Diary without Dates – Enid Bagnold (1917)

A loose and unstructured diary that tells the story of a life as a VAD in a military hospital during WWI. The name of the hospital and its location are kept vague, probably due to security concerns, but Bagnold still got widely criticized for this screed against the hospital administration. (It was later confirmed that she was working at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich.)

This is a day-to-day account which seems to flow from one day to the next, from one week to the next with no clear delineation of days or other traditional calendar markers. Seasons are acknowledged, and night and day, but apart from that, few clues are given about time which seems to give a dreamy quality to the document. It’s rather stream-of-consciousness which was rather cutting edge back then.

Bagnold was a Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment person and worked for the British Red Cross. VADs were trained to do first aid and very basic nursing care in the numerous military and convalescent hospitals that sprung up during the Great War (a la Downton Abbey). Bagnold came from a very privileged background, growing up in Jamaica with titled parents and coming to London to go to art school, and thus, she is very aware of the important role that social class distinctions made at this time.

Being a VAD, she feels rather peripheral to the whole hospital situation: she is very limited in what she can provide skill-wise and also resource-wise, and so she views the daily life from a step removed which enables her to look with a certain level of dispassion at things. She finds the Sisters callous: one Sister is aware of a soldier’s moldering arm pain – “I know, but I can’t do anything about it. He must stick it out.” She is frustrated at how little she can help her patients, but finds repetitive tasks (such as laying cutlery on the trays) meditative and helpful to sort out her thoughts.

Being in the Officers’ ward at first, Bagnold wonders how life will turn out for some of these men whose injuries have been life-changing: The soldiers “living so near the edge of death, they are more aware of life than we are…Will they keep this vision, letting it play on life? Or will it fade?”

Having been raised in a wealthy environment, she is bemused by the sisters she has to work with and is not in awe of any ranking system there was. Speaking of how the Sisters viewed the world, she is damning and cutting.

“Their conception of a white female mind is the silliest, most mulish, incurious, unresponsive, condemning kind of an idea that a human creature could set before it.”

She sees the Sisters pandering to the important and wealthy visitors to the detriment of the patients and can’t understand it. However, she is fully aware of this attitude of hers and knows that it will get her into trouble at some point. But still – she persists. Why? Is it because of her removed point of view that she feels that she doesn’t have to play the game? Is it because she is wealthy and thus has no impetus to not make waves with the risk of losing her job?…

Some other interesting points that came up whilst reading this:

  • Patients and nurses/docs could smoke all day and night in the wards (in their beds if required)
  • The ward’s windows were perpetually open even on cold snowy or foggy nights so people inside the building could see their breath whenever it was cold (inside or outside)
  • Limited medicine meant that patients would honestly never know whether they would get better or not and how to comfort someone in that situation

Overall, a good read about a very hard experience. Bagnold writes in an ethereal, dreamy way, floating from one thought to another with no dates or times or days to anchor the story. This creates a foggy experience for the reader (which is echoed in the foggy weather they have during the winter) and an experience which is not clear but more felt than anything.

Must give credit to Booksnob for steering me to this book. Thanks!

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