Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

 Enid Bagnold in 1918 (picture source)
Again and again I realize, "A nation in arms...." 
Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children. The outside world has faded since I have been in the hospital.

Their world is often near me--their mud and trenches, things they say when they come in wounded.
I read this book, first published in 1918, much earlier in the year, and found it very moving.  It relates the time spent by the author as a VAD during the First World War, nursing wounded soldiers. It has caused me problems to write about it, largely because there was so much that I wanted to share -- the simple, matter-of-fact way in which so much that is appalling is related, the bleakness of the situation of the men in hospital which is so often faced with courage and humour. However, Bagnold's opinion of the hospital administration was so critical that she was dismissed (she went on to be a volunteer driver in France):
In the bus yesterday I came down from London sitting beside a Sister from another ward, who held her hand to her ear and shifted in her seat. 
She told me she had earache, and I felt sorry for her. 
As she had earache we didn't talk, and I sat huddled in my corner and watched the names of the shops, thinking, as I was more or less forced to do by her movements, of her earache. 
What struck me was her own angry bewilderment before the fact of her pain. "But it hurts.... You've no idea how it hurts!" She was surprised. 
Many times a day she hears the words, "Sister, you're hurtin' me.... Couldn't you shift my heel? It's like a toothache," and similar sentences. I hear them in our ward all the time. One can't pass down the ward without some such request falling on one's ears. 
She is astonished at her earache; she is astonished at what pain can be; it is unexpected. She is ready to be angry with herself, with her pain, with her ear. It is monstrous, she thinks.... 
The pain of one creature cannot continue to have a meaning for another. It is almost impossible to nurse a man well whose pain you do not imagine. A deadlock!
The Mess went vilely to-night. Sister adds up on her fingers, and that's fatal, so all the numbers were out, and the chef sent in forty-five meats instead of fifty-one. I blushed with horror and responsibility, standing there watching six hungry men pretending to be philosophers.
There is a sense, though, that Bagnold is too tired to be angry much of the time, and there may have been other motives, besides, for her dismissal -- one patient became too fond of her, and it is obvious that she was not entirely trusted to behave "appropriately". But she had been a racy, Bohemian young woman (she describes in her autobiography how she lost her virginity to the very scurrilous Frank Harris: '"Sex," said Frank Harris, "is the gateway to life." So I went through the gateway in an upper room in the Cafe Royal.') -- she may have been an inconvenience too far.

The book has a number of associations which please me: the author lived at North End House in Rottingdean, which had been the home of Angela Thirkell's grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones, and which AT writes about so wonderfully in her memoir Three Houses. Bagnold herself wrote a play inspired by the garden at North End House, The Chalk Garden, which supplied one of the pieces I learnt for my audition for drama school, and which I love. (I am less inspired by the knowledge that she wrote National Velvet, and even less so by the discovery, while checking on my information for this post, that her great granddaughter is Samantha Cameron.) The Chalk Garden is a very mannered piece or writing, reminiscent of the style of Ivy Compton-Burnett or the plays of T.S. Eliot where well-bred people bemoan the servant situation and agonise over the kind of minutiae that ordinary people don't have time to waste on, but is nonetheless about three tremendously strong women.

Diary Without Dates is a fairly short work and, given its subject matter, often surprisingly lyrical, which makes it all the more poignant because one can identify with the writer so readily. Bagnold expresses how we would expect to feel in such circumstances and demonstrates the strange mixture of detachment and empathy which can result from working in extreme circumstances. She followed the Diary with a novelised version (I think) of her experiences as a driver, which should also be interesting to read.


  1. I'd never heard of this and it sounds interesting: thanks! What's wrong with National Velvet? ISTR enjoying it.

    1. Barbara, nothing really...I didn't like the film, and I think I find the book rather disappointing.

  2. Ick! To Frank Harris? But he was so icky and tell-all-y. Ick. Ick.

  3. The novel is The Happy Foreigner. It was republished as a VMC. I have it on the tbr shelves but haven't read it yet. I enjoyed DWD when I read it years ago.

    1. Lyn, thanks, I didn't know it was a VMC. One to look for.