Several 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?