A Life of One's Own by Joanna Field; An Experiment in Leisure by Joanna Field - review by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Journeys Into the Interior

A Life of One's Own


Virago 256pp £4.50 paper order from our bookshop

An Experiment in Leisure


Virago 266pp £4.50 paper order from our bookshop

Sometimes it seems that the real division between people has nothing to do with talent, wealth or beauty. For some people, life’s hard, and for some it’s easy; there’s not much logic attached to the division, and one half of humanity certainly doesn’t understand the pleasures and pains of the other. Joanna Field quotes Anne in Crome Yellow – ‘One enjoys the pleasant things, avoids the nasty ones. There’s nothing more to be said.’ She herself is of the contrary, self-analytical persuasion, and these two books, first published in the 1930s, constitute an enquiry into her own nature.

It is an earnest, honest nature, without, it seems, the sauce of arrogance or the spice of humour. Through her own diaries and doodlings, we meet the author as a young working psychologist in London. At 26, she has a sense that real life is passing her by; that important things are happening, but always in the next room. She undertakes ‘mental training schemes’ and blames her lack of willpower when they fail to bring results. She goes to conferences about the lot of the poor, and in one of her pockets carries a scrap of paper with a quotation from Virginia Woolf. And though she says that she hates ‘dowdy, arty women,’ one somehow imagines this pocket; it must belong to a garment like the Woolfian cardigan that Edith Hope wears in Hotel du Lac. A Life of One’s Own is a record of seven years self-observation. What are the facts of my life, she asks; what will make me happy? Even the facts, she finds, shift according to the way she observes them. Her intelligence has been trained in a way which blinkers her; it has shut her off from a world of direct sensory experience, and prevented her, quite literally, from knowing her own mind. A sort of free association in writing gives her some clues; important things are going on, but not in the next room. They are going on below the surface of her conscious mind.

Her training has equipped her to know this; but she wants to feel it for herself. She becomes a close student of her own moods, and of fleeting mental images. Sometimes, perhaps, her errant thoughts are scrutinised much too thoroughly: ‘I had begun to wonder whether my truant mind might

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