What do you really expect to find when looking through a skip?
Probably not the inspiration for a book, unless that book happens to be “Travels With My Refuse” or “Binbags I Have Known”. Lily Koppel, a young journalist at the New York Times, did rather better – on 6th October 2003, all sorts of old trunks were thrown away from where they’d been languishing in unclaimed storage. Spotting an opportunity… no, wait. “I felt a pang of longing. I was seized by the impulse that at this moment, nothing mattered but seeing what lay inside the trunks.” Well, what lay inside one of them was an old red leather diary. A Milestone Five Year diary, 1929-1934. The property of one Florence Wolfson, given to her on her fourteenth birthday.
Every single day had an entry. These ranged from the trivial – ‘Played piano for Mother this evening & enjoyed myself enormously’ – to the deeply emotive: ‘It’s really pitiful that I love George so much – I’m absolutely nothing in his hands’ and more or less everything in between. Most significantly, it was true. Even if Florence’s was the most mundane of lives (and it was not), its detailed preservation for so many decades makes it a significant social document.
What is it which moves Florence’s diary to a higher level? Perhaps it is mostly that Florence is still alive. A nonagenarian, married for 67 years to a boy she met in her diary days, she was tracked down by Lily Koppel, and writes in the Foreword that “a forgotten chunk of my life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed to me… my striving, feeling, immature self [seen] through my now elderly eyes”. (I’ve changed the second person to the first person – the original is perhaps symptomatic of this disconnection Florence Wolfson, now Howitt, must feel after so many years distance).
The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Journal is certainly not simply the publication of Florence’s childhood journal. Lily uses the diary as a basis, and, having also spoken at length to Florence and surviving family & friends, constructs a third person narrative of the years 1929-34. Florence did, after all, only write a sentence or two per day. Koppel favours quite an arty prose – people say things with ‘wide gray eyes void of emotion’; things don’t happen immediately, rather ‘she didn’t have time to take a sip before they pulled up at the canopy of the forty-one-story white granite Hotel Pierre looking down on the Plaza’. Difficult to demonstrate Koppel’s writing style without artificially isolating it, but hopefully you get the picture. Alongside this, Florence’s diary entries (which are cited between paragraphs, an ongoing thread of the primary material) are starkly factual and unadornedly expressive: ‘Planning a play on Wordsworth – possibilities are infinite’. These two styles intertwine, and play out against each other to mutual benefit, I think. It is Florence’s voice I cherish in The Red Leather Diary, yet her distinctive day-to-day accounts are too sparse to exist without Koppel’s elaboration.
For me, the idea behind the book was enough to make me want to read it. A rediscovered journal; an encounter between young journalist and nonagenarian (which, to my mind, is the most interesting section of an interesting book). These are events to be treasured, and worth a book, whatever the youthful Florence was like. What makes her journal, her biography, her narrative so compelling is her character. Not always likeable, she is nonetheless a creative spirit – writing, painting, loving. She presents mature philosophical reflections even while she declares every crush to be a great love affair and bewails the strictures imposed by her parents. The Red Leather Diary is an honest portrayal of teenagerdom in an evolving world, but by showing Florence approaching the end of her life too, it is a true narrative of reflection and change. You couldn’t make it up.