Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Rules for Diarists

As I've mentioned, I've been reading Fanny Burney's diaries. Fanny Burney was a very popular novelist who died in 1840. She kept a diary from the age of fifteen onwards, although she destroyed many of the more sensitive sections. It's the best non-fictional diary I've encountered so far. (Diary of a Nobody and The Diary of Adrian Mole are amongst my favourite novels.)

Diaries fascinate me because I'm fascinated with day-to-day life, and with the very concept of days. I've struggled to put this into words, or even into concepts, because "day-to-day life" seems such a redundant phrase. Isn't all life day-to-day life? Nobody talks about weekly life or hourly life or monthly life.

But, given that we experience life one day at a time, we rarely represent it in this way. Novels and movies and histories skip from day to day, wordlessly. When an episode of a TV series takes a "day in the life" approach, this is exceptional, and seen as exceptional.

Philip Larkin's poem "Days" is one of the few creative works which ponder this subject:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.


One of the things that fascinates me about days is that they come in so many "flavours". There are good days, bad days, sick days (not always bad days!), big days (not always good days!), rainy days, busy days, slow days, first days, last days, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer, long winter evenings...and let's not forget nights! How many creative works have titles like Attic Nights or Arabian Nights? There's something very poetic about that formulation.

My father is a big fan of the Restorationist diarist Samuel Pepys. When I was a child, his evocative descriptions of Pepys's diaries made me assume that I would also fall in love with him. Alas, this didn't happen-- I could never get into Pepys, despite several efforts.

It's quite hard to find a good diary, at least for my purposes. I've given up on many diarists because they weren't what I was looking for. Here are, in my view, the requirements of a good diary:

1) It can't be a "special occasion" diary. I have no time for war diaries, election diaries, travel diaries, and so forth. To put it bluntly, they sicken me. The whole point of a diary is that it encompasses the variety of life. Who wants a cake that is all plums, or music that is all crescendo?

2) They can't be too introspective. I'm not interested in reading a diary which resembles a Dostoyevsky novel. (Probably because I'm not interested in reading a Dostoyevsky novel.) A diary which is all about emotions and thoughts is unbearable.

3) Conversely, they can't be too "extrospective". A diary that is simply a chronicle of what happened, and that contains no reflections, is unbearable. A diary entirely focused on public life and not at all on private life is unbearable.

4) The diarist should have an eye for unusual or trivial events, such as random sights on the street.

5) The diarist should tell us, not only about her daily life and her emotional life, but about her intellectual life. One of the best thing about Fanny Burney's diary is her frequent reflections on her reading and theatre-going. She has left us, for instance, detailed descriptions of David Garrick's perfomances and the impact they had on her. (Garrick was a close family friend, so we also meet him "out of make-up", as it were.)

I will keep readers posted on my progress through it!

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