A Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold (1917)

A diary without dates Enid Bagnold

During World War I, Enid Bagnold was a member of the British Women’s Services. She served for about a year and a half in the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), as a nurse’s aide.

Her duties were to attend to the non-medical needs of wounded British soldiers recovering from wounds in the Royal Herbert Hospital, just a few miles southeast of London. Some of the injuries she witnessed were absolutely horrific.

A Diary Without Dates was written almost as a dreamlike prose-poem, portraying the suffering of soldiers, many of whom faced mutilation, wrenching pain, and death. Thus, it became a timeless commentary on the traumas of war.


Suddenly both an author and a fired nurse

Upon the book’s publication, however, Bagnold’s negative commentary on the doctors and nurses she worked with led to her dismissal. She also depicted visitors as voyeurs whose charitable acts served to bolster themselves rather than soothe the suffering troops. 

In 1935, Bagnold, who had been writing for some time, became much better known with the huge success of National Velvet, even though she had been writing for some time.

As it often happens, when a writer achieves such success, sometimes their earlier, lesser-known works receive a second glance. So it was with her first work, A Diary Without Dates, reviewed more than 10 years after its initial publication:

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Enid Bagnold at age 18

Enid Bagnold at age 18
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A Backward Glance at A Diary Without Dates

From the original review in The Literary Guidepost by John Selby, November, 1935 of A Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold (first published in 1917):  “Myself When Young,” Enid Bagnold should have titled the book she calls A Diary Without Dates.

It’s very seldom that the reader has such an opportunity as publication of A Diary Without Dates gives. The chances are that he has read, or at least read of, National Velvet, in which Miss Bagnold tells the story of a little English girl whose mania was horses, of her family, their life, and certain delightfully improbable events which she makes seem an entirely probable.

There is a warmth of human sympathy in the book, not maudlin sympathy either, which makes it almost unique among recent novels. 

Now one is able to go back to Enid Bagnold at 19, and to see what of the girl has survived in the woman. This might be expected, human sympathy is the chief characteristic.

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Enid Bagnold as a World War I volunteer nurse

Learn more about Enid Bagnold
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The diary was written while Miss Bagnold was serving in an English hospital, early in the war [referring to World War I]. It is partly a record of states of mind, partly of events, partly of incident which has been observed obliquely, and translate it itself into what we insist on calling “color,” or “atmosphere.”

It would be easy to quote a few of the more pungent paragraphs: doing so would throw the book out of perspective, however, for the important thing is that it shows and essentially juvenile mind, apparently that of a protected girl of good breeding, is it forms and hardens under the blows of experience.

It is a sensitive mind, brilliant sometimes and beautiful and others. Miss Bagnold was fired from the hospital for publishing the diary, although why, it is difficult to see at this distance.

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Excerpt from A Diary Without Dates

Chapter 1: Outside the Glass Doors

I like discipline. I like to be part of an institution. It gives one more liberty than is possible among three or four observant friends.

 It is always cool and wonderful after the monotone of the dim hospital, its half-lit corridors stretching as far as one can see, to come out into the dazzling starlight and climb the hill, up into the trees and shrubberies here.

The wind was terrible to-night. I had to battle up, and the leaves were driven down the hill so fast that once I thought it was a motor-bicycle.

Madeleine’s garden next door is all deserted now: they have gone up to London. The green asphalt tennis-court is shining with rain, the blue pond brown with slime; the little statues and bowls are lying on their sides to keep the wind from putting them forcibly there; and all over the house are white draperies and ghost chairs.

When I walk in the garden I feel like a ghost left over from the summer too.

I became aware to-night of one face detaching itself from the rest. It is not a more pleasing face than the others, but it is becoming conspicuous to me.

Twice a week, when there is a concert in the big hall, the officers and the V.A.D.’s are divided, by some unspoken rule—the officers sitting at one side of the room, the V.A.D.’s in a white row on the other.

When my eyes rest for a moment on the motley of dressing-gowns, mackintoshes, uniforms, I inevitably see in the line one face set on a slant, one pair of eyes forsaking the stage and fixed on me in a steady, inoffensive beam.

This irritates me. The very lack of offence irritates me. But one grows to look for everything.

Afterwards in the dining-room during Mess he will ask politely: “What did you think of the concert, Sister? Good show….”

How wonderful to be called Sister! Every time the uncommon name is used towards me I feel the glow of an implied relationship, something which links me to the speaker.

My Sister remarked: “If it’s only a matter of that, we can provide thrills for you here very easily.”

The name of my … admirer … is, after all, Pettitt. The other nurse in the Mess, who is very grand and insists on pronouncing his name in the French way, says he is “of humble origin.”

He seems to have no relations and no visitors.

Out in the corridor I meditate on love.

Laying trays soothes the activity of the body, and the mind works softly.

I meditate on love. I say to myself that Mr. Pettitt is to be envied. I am still the wonder of the unknown to him: I exist, walk, talk, every day beneath the beam of his eye, impenetrable.

He fell down again yesterday, and his foot won’t heal. He has time before him. 

But in a hospital one has never time, one is never sure. He has perhaps been here long enough to learn that—to feel the insecurity, the impermanency.

At any moment he may be forced to disappear into the secondary stage of convalescent homes.

Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting dislocation of combinations.

Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God.

Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an Almighty whom one does not see.

The Sister who is over me, the only Sister who can laugh at things other than jokes, is going in the first week of next month. Why? Where? She doesn’t know, but only smiles at my impatience. She knows life—hospital life.

It unsettles me as I lay my spoons and forks. Sixty-five trays. It takes an hour to do. Thirteen pieces on each tray. Thirteen times sixty-five … eight hundred and forty-five things to collect, lay, square up symmetrically. I make little absurd reflections and arrangements—taking a dislike to the knives because they will not lie still on the polished metal of the tray, but pivot on their shafts, and swing out at angles after my fingers have left them.

I love the long, the dim and lonely, corridor; the light centred in the gleam of the trays, salt-cellars, yellow butters, cylinders of glass….

Impermanency…. I don’t wonder the Sisters grow so secret, so uneager. How often stifled! How often torn apart!

It’s heaven to me to be one of such a number of faces.

To see them pass into Mess like ghosts—gentleman, tinker, and tailor; each having shuffled home from death; each having known his life rock on its base … not talking much—for what is there to say?—not laughing much for they have been here too long—is a nightly pleasure to me.

Creatures of habit! All the coloured dressing-gowns range themselves round the two long tables—this man in this seat, that man by the gas-fire; this man with his wheel-chair drawn up at the end, that man at the corner where no one will jostle his arm.

Curious how these officers leave the hospital, so silently. Disappearances…. One face after another slips out of the picture, the unknown heart behind the face fixed intently on some other centre of life.

I went into a soldiers’ ward to-night to inquire about a man who has pneumonia.

Round his bed there stood three red screens, and the busy, white-capped heads of two Sisters bobbed above the rampart.

It suddenly shocked me. What were they doing there? Why the screens? Why the look of strain in the eyes of the man in the next bed who could see behind the screens?

I went cold and stood rooted, waiting till one of them could come out and speak to me.

Soon they took away the screen nearest to me; they had done with it.

The man I was to inquire for has no nostrils; they were blown away, and he breathes through two pieces of red rubber tubing: it gave a more horrible look to his face than I have ever seen.

The Sister came out and told me she thought he was “not up to much.” I think she means he is dying.

I wonder if he thinks it better to die…. But he was nearly well before he got pneumonia, had begun to take up the little habits of living. He had been out to tea.

Inexplicable, what he thinks of, lying behind the screen.

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National velvet by Enid bagnold

Enid Bagnold’s best-known book is National Velvet
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