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Word from Wormingford

01 January 2016

Ronald Blythe ponders diaries and journals, private and public

DIARIES come in all sizes, and are not to be judged by length. Some are a long life’s length: Samuel Pepys’s is nine years long. They could be kept for a special occasion, a war, a journey, or a love affair. They could be read to amuse friends, sent piecemeal through the post, or locked up and hidden from sight, their secret existence being a large part of their importance to their owners.

They could be a diarist’s most valued possession. “I am increasingly haunted by Horace Walpole,” wrote Sir Henry Channon. “Can I be his reincarnation? I’m so like him in many ways. Honor and I have decided to bury my diaries in the churchyard [at Kelvedon, Essex — it is 23 May 1940, and Hitler’s invasion is expected]. “ Mortimer has promised to dig a hole tomorrow evening, after the other gardeners have gone home; perhaps some future generation will dig them up.”

Later: “I collected two volumes of diaries, dating from October 1940 till now, and took them to the British Museum, but I was received with indifference.”

Many hundreds of English and American diaries exist in print. It seems to become the fashion for well-known people, especially politicians, to publish fat edited versions of their diaries in retirement. There are, too, great numbers of manuscript diaries in local libraries, national archives, and attics.

A diarist’s individual flavour takes a few pages to catch, and a paragraph or two won’t do. Robert Fothergill speaks of the diary as “the passionately cherished Book of the Soul”: he is talking of Pepys, but every diary attains to this to some degree.

The first diarists wrote to bring some systematising to the rich model of their lives. What did they believe? What did they do? What and who were they? When all is said and done, however, we read diaries and journals because they seem to possess a special literary ability. “I believe”, Fothergill says in his private diaries, “that the major achievements in diary writing have been produced out of a conscious respect for the diary as a literary form . . . and that the criteria which they aspire to meet are by far the most appropriate and rewarding.”

Diary: from the Latin diarium, which means daily. Journal: from the Latin giornale, which means daily. Journey: a day’s travel.

Although diaries and journals become indistinguishable very early on, journals retain some reputation of being of great public importance, and the former always mean privacy.

John Evelyn’s is one of the longest and grandest of diaries. He adored spectacle, processions, architecture, gardens, trees, paintings, fruit, duels. He is a public diarist who conducts the reader toward the great happenings of his times. He was 27 when he and his wife returned from abroad to a very much changed England, where Cromwell was assuming power.

One day, Evelyn slipped into the Painted Chamber in Whitehall to listen to politicians discussing the killing of the King, and from this point on the great formal diaries take over in national events. But now, diaries include rich accounts of the birth of modern science. The diary is a source book for all times, and is full of wonderful portraits of contemporary people.

A great many people will begin a diary on New Year’s Day, but, like me, are not likely to proceed with it for more than a month or so. There are many beginnings of diaries, and few ends of diaries, and the New Year always brings a clean sheet that you need to write on — but, eventually, a lot of it isn’t written on at all.

This is what will happen on New Year’s Day in many bedrooms, studies, offices, and governments.

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