Paul Ableman

Dearest Diaries

Each Returning Day: The Pleasure of Diaries


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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 – such as Thomas Hardy, Gilbert White, Queen Victoria and William Beckford – are represented. But it is perhaps the less well-known, or blatantly obscure, diarists who provide much of the justification for this sampler. Arthur Munby, the Victorian writer and reformer with a passion for working women, belongs in this category as does Hannah, a working woman whom Munby ultimately married and taught to keep a diary. Her tortured fragment is perhaps the most moving thing in the whole collection: ‘ . . . i felt a bit hurt to be told i was too dirty, when my dirt was all got wi making things clean for them . . .’

Blythe groups his extracts under 13 headings. ‘The Diarist as Eye-Witness’, for example, includes a gripping and ominous sequence on the start of the Irish potato famine by one Elizabeth Smith who was the tough-minded but compassionate wife of an Irish landowner. A section entitled ‘The Sick Diarist’ brought to my notice for the first time the strangely sunny journal of the dying Barbellion, famous early in this century as the author of The Journal of a Disappointed Man but whose pitiably short life ended in 1919 when he was just 30.

‘Dull diaries’ maintains Blythe in his introduction ‘can be very readable’. It is certainly true that any diary – even a thoroughly badly-written or dishonest one – may have psychological and/or documentary interest. But the great journal which rolls on like time itself, engrossing a whole age and its inhabitants, carrying the reader more forcibly into the stream of events than any work of fiction, calls for a rare combination of qualities. In the first place, the great diarist must command language with the effortless authority of any other major literary figure. Again he must have the objective ability to recognise and present crucial aspects of his own experience and the innocence to make them public. More important, and most rare, is the ability to make his life and his diary into a continuum so that the diary and the keeping of it become an important aspect of the reality it chronicles.

Possibly only Pepys and Boswell have ever achieved the heights of which the diary is capable. Significantly both their journals are, in addition to their other virtues, very funny. And the humour is, again significantly, often at the authors’ expense and testifies to the fact that the diarist is indifferent, while pursuing truth, to the danger of appearing ridiculous. The brief passages from Boswell here reproduced include a quotation by him from Lord Mountstuart who, travelling with the diarist, remarked: ‘I shall always esteem you, but you’re most disagreeable to live with’. In a glorious dialogue between Boswell and his servant, Jacob, the latter deflates the upstart author with: ‘I believe, Sir, that you have been badly brought up. You have not the manners of a nobleman’. But even as we laugh we absorb vital insights into the nature of 18th century, and indeed universal, human relationships. In fact, an appetite for life that makes no distinction between the creditable and the discreditable seems to be the most valuable single character trait that a diarist aiming at immortality can possess.

In pedantic vein, one might maintain that an anthology of diaries is, like an assembly of universes, a self-contradictory notion. Each diary is essentially a complete cosmos that treats of every real and imagined (such as the enthralling dream sequences in these pages) aspect of experience. But this technical cavil apart, Ronald Blythe has done a fine job of providing what – considering the sheer bulk of the originals – can hardly be more than a hint of the tang of the flavour of so many different universes. He has also done a heroic one. A quick calculation suggests that he must have read thirty or forty million words to bring us this succulent compendium.

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