Issue 221, Summer 2017
It’s quite possible that the existence of these eight short stories, taken word for word from a collection of 148 diaries found in a dumpster in 2001, would come as a surprise to the diarist, Laura Francis. All the sentences, events, perceptions, and fineness of writing belong to her, but the plots and narrative arcs have been manufactured by me.
The discovery of these diaries and the four years I spent hunting down their author are the subject of my book A Life Discarded. Laura Francis was a live-in companion and domestic servant for an aged professor of IT—like his wife in every respect except the sex (“thank goodness”). She barely knew how to cook and had no time for tidiness. On several occasions, during her thirty years of service, she grabbed a knife and was vicious to the old man’s furniture. But she was also funny, self-sacrificially kind, and a profound observer of loneliness and disappointment.
Laura could be an excellent diarist, but frequently wasn’t. Why should she be? She wasn’t performing for an audience. She had no duty to entertain. Her writing is repetitive, self-obsessed, confused, and two millimeters high. A typical two-hundred-page notebook from the 1990s contained over a hundred thousand words and covered just six weeks of her life in which nothing happened. Yet her style has the one quality that professional writers, of fiction or nonfiction, find the most difficult to capture: vitality. Her life is small-scale, quiet voiced, punctuated by moments of gentle humor and shocking poignancy. Even when the diaries are agonizingly tedious, you want to go on reading them because they are true. No novelist has clattered into this woman’s life to impose a well-managed structure on her images of incarceration and waste. There’s none of the storyteller’s fraudulent scene setting, character development, points of conflict, concluding resolution. You are peering in on a real woman who thinks she is alone—a woman in the final stages of tedium. She is writing about being human: the arbitrariness, the impotence, the fog. Vitality—aliveness—comes to her just because she has picked up her pen. Her drama is that she is not fiction.
Laura’s diaries work best at the extreme dimensions of writing: page by page, they lack structure, pacing, plot, character development, and, most of the time, excitement. But at the large scale (book by book) and the small (sentence by sentence), they are replete with human insight and lurking dramatic narratives.
“I” Laura Francis, the diarist
E her guide and muse, a piano teacher
Elf Dame Harriette Chick DBE, for whom Laura worked as a housekeeper/companion during the second half of the 1970s
Peter Dame Harriette’s nephew, who also lived in the house
Suddenly E Came to My Counter, 1958–59
December 17th, 1958: Lovely afternoon spent in happiness and utter satisfaction and harmony. Harry & Mrs Willey talked of how they’d have a copy of my book when it was published.
Dec 18th: A pity, though, my profession takes so much of my time.
Dec 19th: Tiresome, having to be tied down to fact & reality.
Dec 19th: Working on out-counter at Central Library.
Dec 20th: Suddenly E came to my counter. I gave the usual terrific jump I do with the sight of E unexpectedly, and sat down on the chair. E amused, said I’m a funny girl. E looked round library, eventually got out “English Villages in Colour”. She looked terribly swerb [wonderful]—waves of dizzy excitement swept through me, head over heels with adoration for E. Her sweet smile, rather wicked & sideways.
Dec 22nd: She invited me to supper. The mutual love and our expressions must’ve been very noticeable. Just adored her, and felt she was adoring me back with her sweet, warm brown-eyed gaze—currency of love.