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Issue 42: a social history of 1920s London (part 2)
An intermittent series told through the 1923 diary of 17-year-old Lily*, who lived in the north of the capital and worked at her father’s shop in the east.
Lily’s diary is housed at the Bishopsgate Institute in east London, part of the 17,000+ collection of The Great Diary Project, founded in 2007.
The 17-year-old loved art, fashion, and dancing, and was determined to enjoy herself while she was young.
In the first instalment of this series, I shared entries from Lily about going out with friends, dancing at clubs, and meeting boys.
We pick up with her again in early May: “where’s the buds and flowers etc that poets write about, I see them not?”.
She shares how she’s “getting tired of” knitting her jumper (the entry is accompanied by a sketch showing the jumper missing one and a half sleeves and its back) and wishes she “could wear it as it is to save finishing it”.
And recounts a wardrobe malfunction:
“I was out with a friend. We were both toffed up in our best and felt pleased with ourselves. We looked nice, nothing extra-ordinary, but as we strolled into Maison Lyons, we heard many chortles and exclamations. I turned and saw quite a few people looking at us. I looked at my friend, she looked at me and I said: ‘Nothing the matter with us is there?’ She assured me that she thought we both looked normal. […] So why the stares?? When I got home I found out…. My dress had split half way up the back!!!!! I have nice shaped legs, I know (modesty), but still I am too old to have legs showing above the knee! […] I nearly cried with mortification!”
But then life for Lily suddenly gets serious.
5 May 1923:
Little book. I’m so miserable – it’s a new feeling to me – but I’ve cried so much I can’t cry more. It’s a miserable world today. But I suppose we have to have sad times with the bright. I wrote before that mother is not so well, we have a letter that mother is to go into hospital tomorrow, 6th, and mother is so nervous and upset. […] Oh how are we going to manage for a few weeks without our mother – the house will be so empty, so cheerless. Home spells mother. In the winter we arrive home cold, frozen and there’s a bright fire burning and mother smiling and she never seems tired. In the summers the place is cool and refreshing, always filled with flowers. Oh what will we do with mother away. Three or four weeks at least. Oh let those weeks fly by – quickly.”
6 May 1923:
“Mother went this morning to the hospital. Oh how we all cried and clung to her. We don’t want her to go. We didn’t realise how bad mother felt. She says she is glad to go and hopes to be home soon, well and strong. It’s gall stones she suffers from. […] Oh it’s horrible to be ill – when all the world is healthy and jolly, to be ill and helpless is terrible.”
10 May 1923:
“Mother is to have the operation today. We are all so upset and anxious. How we pray for God that He will hear our prayers and make mother better soon. Oh I’m so nervous and full of suspense. I can’t write now.”
(Afternoon, 2:30) “Oh little book, I can’t write much – my eyes are blurred with tears, my hand shakes, I can hardly think clearly at all. To think of it – at this very moment mother is cut open, the operation is being performed. My heart is full to bursting, I can’t eat, I can’t rest. I can only cry and pray – pray that God will spare mother to us. There are little children at home yet and we all need her. I feel I shall go mad with anxiety. Oh God, spare mother pain.”
(Evening, 6:30) “We’ve just received the news that mother has come out of the chloroform. How thankful we are, the worst is over – now mother must get well quickly. She must get better, we need her so. With God’s help she will soon regain strength and will be with us again soon. Poor mother was under chloroform for four hours, the operation taking two hours. She will be so weak now for a while….”
(Same day, midnight) “Oh little book, what shall I do – I feel I shall go mad – I’ve cried and cried til I feel weak and giddy. Oh mother I want you – I know I’m silly and thoughtless – but I have deeper feelings… I don’t know what to do or where to turn. […] Father and my sisters won’t be home tonight and have to stay at the hospital all night. They’ve sent for my aunt. How I wish I could go to the hospital too but I cannot as I have to be with the children – I am the oldest at home. I feel I shall go mad or go into hysterics or something.”
11 May 1923:
“No news yet – we are expecting one of my sisters home soon to tell us something. The sky is pouring down torrents of rain. Everything is miserable just as we feel. It is cold and stormy outside – also in our house.”
13 May 1923:
“Oh little book, how am I going to live – how can I tell you my feelings, how heartbroken I am. How can I begin to tell you the many things that have happened during the last few days. I’ll go mad. I feel it, there’s a tempest raging inside me. I want to die, there’s nothing to live for. There’s a great weight on my heart that chokes me and prevents me from eating. My eyes are red and swollen. I feel that life is a mockery, there is no pleasure. Oh mother you took my heart with you. Why did you leave us my mother? I know you did not want to leave us, but a greater Power has arranged so. Oh mother. The children need you. Father is so lost without you. And I go about heartbroken. They say there is a God – we must believe this I suppose, but can we believe that there is a good, loving God, but He would take our mother away when we need her so? […] There are such wicked people who live – thieves, robbers, murderers – they live and a good woman like my mother went.”
14 May 1923:
“I’ve been reading over this book – how happy I used to be… I was always jolly and my friends said I was ‘sporty’ – I went in for all the fun at a dance or anything. I am – or was – of a frivolous nature as can be, going by previous entries. I was glad to live. After all I’m young – I dress, not badly – and I had a good time. I used to enjoy dancing. I was never so happy as when I was dancing with a good partner to an exquisite orchestra. I couldn’t live without it, I feel I must dance. But now I feel so horribly sad. I can’t if I could dance. I can’t ever feel happy again or ever enjoy myself. Life and joys seem so trivial to me. What is life? At its best? Life is nothing – Hell, misery, pain.”
* Lily isn’t her real name. Given the diary’s author (1905-1993) isn’t that long passed, I’ve agreed to change her name and anonymise some of the finer details she wrote about, to protect the privacy of her living relatives.