilst in some respects the novel does feel rather long, there is so much within it which both fascinated me, and sustained my interest. Evidently, to span an entire lifetime, there must be a lot of detail included, and the novel is certainly richer for it.