Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

Enid Bagnold is probably best known for writing National Velvet, but her other beautiful and rather poetic novels are her true legacy. I read and greatly enjoyed the moving and lyrical The Squire and the strange and haunting The Loved and Envied in my pre-blogging days, and have swooped on copies of her other novels where I can find them ever since, but I hadn’t felt particularly compelled to pick any of them up until this week, when I fancied reading something war related in the wake of Remembrance Sunday.  Diary Without Dates (available free on Project Gutenberg) is a unique and intriguing exploration of life as a VAD nurse during WWI, based on Bagnold’s own experiences, and it is hugely revealing both of the realities of war and of the class bound nature of British life in the early 20th century.

The exact details of the hospital location and circumstances around her decision to be a VAD are kept deliberately vague in this short, scattered account, but the matters of real interest are pinprick sharp. Bagnold describes the officers’ convalescent ward, with its crisp sheets, vases of flowers, armchairs, real lemonade and afternoon tea. Ritual and order are of the utmost importance; it is just as vital for a bed to have mitred corners as it is for a patient to receive his medicine on time. Some patients give the nurses trouble with their unwanted attentions; Bagnold’s wry accounts of trying to get rid of one amorous convalescent can still strike a chord with the modern day woman!

Other accounts are more shocking: the callousness of Sisters who demand that stoical men in agonising pain must ‘grin and bear it’; the carefree glamorous life of parties and shopping that continues in London despite the hell of the Front; the flippant treatment of grieving parents who come to share their sons’ last days. It is a remarkable account for its candidness and lack of censorship; Bagnold reveals the cruelty and ridiculous officiousness of hospital life, where men are dehumanised, nurses couldn’t care less and keeping up appearances on the ward for wealthy visitors is more important than providing pain relief and comfort to suffering men.

However, Bagnold also shows the camaraderie, the fun and the triumphs of nursing. The friendships she strikes up when she is moved to the ‘Tommies’ ward are touching and provide much comic relief for the endless days spent on her feet, fetching, carrying and watching men suffer and die with little she can do to help. In the Tommies ward, there is no fireplace, no smoking jackets, no fresh lemonade, no choice cuts of meat for supper; there are also no Lady Bountiful visitors and no sympathy from the harassed Sisters. The wounds the Officers and Tommies have received are exactly the same, but their treatment couldn’t be further apart; this is something Bagnold heavily criticises.

Diary Without Dates is very short, but it reveals so much within its beautifully, evocatively written pages. The exhilaration of escaping for a night off into the crisp, cool night of early Autumn, the pleasing repetitious motion of laying out cutlery on trays, the pain of forbidden love, the tenderness of a cool hand laid on a feverish, frightened brow; it is all so vivid, and so immediate. There is much to shock, and to evoke pity; the snobbery, the indifference, the ridiculously misplaced priorities, the suffering – it is a magnificent document of WWI written from a woman’s perspective, and infused with the emotion and passion of an experience still being lived through when it was written. The difference between reading a book written in medias res as opposed in retrospect in a wartime context is profound; there is no sense of closure, no sense of melancholy; instead, there is a weariness, a fear, and an uncertainty that gives these accounts a power that cannot be rivalled.

Diary Without Dates is a must read for anyone interested in WWI and women’s experiences. Apparently, Bagnold got dismissed from the VAD service due to her criticism of the hospital system (the book was first published in 1917) and spent the rest of the war as an ambulance driver in France. She also wrote these experiences down for posterity, in The Happy Foreigner, which is still waiting patiently on my bookshelf. I can’t wait to read it and find out more about the fascinating life Bagnold led; people who know her just for National Velvet are really missing  out. She’s also the great grandmother of Samantha Cameron – who knew?!

37 comments

  1. I love people who get dismissed for Speaking the Truth! They are my fave! But seriously, this sounds good and is in a perfect dovetail with the letters of Vera Brittain I’ve been reading. She was a nurse in WWI and quite discontented with it, although she doesn’t go into as much detail as you describe in this book.

  2. Fantastic! This is a must read for me and that is why I read YOU – not only for your English/American, young/old (me the American and the old) perspective, but also because the startling number of times you’ve pointed me to things I’ve missed, even over a lifetime of reading exactly he same sort of things you like. For example, I’m currently slobbering ecstatically over The Rector’s Daughter. Had it on my shelves for 20 years but thanks to you I picked it up! By the way, speaking of women ambulance drivers in WWI, you’ll have read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall? Perhaps that’s an odd reason to pick it up, to read about the ambulance driver experience, but it’s a reason! Actually that book is generally dismissed as turgid and ancient in its early account of a lesbian’s life, but I find it quite illuminating as a period piece.

    1. Oh Diana, you are so lovely! I am DELIGHTED you are loving The Rector’s Daughter so much – brilliant! I am certain you would love this! I haven’t read The Well of Loneliness, no – I don’t have a copy, I did have one – but I gave it away when I moved house. What a shame! I would have liked to read the ambulance driving bits!

      1. The Well of Loneliness is always available somewhere as it’s generally considered the first lesbian novel, but I see it as a fascinating window into attitudes of the period – not only about sexuality and difference, but everything that was changing around WWI…and it has the best depiction of the bohemian literary salon life in Paris, outside Colette’s “Claudine in Paris.” Actually, putting those together gave me my whole image of the time and place! I *knew* you wouldn’t know who Frank Harris was, but didn’t like to say so as it sounds like one of those awful “You’re too young to know…” remarks, which cannot be addressed to one who reads as widely and deeply as you do! However, the reason I know all about Frank Harris is that he was popular among the seducer-Casanova type of young man in the 1960s, who would urge girls to read him. I had an Irish boyfriend in New York (1963) who went around in mustache and silk vest and carved ivory pipe and worked as a reporter entirely in imitation of Frank Harris. Naturally you would *not* have known about Harris *that* way; and he now seems forgotten. By the way, fascinating article in NY Times about the Casanova manuscripts at the National Library in Paris. They’re calling him a feminist (?).
        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/arts/casanova-at-the-national-library-in-france.html?scp=1&sq=casanova&st=cse

  3. Thanks for reminding me about this one. I’ve had it (as well as Vera Brittian’s ‘Testament of Youth’) on my shelf for years. You’ve inspired me to delay no longer – thank you!

  4. Holy CATS! Reading a bit more about Enid Bagnold, here’s a surprise that rocked me more than her merely being Samantha Cameron’s great-grandmother – Frank Harris was her first lover!!! Yikefish! You know…incredibly louche author of the pornographic My Lives and Loves…seduces author of National Velvet? (Or was seduced by. I don’t pretend to know.) Methinks a look at her biography or autobiography may be in order. Have also bought The Girl’s Journey: The Happy Foreigner and The Squire.

  5. Your lovely review inspired me to go hunting for this title! I must admit National Velvet is the only other book of hers I have read (absolutely years ago!) but I am now newly interested.

    I recently also became interested in reading on this theme after listening to The Book Report’s Veteran’s Day broadcast (it can be listened to here: http://bookreportradio.com/archives.html 12Nov) They covered some lovely titles too.

  6. Every day I feel drawn towards a Kindle (a Christmas present is on offer) and have pushed the idea aside. Now I can see what I would be missing, thanks to your impassioned review. A lovely piece of writing. Thank you, Rachel.

    PS I know this is available in book form from Amazon but reality has to take over sometime: the bank balance is looking feeble and my bookshelves are feeling the strain too.

    1. I think a Kindle is a great investment for those who enjoy a lot of these older, out of print books – print on demand paperbacks are both expensive and ugly and it makes sense to download them for free when you can. I’d definitely consider getting one for that purpose alone. Take the plunge!

  7. Great review Rachel, I’d love to read this but am particularly excited to discover, thanks to you, the existence of ‘The Happy Foreigner’. My grandmother was also an ambulance driver in France and we still have all the letters she wrote to her sister, so I’d love to read more about the sort of experience she might have had. Particularly heartfelt thanks for this then!

    1. Wow Helen, what an amazing family history! How wonderful that you still have her letters! I hope you can get hold of The Happy Foreigner – you should do a post on the similarities/differences between Enid and your grandmothers’ accounts of ambulance driving life!

      1. Alas, I am not sure that my grandmother’s letters would come up too well – I read them avid for information about what it was like driving an ambulance in France at that time, but as I remember much of the letters are given over to requests (a mackintosh, cake!), and she’s shocked at the other girls, some of whom wear lipstick!!! And nothing about France or ambulances at all really! (She was very young though.)

  8. I didn’t even know that Bagnold wrote National Velvet. Interesting that she was a whistle-blower before the term existed and pre-NHS I imagine! I’d like to read this, another good review Rachel!

  9. Thanks for this review – the book sounds fascinating and has gone on my reading list. Helen Zennor Smith’s Not So Quiet … is another interesting novel about this period, based on the memoirs of a woman ambulance driver who served in France.

    I also had no idea Bagnold was related to SamCam. Not sure what I think about that!

    1. You’re welcome Tanya – glad it’s been added to the list. I have the Helen Zennor Smith on my wishlist actually – might ask for it for Christmas.

      I know – I hope SamCam values the connection!

  10. I’m with Jenny from the top of your comments list. Don’t know the details but how frustrating to be dismissed from a position for having an opinion. Bet she had some valid concerns!

    I’m so glad that I met you, Claire and Simon! I read his post about his latest visit to London and it’s so nice to picture, and hear, all of you chatting away.

    1. If I could get dismissed for an opinion, I’d have no job to speak of!!

      Oh Darlene, you are so sweet! It was so lovely to meet you – I wish you weren’t so far away!!

  11. Oops! I goofed, new computer. As I was saying, I have never read this author beyond National Velvet. Thanks for a great review, I will be looking for the others.

  12. I am not familiar with Enid Bagnold’s works. Her sister Ralph, was an archeologist and war-hero as well as the writer of a text on desert geology that is still used by NASA as a reference for studying Mars.

  13. What a wonderful blog. I had never heard of Diary without Dates until you wrote about it, and I have just finished it last night. Reading it alongside Harry Patch’s The Last Fighting Tommy, which gives a combatant’s point-of-view alongside historical commentary by a co-author. I’m moving on to read Happy Foreigner and also Well of Loneliness, in part for research on a novel set during WWI.

    Writing as an American: how much WWI changed things, but how little it’s discussed, particularly on these shores.

    1. Thank you, I’m so glad you’re enjoying reading! Diary without Dates is wonderful – to my shame I still haven’t got around to reading The Happy Foreigner but I will get there!

      Writing a book? How exciting! With all the research you’re doing, I’m sure it will be magnificent!

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