Imprisoned though he is in that wonderfully self-satisfied French tradition of announcing and defining, Derrida must none the less be said to be spot-on about diaries. He says in Of Grammatology: ‘I can answer the threat of the other as other (than I) only by transforming it into another (than itself) through altering it in my imagination.’ I recalled these oracular words when browsing in the Faber Book of Diaries, a gripping compilation, with several diary entries from different centuries for each day of the year. The effect of variety, and of uniformity, achieved by Simon Brett’s use of this method, and by the breadth of his selecttion, is very striking.
Equally striking is the illustration of Derrida’s point about ‘the other’. Diarists could indeed be said to be afraid of themselves, and to transform those selves into ‘another’, as the language-user disarms the world by inventing words for it, words quite different from the things they describe. The diarist’s ‘other’ is neither himself, nor his self as it appears to those who know him, but a third entity – the diary self. Its company becomes familiar, reassuring, misleading. Why do some people need it so much, a fix that becomes hard to do without? ‘What a vile little diary,’ wrote Katherine Mansfield on January 1915, ‘but I am determined to keep it this year.’ Bereavements and troubles made the ‘other’ in it infinitely precious, a release from the daily grind of consciousness, in which most people without the lust for words have to be content to remain.
Nonetheless, that third entity speaks to our consciousness, as reader and outsider, as no other literary form can. It is the writer as he most needs himself, the thing that keeps him from what Derrida calls ‘the anguish of dispersion’. The fascination of the best diaries is that the writer cannot but seem unhinged, slightly cracked, if only in the sense that anyone looks slightly cracked if unexpectedly seen intent on some private business. A real diary must seem not to have been written for us, but only in order to satisfy the diarist’s secret need, which like most addictions remains unexplained. It is not exactly self-absorption: Boswell’s sense of himself soon palls. It is not vanity, ambition, the desire to see oneself is print – any of the usual publishing reasons. Gerard Manley Hopkins describing a peacock’s tail gives an almost embarrassing impression of easing himself, as if the intensity of his sense of the thing can only find this outlet.
I have thought it looks like a tray or green basket or fresh-cut willow hurdle set all over with paradise fruits cut through – first through a beard of golden fibre and then through wet flesh greener than greengages or purpler than grapes – or say that the knife had caught a tatter or flag of the skin and laid it flat across the flesh – and then within all a sluggish corner drop of black or purple oil.
Typing that out makes one see and feel the tailness of a peacock’s tail as never before, but the metaphors – flesh, green wetness – unlike those in a comparable poem, retain their secret involuntariness. As in the best diaries, there is, too, an involuntary social touch. ‘Paradise fruits’ are presumably Kiwi fruit, and it is interesting to find these apparently well-known to the Victorian bourgeoisie.
On the other hand, Hopkins, like most diarists, can give the impression of striking out a phrase for a hypothetical reader, rather than as and for himself. ‘Took Brother Tournade to Combe Wood to see and gather bluebells, which we did, but fell in blue-handed with a gamekeeper, which is a humbling thing to do.’ That seems almost intended to be shared with Brother Tournade, whoever he was. In the same way, though much more touchingly, Dorothy Wordsworth makes it clear whose eyes her own journal is for, after William and his brother John had left her in Trasmere, and set off to walk into Yorkshire, ‘cold pork in their pockets’: ‘I resolved to write a journal of the time till W and J return, and I set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give Wm pleasure by it when he comes home again.’ Dorothy’s is an odd case of a diary genuinely intended to merge the diarist into the personality of someone else; or perhaps – more plausibly – to make a display, like a peacock’s tail, before the loved one.
In many diaries there seems to be an element of courtship, as if the diarist were practising on him or herself how to be attractive to other people. This can be deeply pathetic, as in the case of Emily Shore, dying of consumption in the late 1830s, and writing in her diary: ‘God be praised for giving me such excellent parents. They are more than any wishes can desire, or any words can sufficiently praise. Their presence is like sunshine to my illness.’ That was not intended for the parents’ eyes, but as a kind of exercise in dying well, keeping one’s attractions throughout the daily horrors of the process, practising the articulation of a very real gratitude. It would have been well understood by Walter Scott:
Some things of the black dog hanging about me but I will shake him off. I generally affect good spirits in company of my family whether I am enjoying them or not. It is too severe to sadden the harmless mirth of others by suffering your causeless melancholy to be seen. And this species of exertion is like virtue its own reward, for the good spirits which are first simulated become at length real.
In his daily grind at the Waverley novels, written to pay off the debts of himself and his publisher, Scott was in a sense doing the same thing: simulating history until it became at length real to the reader, or at least as real as the source of any other addiction. Yet most good diaries – Malcolm Muggeridge’s, for instance – are in no sense self-improving but quietly shameless, full of the mystery of being a solitary consciousness, rattling to and fro in its cage, caring for nothing and for nobody.
Being attractive, even seductive, in imagination is certainly a diary solace. Unexpected people, like Siegfried Sassoon, reveal a sort of solitary skittishness. ‘Rainy weather. Does the weather matter in a journal? Lunched alone; does that matter? (Grilled turbot and apple pudding, if you want full details.)’ To whom is he talking? His other selves? George Gissing is recording yet another doleful fact, as an aide-mémoire and warning to himself, when he writes: ‘Not quite six pages. Bought some bottled ale, thinking it might help me to sleep if I drank some before going to bed.’ Naturally enough, it didn’t. ‘Jan 23. 1888. Bottled ale has given me a headache. Clearly I can’t use it. Shall try a glass of hot water at bedtime.’ That is the equivalent of writing, ‘Must see Jones next week,’ and yet there is in it Gissing’s additional and personal pleasure in recording failure. Few diaries, even those of naturally sanguine people, are interested in success.
Anne Chalmers in 1830 wrote about a visit to the zoo as if she was trying out the way to talk in company, and the way to sound funny and desirable. It worked, because she only kept the diary one year, on a visit, and then married a Dr Hanna, who was later to be her father’s biographer. Diaries and sex can go together in every sort of way, particularly in the pleasure of recording an act (though not a sex act, naturally) as it takes place. ‘Broadest sunlight pouring onto me in bed, warm, melting the frost flowers so that a steam goes up, waving, wreathing its shadow across this page as I write.’ That is Denton Welch, who liked to write ‘as I write’. His great admirer, Barbara Pym, liked to record buying matching underclothes, chosen for the pleasure of imagining someone else seeing them. This is an important aspect of love in a diary – you imagine the loved one reading it, and giggle all the more at the thought. Pym is better than almost anyone at the feel of being in love, which is a solitary matter shared with the diary self: no lover could be aware of it, because in the presence of the lover awkwardness and difficulty would be all – the real lyricism of the thing can only flower on the page. Joan Wyndham, on the other hand, another diarist and contemporary of Pym who conveys the same inimitable sense of being a silly girl, or rather of wanting to be a silly girl, as the diary self, also likes to note the solid satisfactions of sex, how it took place in a very peaceful and rewarding way after a wartime meal of onions and steak (all the loved one’s meat ration) and is pleasant to look back on. (She was careful to use Volpar gels.)
Many diarists have a sexual relation of some sort with their diary, Siegfried Sassoon suggesting to it that he had fallen in love with Walter de la Mare’s son Colin, ‘an elf or plump-faced fairy’ about fifteen years old. De la Mare, Sassoon records, called poetry a ‘literary shorthand – above reality’: ‘His mind is an enchanted landscape lit by unearthly gleams and fiery auguries. Thinking of him I am urged towards “fine writing”. And Colin is the sorcerer’s child.’ In de la Mare’s little house in surburban Anerley only his wife struck a discordant note: ‘a tired-looking silent gray woman, who scarcely utters a word. She looks as if she’s spent a sleepless week in a haunted house, without being acutely frightened – merely very tired.’ Edward Leeves’s journal existed as a kind of memorial to his love for a Lifeguardsman who died of cholera at Chelsea Barracks in 1849. ‘Recollections! I am heartsick of everything, & long only for that peace which is nowhere but in the grave.’ The very falsity of that has something deeply moving about it: the diary form embodies the truth of the emotion, not minding about the words. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, is uncomfortable to read because the smart striking words of her diary seem to give her no ease: she is outside even the other self it offers, and cannot have a love relation with its contents, the sort of relation which is so mysteriously paramount in everything about which Francis Kilvert writes.
Simon Brett remarks, very truly, that one of the pleasures of reading a diary rather than a memoir is the strong – and as it were involuntarily accurate – impression one forms of the diarist, an impression quite independent of his own sense and need for himself in what he wrote. Beside many of the others Boswell and even Pepys seem to lack this kind of interest, as do diarists – Virginia Woolf again and Denion Welch, whose model was Gide – who use their journals deliberately to practise and improve their own writing. ‘Don’t ponder, don’t grope,’ Virginia Woolf noted – ‘just plunge something down, and perhaps more clearness and quickness will come with practice.’ But, as Simon Brett says, Woolf, Welch or Ackerley seem incapable of writing badly, so their reader has other compensations. A specially interesting man, Charles Ritchie, the great friend of Elizabeth Bowen, found in his diary the compensation for his complete failure to be ‘a writer’. Young diarists usually show off. Evelyn Waugh records in 1956 that in the hope of understanding his son Auberon better ‘I read the diaries I kept at his age. I was appalled at the vulgarity and priggishness.’
The point, as Dorothy Wordsworth put it, is not ‘to quarrel with oneself’, however genuine the disgust that someone like Evelyn Waugh might feel when rereading old diaries, but to record anything and everything, no matter for whose eyes or for no eyes at all, although most if not all diarists must be shrewdly aware that the simple facts about their day will be greedily read at some moment in the future by people who are undergoing the same sort of facts but not writing them down. These people, if they exist, will prefer facts to impressions and ‘fine writing’, like Virginia Woolf’s about a rain-storm on a pond on 4 October 1934: ‘a rapid smirch of shadow. Now light from the sun; green and red; shiny; the pond a sage green; the grass brilliant green; red berries on the hedges; the cows very white.’ Wouldn’t one rather read Chips Channon’s entry for 9 November 1949? ‘Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 77. I never think of him.’ Except, evidently, when indulging the diary self.
That self at best is narcissistic, existing to enjoy its own solipsism rather than its own self. Denton Welch’s cultivation of this makes him one of the best diarists. It should also, reflects Harold Nicolson, be a ‘mean little’ self, like that of Pepys. ‘To be a good diarist one must have a little snouty, sneeky mind.’ The good diarist is more interested in the pain in his elbow, or the shoes of the girl he saw on the bus, than in his own wife and family. Nonetheless, Linda Pollock has had the admirable idea of combing letters, diaries and memoirs over the centuries for references to children, childbirth and parental feelings towards their young. The results make a fascinating book, very well organised and set out.
Pregnancy, as Queen Victoria frequently observed, is seldom or never welcome to the diary self. When pregnant, Mary Walker, in America in 1838, ‘began to feel discouraged, felt as if I almost wished I had never been married’. But the coming of children alters the diary’s nature. One of the Mathers, in New England in 1675,
sat up all night with Nathaniel, who continued to be ill. Towards morning God rebated the fever and the pains that were upon him. AM studied sermon. Nathaniel continuing ill, much hindered in my studies.
Nathaniel survived, as so many children did not. Cotton Mather’s four-year-old daughter, ‘my little and my only Katherine, taken so dangerously sick that small hope of her life was left unto us’, also recovered, after causing the parental record much loving anxiety. The Earl of Sutherland, in 1671, sent his wife Jean minute and affectionate instruction on how to treat their small baby’s constipation. Arthur Young records in his diary his dreadful grief at the death of his daughter Bobbin, which he never got over.
Linda Pollock comes to the conclusion – indeed to do so was the point of her inquiry – that historians are wrong to suggest that children in the past were treated like little adults, or that affection for them was seldom expressed, or that the high rate of mortality made parents indifferent. ‘Parents, whatever the official beliefs of their cultures, took the same intense delight and anxious interest as modern parents in their children’s birth and infancy.’ Only historians could ever have supposed otherwise.