A Free-Spirited Woman: The London Diaries of Gladys Langford, 1936-1940

Edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson

Gladys Langford (born in 1890) was a free spirit, an aspiring writer (though not published in her lifetime), an inveterate attender of plays, concerts, and films, and an astute and sometimes acerbic observer of everyday life in 1930s London. Married in 1913 (the marriage was later annulled), and chained as she saw it to schoolteaching for most of her adult life, Gladys’s days were sometimes unhappy but also full of incident, and featured a relationship with a longstanding but married lover, who was often on her mind.
Gladys’s writing is crisp, colourful, and often biting. Her diary, from 1936 to 1940, while frequently introspective and full of self-doubts, is also a vivid portrait of social life. She writes of her quirky friends, her family and straightened family background, her schoolboys in Hoxton, and her numerous Jewish acquaintances. She also has much to say about London’s public world – the behaviour of theatre audiences, street entertainers, anti-Semitic outbursts, the roller-coaster moods of people living through 1939, and fears of evacuation with the outbreak of war.

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson are social historians with a special interest in Mass Observation, women in World War Two, and English diaries written between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Available to purchase from Boydell and Brewer

Review from Women’s History, vol.24, issue 5, 2015

A Free-Spirited Woman: the London diaries of Gladys Langford, 1936 –1940 showcases what Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson do best. They bring the lives of ordinary people into focus, providing historians with unique insights into individuals’ thoughts and feelings. This edited diary is rich with personal observations on life in London, and commentary about national and international events of the time, including the Spanish Civil War, the abdication crisis of Edward VIII, the coronation of George VI, and Britain’s preparations for the coming war. It also reveals the breadth of consumer culture available in London during this period.

Born in the East End of London in 1890, Gladys Langford was a divorced schoolteacher who lived in Highbury and taught in Hoxton. Her interest in recording her life and the events, both local and national, that surrounded it resulted in a collection of thirty-seven diary volumes that span the period 1936 to 1969. Excerpts from the post-war portion of Gladys’s diary have been used in David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945 –1951. 1 However, Malcolmson and Malcolmson focus on Gladys’s diary for the years 1936–1940 to yield this volume for the London Record Society. The diary is not produced in full; rather, Malcolmson and Malcolmson, following a chronological order, use approximately half of the entries from the original diary to ‘give prominence to her writing that conveys detailed descriptions and/or thoughtful reflections’ (p. xxiv). Gladys also wrote for Mass Observation (MO) for a brief stint in 1939. She answered directive questionnaires and wrote a personal diary and a dream diary, which she duly submitted to Mass Observation.

What makes this edited book particularly interesting is that Malcolmson and Malcolmson include Gladys’s MO writing alongside her private diary entries, allowing readers a more vivid and detailed understanding of Gladys’s conscious and unconscious opinions and emotional states. Many edited diaries exist which detail this period in history, and some historians, such as James Hinton,2 make use of MO diaries and directive replies. However, no edited diary combines the different MO writings and independent diary in one text, making this an innovative publication.

The edited diary is divided into two sections. Part one covers the period October 1936–August 1939. Chapter 1, ‘Up Close’, introduces Gladys in October 1936, showing many of the issues which follow her throughout the diary, including her affair with a married Jewish businessman, financial difficulties, ill health, her dislike of teaching and her wide and varied taste in arts and culture. Chapter 2, ‘Moments in Time’, covers July 1937–July 1938. Details of Gladys’s marriage and quick divorce are revealed, along with her views on war, and further information about her relationships with her friends, family and lover. Chapter 3, ‘Perils Ahead’, provides the diary entries for July–October 1938. Her negative reactions to the coming of war, details of war preparedness and her impressions of the Munich Agreement are evident in this part. Chapter 4, ‘Awaiting the Worst’, reveals how the threat of war was drawing ever closer, creating unease and nervousness in Gladys, not least because she was under the threat of having to evacuate with her school.

Part Two covers the period March 1939–July 1940. Chapter 5, ‘Writing for Mass-Observation’, is dedicated to providing Gladys’s responses to MO directive questionnaires for the period March–July 1939 on a range of topics including clothes shopping, class and anti-Semitism. Chapter 6, ‘The Current Crisis’, contains Gladys’s diary entries for August–September 1939, leading up to and going into the Second World War. The chapter is inclusive of her private and MO diary entries during these dates. Chapter 7, ‘Self and Society’, September– October 1939, is a confluence of Gladys’s independent diary, her MO diary and dream diary, which effectively gives three views of the events that happened during this time. Chapter 8, ‘Life Goes On’, examines the period October 1939– July 1940, in which Gladys stopped writing for Mass Observation and returned only to writing her private diary. Her speculations about war, her thwarted love life and continuing struggles at school are examined here. An Epilogue gives an overview of Gladys’s life in wartime and the post-war years, providing further glimpses of her love affair, reading pursuits and impressions of teaching. Appendix A gives a sample from the diary of the two days following Christmas 1938, which showcase Gladys’s interest and ability in writing. Appendix B lists the plays, films and concerts that she attended and books that she read for a twelve-month period, starting in October 1936. The list demonstrates Gladys’s wide-ranging interests and provides historians with a window through which to view interwar trends in arts and culture.

Gladys’s frequent outings, social engagements and leisure activities require a great deal of background information. Malcolmson and Malcolmson furnish readers with this necessary information through well-researched and thorough footnotes, useful maps and pictures of the areas that Gladys frequented, and a convenient list of principal people mentioned in the text. While the inclusion of MO and independent diary writing in the later chapters of the book is a wonderful  resource for historians, it does at times leave the reader slightly confused as to the start and end points of each type of text. The addition of a timeline near the beginning of the book with the exact dates of when the MO submissions began and ended would perhaps clarify this issue for the reader.

Overall, Malcolmson and Malcolmson have produced an edited diary that nicely bridges the worlds of independent diary and MO writing, adding a new facet to the growing body of literature that explores the everyday at key points in history. Modern historians with interests in consumer culture, gender, urban space, and the interwar and Second World War periods will find this edited diary useful.

University of Manchester