This feature first appeared in Chapter and Verse, and was used as an example for students in Writers Bureau course material.
COULD YOU BE THE NEXT PEPYS?
Have you ever thought of keeping a diary? Somewhere to write down all the important things which happened to you today; confess your inner thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows, secret worries… and the shocking price of potatoes.
However detailed you make your journal, you will be following a time-honoured path, in the footsteps of some of our most famous literary men and women.
Samuel Pepys (1633- 1703), the great diarist, is a hard act to follow. Of course, he lived in interesting times; he witnessed the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London.
"2 Sept 1666. …we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire. We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire… above a mile long. It made me weep to see it… "
Pepys held an important post in the Navy Board, and helped lay the foundations of the modern Royal Navy; he recorded his work and home life in unparalleled detail and wonderful prose. Because of the dangerous political climate after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, his diary was written in a special shorthand to keep it from prying eyes, (not his long-suffering wife Elizabeth, who knew no shorthand). When a careless remark literally meant risking one’s neck, just meeting an old school friend was cause for alarm.
"1 November 1660. …He did remember that I was a great Roundhead when I was a boy, and I was much afeared that he would have remembered the words that I said the day that the King was beheaded…"
Even today, political diaries can cause controversy, such as Richard Crossman’s diaries in the mid 1970s, or more recently Alan Clark’s witty, highly personal account of ministerial life during the Thatcher years.
Of course, only a select few of us are in a position to write a great political journal. “Who would want to read my diary?” you may ask yourself. But remember, the tiny details of everyday life become forgotten precisely because few people bother to write them down. Washing day, for example, meant an early start in the Pepys household:
"6 Oct. 1663. Slept pretty well, and my wife waked to ring the bell to call up the maids to the washing about 4 a-clock and I was, and she, angry that our bell did not wake them sooner; but I will get a bigger bell."
Pepys loved music, dancing, and going to the theatre (not always in his wife’s company); one wonders what Pepys would have thought about cinema and television. Every generation has its own pastimes and pleasures, and an enjoyable day out is always worth recording. Parson James Woodforde (1740 -1803), who lived in Norfolk, mentions visits to the seaside, a trip to witness a balloon ascent, and spending a shilling to see a “learned Pigg” with a “magic collar” at a local inn.
How intimate should you make your diary? Would you want your children and grandchildren to read about your love life? Pepys’s Diary was so explicit concerning his extra-marital affairs that it was not published in full until the 1970s; yet he obviously hoped it would be read by later generations, because he took great pains to ensure that all six leather-bound volumes were carefully preserved at Magdalene College, Cambridge in their original bookcases.
Another wonderful diarist who actually wanted his work to be published after his death was James Boswell (1740 -1795); but his family felt the contents of his journal to be so scandalous that it was hidden away for many years. The story of how the Boswell papers were ‘lost,’ scattered, and retrieved is a detective story in itself; it was not until the late 1920s that Boswell’s private papers and journal were in print at last.
Boswell’s London journal was sent to his friend John Johnstone in weekly parcels, so he was consciously writing his story for an audience. But he does not scruple to set down his good and bad days, his follies and social solecisms, with an engaging candour, even if it means showing himself in a poor light for his reader. The diary is peppered with everyday conversation, such as the customers’ chatter in Child’s, the coffee-house where he often dined, meetings with writer Oliver Goldsmith, actor David Garrick and many others.
Monday 16 May, 1763 was the day which changed Boswell’s life forever. At last he met “…the great Samuel Johnson, whom I have so long wished to see. …As I knew his mortal antipathy to the Scotch, I cried to Davies, ‘Don’t tell where I come from.’ However, he said, ‘From Scotland.’ ‘Mr Johnson,’ said I, ‘indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’ ‘Sir,’ replied he, ‘that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’…I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.”
This historic meeting led to an extraordinary friendship between the two men, and to the first truly modern biography, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which depicted Johnson ‘warts and all’; no detail was too trifling or personal to be omitted in the Scotsman’s celebrated portrait of his friend.
A loving vignette of another famous literary figure comes from the pen of Dorothy Wordsworth (1771- 1855), sister of poet William. Dorothy and William were exceptionally close despite, or perhaps because of, being separated during a large part of their childhood; they lived and travelled together even after William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson. Through Dorothy’s eyes, we can see William at work on his poems in their tiny home at Dove Cottage, Grasmere;
"March 14, 1802. William had slept badly…at breakfast…with his basin of broth beside him untouched, and a little plate of bread and butter, he wrote the Poem to a Butterfly…"
Dorothy writes about her walks with William and their friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in vivid prose, and we know both William and Coleridge drew inspiration from her journals. Here is Dorothy’s description of an unforgettable sight which William recreated as his ‘Daffodils’ poem:
"15 April 1802. … I never saw daffodils so beautiful…some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind…"
Dorothy’s journal was not published in her lifetime, but she was happy for friends and family to read it. Your prospective audience will determine how minutely you record your daily life; whether you intend it to be a family memoir, or a voyage through your emotions. The feeling of ‘looking over someone’s shoulder’, of vicariously sharing another person’s existence, has been used with huge dramatic effect by novelists through the ages. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a fictional account of the Plague based on eyewitness and official accounts of that traumatic time.
More recently, Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ was a best-seller, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary offers a modern ‘take’ on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
How should you record your diary? Pen and ink has a satisfying permanence; of course you could use your PC, but don’t forget the floppy disks and CD-ROMs of today may not be compatible with computers of the future, so you should always keep a hard copy. If you have internet access, you can even put your diary on the World Wide Web as a ‘weblog’ so that at the click of a mouse, millions of people can share your life.
Whether you write your diary for the historical record or just for fun, it seems keeping a diary can become addictive. Samuel Johnson advised James Boswell to make sure a friend burnt his diaries after his death; but Boswell was horrified by the idea. “I have such an affection for this my journal that it shocks me to think of burning it.”
Pepys faithfully kept his diary from 1660 - 1669, (apart from a few days when he went on holiday) but his eyesight deteriorated and he became convinced (wrongly) he was going blind, and that the strain of writing by candlelight was aggravating his complaint. He bade a sad farewell to his ‘journall’:
"May 31 1669. …And so I betake myself to that course which is almost as much as to see to myself go into my grave – for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me."
Although his eye disorder did not worsen, and he later wrote two more brief journals, Pepys never again created work of the stature of his great Diary, in which he laid his life bare in his own singular language and style.
Samuel Pepys was very much a man forged in his own times; if born today, what kind of journal would he have written? Maybe someone, somewhere is busy scribbling what will one day be regarded as the definitive Diary of our age.
Could it be you?
Text © Sue Wilkes, 2004.
Image © Sue and Nigel Wilkes. Illustration from Charles Knight's History of England, c. 1868, Author's collection.