The great attraction of the diary form for aspirant authors is its apparent simplicity. Many who would quail at the challenge of producing a readable novel or poem will embark quite confidently on what seems the relatively undemanding task of setting down their day by day impressions of experience. They may perhaps first read a little John Evelyn or Fanny Burney or, from our own century, Evelyn Waugh or Virginia Woolf and think: ‘I could do that too’. But the vast majority couldn’t.
In fact, the seeming ease of the diary is an illusion. The diary or journal is actually one of the hardest of all literary forms to do well. Great diaries can be numbered on the fingers of one hand or even – some purists would argue – on one single finger. This towering digit is, of course, Samuel Pepys whose million-word chronicle of his early career manifests all the virtues of a great diary and eschews most of the vices.
Ronald Blythe’s anthology contains some 86 extracts. Pepys, Evelyn, Johnson, Boswell, Swift and, more recently, Thomas Hardy and James Agate are amongst the many eminent diarists included. Other slightly less celebrated (in terms of diary-keeping) but still self-selecting names