It is such a privilege to have access to someone’s diaries. I  find myself handling  them with something akin to reverence. Recently I  have been in Sydney’s Mitchell Library  reading those  of  English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner.  Sylvia began them in 1927,  the year after she published her  successful debut novel, Lolly Willowes. They  are  deeply personal, yet I suspect they were written with a view of eventual publication in mind.  Writers invariably intend their  personal journals for a wider audience.

For me, the  most  exciting  diaries  to read were those of  the Reverend John Rashdall, one time vicar of Great Malvern’s Abbey Church.

Rev. John Rashdall

Rev. John Rashdall

The volumes  span the first half of the 19thC. They remain unpublished, and  it is likely  Rashdall would have destroyed them if he had not died from a heart attack in his sixties.  I was  fortunate enough to read them  in the beautiful, 15thC Duke Humphrey room, at Oxford’s  Bodleian library. Rashdall was a significant figure in my narrative non-fiction book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters. He called them ‘journals of the soul’ . For this reason I could be pretty sure I was reading the truth in what was a very complex family tragedy.  He was always quite circumspect, but knowing the story behind the events in his diary, I quickly learned that the phrase, ‘I had strong words with…….’ actually meant a blazing row.

I know it’s  hypocritical of me, given the above, but  I intend burning  almost twenty years of my own diaries, despite the protests of my husband. It is not that they  are filled with the outpourings of my soul; quite the reverse.  For example, there are no entries for the six weeks following the death of  my mother.  No, they are  simply tedious scribbles  recording the minutiae  of daily life. For some reason I felt I should enter something every day; a terrible burden which did nothing to lift the literary quality.

My plan is doubly hypocritical because I treasure my father’s farm journals, dating  from 1947 until the mid sixties. They are  such a rich source of family and social history.  The following entries are from January 1951, the month I was born.

My father’s farm diary. It was almost a week after my birth that  he first saw me.

One excuse  for destroying my diaries  is that I have no children to  pass  them down to.  As for Rob, well I started a new diary this year, just for him. I fully  intend to die before he does ; so it will be a loving legacy.  This diary appeals to my whimsical nature as it came with a book of stickers!  No doubt I will write that little bit more self consciously knowing  it will survive my ceremonial book burning.

New start with my sweet new diary.

New start with my sweet new diary.

Rob’s own diaries are  only used for appointments and as an aide memoire. I asked if I could wrap his 2017 volume for Christmas, but he refused to part with it as he was already making entries. In the end I  had to confess that I really wanted to write some sweet  little ‘surprise’  messages through  it.  ‘No no’,  he said dismissively, and I thought, ‘you unromantic bastard!’   I managed to grab it when he was out one day and scribble in a few, including some humorous, but highly uncomplimentary ones.  Several days later I saw him flipping through it; ‘I can’t find any  little messages,’ he said. Honestly,…..how contrary is that?’  Anyway I secretly added quite a few more. He should start coming across them soon.

Do do  you keep a diary, and what form does it take?

FOOTNOTE – Yesterday I heard Rob explode with laughter  having come across my first message, ‘Rob is a complete #!*#!#*’

  1. You make me smile, Pauline!
    I have diaries for most years since I was a teenager, but I don’t exactly ‘keep a diary’ – nowadays it’s mostly scribbles recording places visited. No doubt the family will try to read them when I’m gone, but as my writing is invariably hasty, they’ll no doubt be swearing in frustration at not being able to read the damn things!

    • Pauline

      Yes, mine are virtually illegible too, Ann. I’m printing the legacy one for Rob. lol

  2. Interesting as it was to read, your missive on diaries – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s, your dad’s annals, Rob’s, and your own, left me feeling incredibly sad. I still haven’t quite analysed and concluded why that might be!
    I always started a small diary in my teenage years but never managed an entry beyond the 3rd week in January! After marriage and children, I found no time to keep a diary, apart from the necessity of my work diaries which were filled with appointments, flight and hotel details. That big A4 diary was my ‘bible’ and consulted several times per day.
    I did however always keep a journal if I had a special or unusual holiday i.e multiple trips to Australia, Peru, Canada, China, Vietnam & Cambodia, which I still have.
    I always kept a private diary after 1973 for personal appointments and dates, but also as an aide memoire because my brother had moved to Australia for a new job, and we corresponded regularly. I would check my diary which was useful as a prompt to fill my blue Airmail letter to him with interesting snippets – probably nothing more interesting than youngest son losing his first baby tooth!
    I restarted keeping an annual diary in 2000 when the mother of my son’s current girlfriend at the time, produced a personal ‘week to a page diary’ on which each opposite page had a poem written by that lady, which she gave me and other friends and family a copy each as a Christmas gift. Those poems were funny, moving, clever, and many other things. At the end of that year I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of it, really because of the poems, so have continued to buy a diary of suitable size to write my days activities and thoughts. The diaries are always specially chosen reflecting personal passions whether of gardens, aerial photography, ecology, and beautiful scenery. This year’s version is Bradshaw’s Diary (as in the Bradshaw Guide to railways) so is filled with pictures and facts about the age of the railway!
    I have several decades of my mother’s diaries which despite her passing away in 1999, I have still to transcribe. She had bold, neat writing as a rule, but always purchased a tiny ‘Mothers Union’ diary from her church, so the pages are therefore filled with the tiniest, cramped writing imaginable. I will need the help of my strong magnifying glass to decipher them. It is on my long list of things to do!
    As for my own journals from the year 2000, I have been extracting little snippets that I have come across to write in a beautifully bound notebook given me as a present from an old friend I visited in Canada some years ago; these include the odd poem, interesting bits of information I’ve heard or seen in a book/magazine, and funny things that my granddaughter has come out with which have made me smile etc. When I have extracted the ‘worthy bits’ from old journals, they will be shredded or perhaps even burnt. My apologies that this in itself has turned into a bit of a missive. I do waffle on a bit!

    • Pauline

      Well this might be a record as the longest comment Marcia, but I was most interested to read about your own diary keeping. And yes, diaries can be so full of private pain. x

  3. I’ve kept a diary since my mother gave me my first one for Christmas way back in 1964. I too am a big fan of rather other people’s (published) diaries such as “Ann Frank”, and “Blanche – An Australian Diary 1858-1861 (daughter of Sir Thomas Mitchell). Keeping a diary has been very handy over the years, settling family arguments as to when so-and-so did such-and-such, and prompting myself about what to write to friends and family overseas. The only time I haven’t written in them has been after hospitalization in recent years.
    As to what happens to them after I die, well 50 or 60 little books would probably make a good bonfire!

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