I had had my eye on Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary for quite some time, and borrowed a gloriously musty second edition copy from my local library. First published in 1985, at the urging of Wyndham’s daughter, these diaries, which span the first two years of the Second World War, begin in August 1939. At this point, she is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the capital, but it closes down just as war is declared. Along with its sequel, Love Is Blue, Love Lessons recounts Wyndham’s life during wartime.
At the outset of war, sixteen-year-old Wyndham lives with her mother and ‘her religious companion, the enigmatic Sid’. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her father is a bristling, sometimes absent figure, in her life. Wyndham is described in the blurb as a ‘teenage Catholic virgin… [who] spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive.’ One critic rather memorably called its young author ‘a latterday Pepys in camiknickers’.
Wyndham is open in that she falls for people incredibly quickly. When she visits her local first-aid post for the war effort, she makes a friend, and comments on the 4th of September 1939: ‘At the moment, Laura and I are enjoying a gentle lesbianism of the mind, but I’m afraid it won’t last and soon I shall be in love with her properly.’ There are similar situations with various men, some of whom treat her very badly; many of them seem intent only upon taking her virginity.
Wyndham can be quite fickle, in the tradition of adolescents; she shifts admiration and adoration from one individual to another, and is often momentarily heartbroken between. She does impart wise comments upon her condition and position at times, though, and seems very aware of her own self. In April 1940, she writes: ‘What an extraordinary thing this love is that comes and goes, making a completely different person of you while it lasts… You have to be terribly careful when you are young.’
Nothing about this journal is typical, particularly given the time in which it was written, and I feel as though this account would probably shock a lot of her contemporaries in its frankness. From the very first, Love Lessons is wonderfully evocative, rather amusing, and quite risqué. In the first entry, for instance, Wyndham remarks: ‘Granny is a bit of a bore, always chasing me to wash my hands and wear a dress – but luckily she’s in bed a lot of the time, wearing a chin-strap and a little circle of tin pressed into the middle of her forehead to keep the wrinkles at bay – it’s hard work being an ageing beauty.’ She has a lot of affection for her Aunt Bunch, of whom she comments: ‘Mummy says she takes drugs and goes around with Negroes, but I don’t care.’
I found Wyndham’s entries immediately compelling, and her tone refreshing and quite modern. I was not expecting the explicit sexual content which crops up here from time to time, but it feels authentic to show just what a modern woman Wyndham was, and the shifting world in which she became an adult. She offers comments on everyone, and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so frank from this period, and it certainly opened my eyes a little. As a teenager, she ‘strayed into London’s Bohemian set’, meeting rather eccentric characters at every turn. One of her friends from drama school has a ‘sugar daddy’, and becomes ‘the first of my friends to go over the edge’ by losing her virginity. Another friend, Prudey, ‘married a Greek don who seduced her in every field in Cambridge. He used to make noises like a wolf and got very enraged if she wouldn’t bleat. When she was unfaithful to him he was so amazed he had her put into a lunatic asylum, but she ran away to Greece and got herself three lovers.’
She and her friends discuss taboo subjects with regularity, and she seems to recount each of these episodes. In May 1940, she writes, for instance, of a married male acquaintance, Leonard: ‘I think he would have kissed me, but I gracefully freed myself and ran down the steps, because it’s rather embarrassing to kiss a man smaller than yourself standing up. I think I’m becoming the most awful bitch.’
Of the war, which is of course all around her, Wyndham writes of her confusion in May 1940: ‘I don’t seem to be able to react or to feel anything. I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t think I’m real or that this life is real. Before this last winter everything seemed real, but since then I seem to have been dreaming.’ When the air raids in London become too much, her mother has her ‘evacuated’ to the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, to stay with her aunt. Although Wyndham is only here for a couple of weeks in the end, when she is first sent away, she recounts her discontent: ‘This morning was zero hour – the place, the country, seemed unbearably remote, cut off from the warm stream of life.’
I had only read the first two weeks of entries in this book before requesting Love is Blue from the library. Throughout Love Lessons, Wyndham gives important commentary about being a young woman in the context of wartime London, whilst being really very funny about it. There are some serious moments here, of course, but her sense of humour really shines through. Wyndham is warm and witty, charming and candid, and readers are sure to have so much fun with her highly readable accounts of wartime life.