I love the serendipity of discovering books. I was allocating a trolley of Large Print books at work the other week & started browsing through The Country Diaries edited by Alan Taylor. This is an anthology of diary entries by authors from Beatrix Potter to Dorothy Wordsworth arranged by date to take the reader through the year. This is the entry that grabbed my attention,
26 November 1924
At lunch no Ernest. I waited till half past one, worried myself into a fit of acute indigestion, kept looking out the window for an ambulance: actually (how mad it seems!) went to the outside lavatory to see if he had hanged himself. Then remembered that he had said he was going to Brighton.
I don’t know about you but that last sentence just took my breath away. I quickly got hold of a second-hand copy & I’ve been absorbed in Alice Dudeney’s Diary all week. Alice wrote under her married name, Mrs Henry Dudeney. She was a very famous novelist in her day but I’d never heard of her. She was a friend of Sir Philip Sassoon & was often invited to his country house weekends. She was compared to Thomas Hardy & thought superior to Edith Wharton. The list of her novels in the front of the book runs to over 40 titles written from 1894 to 1937. The editor of the Diary, Diana Crook, says that Alice would be astounded to know that her work is completely forgotten. Titles like Married When Suited, What a Woman Wants, The Maternity of Hariott Wicken & Puff Paste, sound intriguing, I wonder if she’ll ever be rediscovered?
The Diary begins in 1916. Alice’s marriage to Henry (Ernest) Dudeney has been a stormy one. Ernest was also a writer & was famous for his books of mathematical puzzles. He also wrote for some of the many magazines of the time, including The Strand. Alice was 18 when they married in 1884. In around 1913, Alice had taken their daughter, Margery, left Ernest & moved to Sussex. She was having an affair with a married man, David (the editor has not revealed his full name to avoid embarrassing his descendents). However, by 1916, Margery has gone to Canada to be married & Alice has reconciled with Ernest & they are living in Lewes. There are no diaries for 1914 & 1915 so the exact circumstances of their reconciliation are unknown. From later entries, it’s obvious that, although David loved Alice, he wasn’t prepared to leave his wife for her. After Margery left, Alice may have been lonely & it is known that she wrote to Ernest asking him to live with her in Lewes.
Their marriage is one of the fascinations of the Diary. The relationship swings from vicious arguments & cold rages to considerable affection. Money seems to be one of the triggers for discord. Ernest seems upset by any expenditure at all & it’s not clear how much each contributes to the household. Alice buys up several historic properties in Lewes over the course of the Diary & she always speaks of her money, her lawyer, her agent. Until her novels fell from favour in the late 30s, she seems to have made a comfortable living from her career. Ernest’s failing health shocks Alice into feeling more tenderness for him than she had felt for years.
8 April 1930How am I going to remember all the sharp details of this time. How every morning I put a fresh little jug of flowering currant in his room, because he loves flowering currant. And how, this very day, I have folded up and put his suit away, for he no longer gets up. And locked away his ring, which for months he’s kept in his waistcoat pocket, because his finger got so thin.
However, these elegiac moments are few & far between. Far more characteristic are the sometimes spiteful, catty entries she makes about friends & acquaintances. After Ernest’s death, David’s wife, Ida, gets in touch with Alice & they begin a curious friendship. Ida knows about the affair although it’s never mentioned, & she becomes a sort of go-between, relaying messages to & from David to Alice. David also comes to visit, without Ida, & , although Alice revels in the nostalgia of their earlier relationship, she soon finds herself bored with David’s protestations of devotion, & irritated by his clothes & his little ways. Alice is never fond of visitors & she lets out her frustrations in the Diary during one of Ida’s visits,
27 June 1934
Really, visitors are a nuisance. Winnie (maid) comes in to my room and announces that Ida can’t get up: so ‘giddy’. Elderly women should stay in their own homes. I do. Told Ida she’d better stop in bed all day. Said she would – might she have another pillow? Yes, she might. And got it. Might she have some brandy? Hadn’t got it, but went out and bought a half-bottle – 8/9d! Which I really grudged, but I suppose it ought to be in the house. Gave her some and she felt better. Chicken, not much, and ice cream for her dinner: complained that the ice cream melted too soon!
28 June 1934
She is up thank goodness, but fussy, as always. An egg ‘lightly boiled’ for breakfast. “You will see, won’t you, Alice, that she doesn’t hard boil it?” Alice (curtly): “She never does.”
I must admit that I almost gave up on this book before I’d really begun. I thought it was an impulse buy that had gone wrong. The early entries are very bitter. It’s the middle of WWI, she’s trying to re-establish her relationship with Ernest, she’s having problems finding reliable servants, she’s still in love with David & she’s missing Margery. Once she has bought & moved into the Castle Precincts House, a beautiful historic house in Lewes, Alice’s excitement in making her home seemed to overcome some of her unhappiness & I suddenly couldn’t put the book down.
Her love for her dalmations, Nelson, Emma & Spangles, is also very moving. As is so often the case, she gave her dogs all the love she couldn’t give anyone else. Her long walks with the dogs & their love & companionship become very important to Alice as she finds other areas of her life lacking. Diaries can be difficult to read. Often, they are only written in when the diarist is unhappy or needs to vent anger or disappointment. There’s a lot of anger in Alice’s Diary. Friends & family fall in & out of favour. But, there is also a lot of happiness when Alice is working hard on her books or her houses, thinking of Margery & her grandchildren or walking on the Hills with the dogs. The entries written during WWII are also fascinating. Life on the Home Front, with all the rumours, rationing & privations. As always, diaries written in the middle of a conflict really reveal the anxieties of people living through them, often without accurate information. She can also be very funny,
13 October 1938
I bought myself a 6d Penguin book to read. Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Filthy and blasphemous. Shall burn it (but finish reading it first!)
Alice Dudeney left her diaries to the Sussex Archaeological Society with the proviso that they not be opened for 25 years. However, it was thought that, even then, the Diaries still had the capacity to hurt people living in Lewes so the Society closed them again until 2000. This ban was relaxed when a writer researching Ernest’s life applied to read them & so the editor was able to put together this volume which was first published in 1998. One of my more successful impulse buys.