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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Diary Writing

This is a picture on the left of Vernon Marion Babbit's diary of 1871.

For many years in my teens I kept a diary. I first started with a little red book with a page for a week in which I listed amongst other things, the boys I had the hots for in class, my favourite music, and my secret envy of my more beautiful best friend. What I didn't write about was my parents, just in case - oh horror of horrors, they should come across it hidden away in the drawer under my school vests. With delusions of writing a document of Anne Frank-type significance, after a year I bought a bigger book with a page for every day and kept this going for about ten years. Fortunately for posterity I burnt them in a purge a few years later, tired of hiding them and their embarrassing contents from my live-in partner. But had you read my earlier diaries you might have been forgiven for thinking I was an orphan.

Which brings me to my point about diaries - these days I am often reading diaries as historical research. For The Lady's Slipper I read both Pepys' and George Fox's. (The founder of Quakerism.) What struck me about both of them was that there was very little of the uncertainty that was such a feature of my own. Perhaps this is because they were more mature, or because they were male, or because the society in which they lived simply did not allow wallowing in self-pity. There was very little in either diary of "I wish I hadn't..." Both seemed more concerned with detailing the facts of their daily itinerary than their internal reactions to their lives.

Fox, certainly, was aware that his diary was likely to become a public document as he re-wrote substantial chunks of it within his own lifetime, dictating new versions of events to his scribe later in his life. Which leads me to the conclusion that even the history we take for granted cannot be completely relied upon to be the truth. Even if the period is documented by a diarist of the calibre of Pepys, the so-called factual evidence we are reliant upon is still a work of fiction in that it is written from a particular slant. Nevertheless, these diaries are still such a fantastic insight into the language and culture of the time, available to everyone now, courtesy of the internet.

With the advent of blogs and so much personal writing happening online, I wonder if the diary is an endangered species? If so, that would be a shame, for the diary is a very particular lens through which to view the world - that of a single vision, necessarily written by a self-obsessed writer, who has made him/herself the subject of his own novel. That is why I find diaries, and the characters who write them, so fascinating.


  1. I thik you're right, Dee. Diarists are a dying breed. I often wish I'd kept a diary. I did for several years, and in the end found it was just too much, trying to write it up at the end of a busy day with job, kids etc (or worse, trying to remember what had happened a week later). My grandmother kept one from childhod and it makes fascinating reading now.

  2. Hi Frances, bet your grandmother's diary is really interesting. I suppose some blogs are like journals, but because the internet does not seem a good place to store stuff, they don't come over as 'diaries'. Some blogs have been picked up by publishers though and made into books, so I guess there will be some archiving going on in a limited fashion.

  3. I guess diarists of the past didn't have the telly, internet and radio to distract them on those long winter evenings (or summer ones, come to that). I don't know how much of an excuse future generations will allow that to be, though!