Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries

LifeatGrasmereSeveral years ago, I subscribed to RSS feeds for the diaries of Samuel Pepys and George Orwell. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea. The feeds updated on dates recorded in their diaries with the entry for that day, so readers could experience the years along with them. It would be like reading their diaries in real time.

I subscribed to those feeds for months, and in all those months, nothing of interest happened. Pepys went to meetings and dinners with people I knew nothing about and then came home and went to bed. Orwell gathered eggs, keeping a count of how many he gathered each day. I’m sure something of interest happened eventually because both of these men led interesting lives and are good writers. In fact, I’ve read Pepys riveting diary entries about the great fire of London in 1666. But weeks of boredom meant I often marked the diaries as read in my feed reader without even looking at them. If something interesting happened—and I know it did—I missed out. It turns out that random diary entries aren’t necessarily interesting, even when the diarist’s writing is generally worthwhile.

I remembered those diaries when reading this little book from Penguin’s English Journeys collection. The book is mostly made up of diary entries by Dorothy Wordsworth from May to November 1800, when she and her brother William lived in Dove Cottage at Grasmere. I picked up the book on my last trip to London (four years ago!), during which I actually visited Grasmere. It seemed like a nice keepsake to have.

Dorothy’s diary—at least in the entries preserved here—chronicles daily life at Grasmere, mostly focusing on walks she took alone and with her brothers or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a frequent visitor. She mentions visits they make and visitors they receive and some of the poems they read and write. And she notes some of the cooking that she does. It’s a simple account of ordinary life, with little additional introspection. It’s the kind of thing that might interest a Wordsworth biographer or someone studying daily life in the 1800s. But as a general reader, with limited interest in Wordsworth, I didn’t find much here, especially given that the small volume contains hardly no notes or explanatory text putting these months in the context of the Wordsworths’ life. In fact, I didn’t realize until well into the book that the John she mentions so frequently is another brother.

The poems scattered through the book are perfectly fine poems, if you’re a lover of Wordsworth, which I’m not. I don’t dislike his poetry—I just find it rather dull. The poems appear when they are mentioned in the diary, usually because Dorothy copied the poem out or because William read the poem to her. Only in a couple of cases do we learn more about the writing of the poem.

I don’t think this book is meant to be in-depth in any way—it’s a small, keepsake-type book. But it raises a question in my mind about what I’m looking for when reading a diary. The form appeals to me very much, but I can think of hardly any diaries that I’ve read and loved. In truth, I think I like fictional diaries like that of Bridget Jones.

The trouble, I think, with actual diaries, is that daily life is not inherently interesting—it’s the telling that makes it so. A record of daily activities is valuable to an anthropologist, but becomes little more that a repetitive list of activities to those without a special interest in the topic. A more introspective diary could provide some insights into a person’s mind, but when I consider the own unpolished and introspective journals that I used to keep, I can see how that sort of thing can become just as repetitive. (I used to pick away at the same dilemmas and worries for weeks and months on end—I gave up journaling because the thought patterns bored me!

It occurs to me that diarists are not necessarily writing for an audience, and so they aren’t trying to be interesting or avoid going over the same things again and again. Diarists write for their own purposes—to get their thoughts out or maintain a record. Writing for an audience changes the writing. Anne Frank revised her diary over the years with a future audience in mind. And even when a diarist isn’t considering, editors may prune out the extraneous material or offer some explanatory notes to enrich the dull bits.

So what do I want when I read a diary? I want a vivid and compelling voice, first and foremost. I love learning about times and places that I couldn’t otherwise experience, but that may require a diarist (or later editor) to fill in gaps that wouldn’t be filled in a personal, private diary. Rougher writing, with less context might be acceptable in the work of a someone whose thinking I’m highly interested in. But that could be a stretch. I read unpolished writing on blogs regularly (and I write it myself!), but blogs are written for an audience. Someone has to consider the audience.

What do you think? Are there diaries you find particularly wonderful? What makes them so great?

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27 Responses to Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries

  1. rebeccareid says:

    ooo see, I love Wordsworth and did a biographical study of him and his sister when I was an undergrad. What you say about diaries…that is pretty much why I stopped writing in one. I wrote daily or nearly so from aged 8 or so until I was about 24 or 25. There were some lapses over the years, but it was pretty consistent. But I’ve never picked it up again mostly because I know how boring it is to go back to reread most of it!

  2. I would single out Boswell’s Journals, all 12 volumes, but more sensibly and especially the first volume, The London Journal.

    Fanny Burney’s diaries are good. I’ve read the single volume Penguin Classics edition, Journals and Letters.

    Lots of traveler’s books are not much more than their diaries, fleshed out or trimmed back. I’m reading one of those now, Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North, a polar expedition. I’m not sure these will do what you want, though. They are not gossipy, and it sounds like you want gossip.

    Boswell, now that’s got gossip. Burney is moderately gossipy.

    Emerson’s journals are magnificent (I’ve read a one volume version), as are Thoreau’s. But, if you had asked your question in a different context, I would have immediately recommended Dorothy Wordsworth, since I think Grasmere is a masterpiece, and I, a married man, am not a lover of Wordsworth, but rather have a distant but respectful relationship with him.

    Dorothy Wordsworth was definitely writing for an audience. “I shall give William Pleasure by it.” Many blogs are written for an audience no bigger; I write one of them.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t necessarily want gossip–but I want more than a catalogue of events. Some introspection would do just as well. Or even events that are more out-of-the-ordinary (as in a travel journal). I’m almost certain I’ve read bits and pieces of Boswell’s journals, and I’d definitely consider more. Ditto Emerson.

      And I’ve read and enjoyed several travel journals, but that trimming and fleshing out process makes a big difference in making them more pleasing to a general reader like me. Polar expeditions are of particular interest to me, so I’ll keep Nansen in mind.

      The difference between Dorothy, with her audience of one, and a diarist writing for publication (or a blogger writing for whomever) is that Dorothy had more reason to assume her audience would be interested in her day-to-day doings.

      • Pykk says:

        I’d argue that you do have more than a catalogue of events. You have the radiant attention that she paid to form and colour: “the colours of the sky of a bright grey, and the forms of a sober grey, with a dome.” And her attention to form and colour is also attention to place and placement. “We went up to Easedale and walked backwards and forwards in that flat field which makes the second circle of Easedale with that beautiful Rock in the field beside us and all the rocks and the woods and the mountains enclosing us round.” Richard Long’s art practice is an extrapolation of her sensibility. Her poeticisms are ecstatic, suggestive, and never overdone: “It was a tree in shape with stem and branches but it was like a Spirit of Water.” She is attracted to human eccentricity: see the story about the dead infants from Thursday the third of June, 1802. All events, when she sees them, are out of the ordinary, or they have the potential to be so. She goes for a walk after dinner and a nondescript sight occurs to her like an omen: “the only star like a sun flashed out at intervals from behind a black cloud.” (I think the evidence for her attentiveness here is in the phrase “at intervals” and the word “black;” a diarist who was just jotting down events would not have cared that the cloud was black, and would not have minded whether the flash was happening at intervals or constantly.) Wordsworth is at the core of British nature writing, though she’s not the earliest. Francis Kilvert was born from her and The Peregrine owes her a debt.

        To me she’s less William-Wordsworthian than she is Classical Chinese.

        East of Jieshi mountain, I gaze at the blue sea.
        The water dances so gently, the mountain island towers.
        Trees here grow thick, a hundred grasses are lush.
        The autumn wind soughs, great waves rise up.
        The path of the sun and moon, seems to come from within.
        The splendid Milky Way, seems to come from inside.
        Oh, I am so lucky, to be singing my song!

        (Walking from Xiamen and Looking at the Blue Sea, by Cao Cao (155-220). I’m not sure who wrote the translation.)

      • Ah, that’s good. William translates his sister’s prose into Romanticism. Everyone prefers Dorothy’s daffodils passage to the poem now, yes?

        I think the expressed preference for Bridget Jones led me to the idea of gossip. Although Jones’s cigarette counting is not so far from Orwell’s eggs.

      • Teresa says:

        Pykk, I think you’ve gotten at part of the problem. This edition was just six months of entries, and it’s entirely possible that it was part of a dull stretch. The story of the dead infants that you mention wasn’t included, nor were there more than a handful of arresting descriptions. There were a few nice pieces of description, but the ones you quote aren’t familiar, and excellent descriptive prose alone is not often enough for me.

        Tom, I wouldn’t call Bridget Jones gossipy. I’d call it introspective. She obsesses over herself more than anyone else. And if it were nothing more than cigarette counts for weeks at a time, I wouldn’t have liked it. (The Orwell diaries suffered from the daily format. In print, I would have skimmed the weeks of eggs.)

  3. Your commenter who mentions Boswell’s diary is right on the mark: that’s got some interesting bits and pieces practically throughout. As for Dorothy Wordsworth, I only read a bit of hers and was mostly bored, though one fact stuck out for me. As an early graduate student, just come from an undergraduate program, I said to one of my professors, “Wow! Dorothy and William must’ve been really boring people–all they ever seemed to eat was porridge.” My professor shamed me with “That was because they were poor and had nothing else to eat.” So it just goes to show, sometimes it’s the implications of what you read in a diary that are the most interesting, not the actual facts themselves. And knowing what “we lived on 5 pounds 10 shillings that month,” or whatever represents only comes about when you know a lot of other facts, usually from other sources, about what was happening elsewhere at the same time. I chose not to continue with Dorothy.

    • Teresa says:

      Your experience with Dorothy Wordsworth confirms my thinking that this would be more enjoyable with some context, either from my own background knowledge or from a teacher or editor pointing out the implications.

  4. biblioglobal says:

    I just finished reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, essentially a diary from the first year of her son’s life. It was quite enjoyable, but I think it was modified extensively for publication. As you say, the daily record itself probably had a lot more dull and repetitive bits.

    I hadn’t realized the Anne Frank also modified her diary with an eye towards publication. That’s very interesting.

  5. Stefanie says:

    That’s the trouble with diaries sometimes, isn’t it? You get lots of mundane things between the really interesting entries. Virginia Woolf’s diaries are really wonderful because she is a big gossip and writes about all of her friends. But if you aren’t interested in Woolf or Bloomsbury then they probably won’t be so very fun.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m interested enough in Bloomsbury that I may enjoy Woolf’s diaries–I do want to revisit her writing, which I didn’t warm up to way back in college and haven’t gotten around to trying again.

  6. Rohan says:

    I have enjoyed what I’ve read of May Sarton’s journals. Is a journal the same as a diary? I don’t know. To me “diary” suggests more day-to-day chronicling (the mundane stuff, as you note), while “journal” sounds like it at least aspires to more insight or reflection. I have never read Pepys, but if I were to set out to read a diary besides Woolf’s (which I have only dipped into), it would be his.

    • Teresa says:

      I tend to make the same distinction between diaries and journals that you do, but either could be worth reading–or terribly dull, depending on the writer and the circumstances. I think journals have more potential, by that definition, but something like a wartime diary could be excellent, given the right writer.

  7. Pingback: Life at Grasmere and Reading Other People’s Diaries | andrewgodsell

  8. aparatchick says:

    The best diary I’ve ever read is Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries. Not only did she live in dramatic times (Germany/Austria during WWII), but she has an eye for the telling detail that illustrates the larger picture, and is a wonderful descriptive writer.

    • Teresa says:

      I think wartime diaries have a lot of potential interest, although I’ve not read many. I’ll keep Vassiltchikov if I decide to explore the genre further.

      • aparatchick says:

        She was a White Russian princess who, along with her sister, worked in Germany as they were unable to find work anywhere else. Most of her friends were intensely involved – some were killed by the Nazis – in the the plot to kill Hitler. It’s quite an eyewitness document, dramatic and hair-raising and sad.

  9. I couldn’t make my mind up about Life at Grasmere. A lot of it was mundane, unrevealing stuff, and then just occasionally there’d be an enlivening, more intimate moment that was cryptic and intriguing because we didn’t really have enough of a view of her interior emotional landscape to contextualise it. Also I found the scenery had a cumulative atmospheric, calm effect. Being a pretty committed anti-Wordsworthian, I appreciated the difference of her approach from her brother’s in that respect. I liked the way she engaged more directly and vividly with her actual experiences and their physicality, where Wordsworth wants the landscape to mean so much but never quite seems to see it.

    Diaries are hard, and it’s always disappointed me. I tried on and off for years to keep a satisfactory journal and it never worked out. I think you do have to look at it as a daily piece of creative writing if it’s going to result in something that’s interesting in its own right, and most people don’t have the discipline and energy for that, let alone the talent. I’ve always liked fictional diaries; I think I like the idea of having that vivid observation and the skill to render it at your fingertips. And of course the idea of the immediacy and intimacy is appealing. Real diaries are mostly too sketchy and summary-like to deliver. I think with real diaries you more often have to read for the intriguing implications, to get interested in all the interesting things you know you’re not being quite told but can catch a glimpse of.

    I read Kilvert’s Diary recently, the diary of a Victorian country curate, and though I found it a little hard to get into on the whole I enjoyed it. Lots of those incidental idiosyncrasies of a particular period of daily life that get left out of our picture of history. You’d probably have to be ready to be interested in Victorian country life, though, and there’s a lot of scenery.

    • Teresa says:

      There were a few nice passages in the section I read, like the raven one Pykk mentions below, but not enough of them to sustain my interest and too much mundane stuff in between. I think Penguin might have done better by her if they’d selected the particularly good parts instead of choosing a span of time.

      Whenever I’ve successfully kept a diary, it’s been a way of thinking through what happens to me, and the descriptions are so sketchy that when I go back and look through them, I don’t always know what incident I’m referring to. If I were writing for an audience, I’d flesh that stuff out–although I’d also be hesitant to name names, so a publishable diary becomes an impossibility, even if I were highly skilled at it.

  10. Pykk says:

    Wm Wordsworth: translator from the Chinese. There’s that startling passage in The Road to Xanadu where Lowes believes he’s traced one of Dorothy’s moons all the way through Coleridge to a specific line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “No bigger than the Moon,” it might have been, from, “All in a hot and copper sky, | The bloody Sun, at noon, | Right up above the mast did stand, | No bigger than the Moon,” but I don’t have Lowes on me.

    • Pykk says:

      (Teresa, mea culpa, I forgot that your Grasmere stopped before 1801, or else I might have used the raven that she hears near the end of July in place of those other quotes.)

      • Teresa says:

        That raven bit was nice; there just wasn’t a very good ratio of nice bits to dull bits in the section Penguin provided. And even with that said, I’m not sure a whole diary of observations like that one would be up my alley, though I could see how others would enjoy it.

  11. I enjoyed Sylvia Plath’s journals far more than I expected to. She writes rather self-consciously, but even so, her voice is strange and unique enough that the journals were an engaging read. And of course I must mention my girlfriend Joan Wyndham, whose diaries of being in London in WWII (the book is Love Lessons) are just the best thing ever. But in both cases, the diaries were edited before publication.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see how Plath’s journals would be good. I love her poetry, and her spiky voice could translate well to a journal.

      I’ve looked for Joan Wyndham on your recommendation at the library but no luck. So I put them in my Paperback Swap wishlist in the possibly vain hope they’ll turn up there. (I use PBS almost entirely for stuff my library doesn’t have.)

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