The author is well known but this is a different book because it is based upon the diaries of Millicent King who began her own journal on the eve of World War One and carried them on until near the end of her life in 1995. A relative, Joanne King, had contacted Forster in 1999 because of her husband’s aunt Millicent King who had kept a diary from age 13 to a recent 94th year when ill health prevented her continuing. Joanne had been able to read the vast quantity of Millicent’s journals and because they contained so much interesting views and observations felt they would be interesting. They also included some momentous reflections that what she experienced personally was now a story about history throughout the twentieth century. It is an amazing read.
Forster has edited the diaries and makes comments as sections come to an end. Therefore, she puts her slant on the parts we do not read and makes her own observations about Millicent too. They were perhaps sometimes a distraction and really didn’t add to the book as a whole but maybe explain the gaps in the timeline.
Sometimes I cried at the immense trauma and death that Millicent faced, particularly with losses in her family. It shows starkly what that generation had to endure and she as a single woman became heavily involved in WWII.
Her personal reflections bring the huge pieces of Britain’s history right into focus as we move from Millicent’s rather bohemian London abroad to Rome and how she was quite brave to often change the direction of her life at quick notice. However, she does appear a sad woman. Diaries can be maudlin and writers often prefer the darker depths of their minds and lives to the boring bright chirpiness of normality. Millicent had mixed views it seemed about all her family and other relations but she often found great comfort from those who surprised her when she was in need.
Financially independent Millicent didn’t have to work as such, although she wanted to try and carve out a career for herself. She seems never to have achieved what she felt was her potential but looking back I think she can be very proud of her input across the years and the generations with which she came into contact with. I often cried at some terrible events and her many years of sadness but also smiled at her turn of phrase and ability to try and make something of her situation. From the fall out of the Great War, her maturing into a young woman, the blitz and the role of women, through the Open University, to Greenham Common and the lost loves in distant lands this is a sweeping read, but highly personal and often intense. You forget this is a real person sometimes as so much happens. If only Millicent realised what an extraordinary woman she really was.
A fantastic personal read. I don’t know why it took me so long to find it. Obviously Forster’s own work is different (but I might check her out) but for now I feel this diary should be read by far more people. As it is in chronological order book clubs could perhaps review different decades or approach as a whole. Either way I think it will be greatly enjoyed and provide hours of discussion across all ages. Even school children could gain from its pages and reflect on their lives today compared to what Millicent experienced.
Philipa Coughlan 4/4
Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster
Vintage 9780099449287 pbk Mar 2004