menu Language Is A Virus

Private Lives by Susan Hill

Do people write diaries any more? How many still sit down at the end of each day to record people met, things done, thoughts thought, in a bound book and by hand? Young girls aged between six and 16 who at Christmas received a pretty pink book with a little gold lock and key will faithfully fill in the pages of "My Diary" - but by the middle of January boredom will have set in.
When keeping a diary was popular, they were regarded as very private things. (That little pink book will certainly have "Keep Out" printed on its cover.) But public figures often keep their diaries with one eye on publication. Why not ?

Unpublished diarists get private satisfaction from their work. They can unburden themselves of the frustrations of the day ("Dear Diary, Someone's eggy crumbs all over the breakfast table again"); feel free to comment bitchily but with a clear conscience on the lives and appearances of friends, knowing their remarks will never be read by the people they are cheerfully pulling to pieces... ("Henrietta needn't think her botoxing isn't laughably obvious, she can hardly move a face muscle...); make their confession... ("Had a swig of gin straight from the bottle to recover from bloody Henrietta bouncing round to boast that by some fluke her dimwit Jasper has got into Oxford"). If the writer discovered anyone reading this sort of diary they would be mortified, but who would want to? To be worthy of our precious reading time, any diary has to give more than this.

The best, and as far as I know, the first diary-novel is George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody, while contemporary successes include those of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones. It is interesting that all these are comic diary-novels, whereas although a few jokes may be passed on (Richard Eyre has some good ones in National Service ) and the writer may have a witty turn of phrase, real diaries are not comic mainly because life is not a laugh.

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There are nowhere near as many good diaries as good novels. In his introduction to one of the greatest and most enjoyable of all diaries, that of the Reverend Francis Kilvert, William Plomer offers a succinct explanation of why some make enriching reading and others do not: "To keep a diary is to attempt a difficult literary form. Its effectiveness is likely to derive from a special blend of honesty and appetite for life that gives the power to record everyday happenings while magically freeing them from banality and triviality."

Honesty is a sine qua non in a diarist, yet we have no way of telling if the record is an honest one. To hold our attention, and merit our trust, the diarist must first be honest with himself - and how can we be sure when that is the case? We cannot, but the more we immerse ourselves in any diary the better we come to know the writer and we soon develop an ability to tell if he is a self-deceiver on a serious scale.

Kilvert was not. His diary was not written for publication, and as Plomer also explains, much of it is a pedestrian record of the daily round of a rural clergyman in the 19th century. Skilful selection and arrangement boiled the huge whole down to the three volumes Plomer finally presented and rendered so wonderfully readable.

They are a unique and vivid picture by an educated man of country life, mainly that on the Welsh Borders around Hay-on-Wye, later in Wiltshire. But this is no mere historical record; people come alive in the pages of Kilvert, farmers, cottagers, rural workers, the gentry, the commercial and business people of these small market towns. He brings the very old and the children to us especially clearly and we also get an extraordinary picture of how a conscientious clergyman lived his daily life, walking many miles to visit parishioners and take services in outlying churches. And anyone still in doubt about the fact of climate change should read Kilvert's winter entries. This one is for Christmas Day 1872:

"It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke into the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice ... The church was bitterly cold in spite of two roaring stove fires."

Kilvert was a good man and an exemplary parson. His caring Christianity glows through the pages, his loving concern, as well as occasional firm treatment of his parishioners, is very moving. He does not write about himself much but we come to know him well as quite shy, an enjoyer of life with a well developed sense of the risible, not always at ease in his own skin but certainly at ease among others of all types and classes. There is probably no finer account of 19th-century country life outside the pages of fiction. We come out of Kilvert knowing we have been told the truth.

Sir Walter Scott was another truth-teller, another good and upright man. I have never got to grips with his novels and it is chastening now to realise how popular they were; complete runs of Scott were to be found alongside the Bible and Shakespeare in homes that had no other books. Yet it was only when Eric Anderson sent me his edition of Scott's journal that I discovered the man. The book is to some extent a picture of 19th-century Scottish life and times, but best read to meet a quite admirable man whose energy and capacity for hard work is breathtaking. The trials Walter Scott underwent, the way he picked himself up from financial ruin and remade his fortune, his zest for life but frequent poor health - and amusing bouts of hypochondria - would have killed most lesser men.

"28 January 1826. I will not yield without a fight. It is odd when I set myself to work doggedly ... I am exactly the same man that I ever was, neither low-spirited nor distrait. In prosperous times I have sometimes felt my fancy and powers of language flat - but adversity is to me at least a tonic and bracer - the fountain is awakened from its inmost recesses as if the spirit of affliction had troubled it in his passage."

His family life was happy and satisfying and yet complicated by troubles; his relationship with his wife is revealed to us in every nuance of tender affection, frustration and, on her death, anguish and regret. It is poignant to note that when she was alive Sir Walter always referred to his wife as Lady Scott, but the day after her death started calling her Charlotte.

His discursive journal was kept for himself at the end of every long day of writing fiction, histories and letters to a wide circle of correspondents - and all by hand with steel nib and ink; perhaps he would have minded that we should be reading it now, particularly so in preference to his novels. But better to read this magnificent book than never to read Scott at all.

"No walks down the corridors of power," one friend said in answer to my questions about what readers want from diaries.

Agreed - always excepting Alan Clark, the most entertaining of all contemporary political diarists, whose journals are about to be dramatised on BBC4, beginning next Thursday. Wicked indiscretions about the people walking down said corridors are always to be relished but Clark was no mere bean-spiller; he was the shrewdest deflater of pomposity, the cleverest spotter of hypocrisy and double-think, merciless at filleting any reputation based on falsity.

If Kilvert is the least self-aware of diarists, Clark's self-revelations are carefully calculated; he was writing for publication. He is endearingly cheerful when telling us how badly he has behaved, what a shit he has been to this or that woman or friend. There is something of the naughty schoolboy, something of the cruel Sir Jasper, a lot of the Mr Toad - including the cars - about Clark. One takes much of it, especially the self-flagellation, with a pinch of salt, save where his treatment of his loved, loving and long-suffering wife is concerned. There he speaks the truth. And the final volume, in which he faces his own dying, is deeply moving. The buffoon and boaster are stripped away and the "naked fork'd man" is exposed.

In the US, where diaries are usually called journals, the writing of one can be the subject of an MA. One comes to such books with a sense of suspicion. But viewed in this light, the journals of May Sarton take on an extra dimension. Sarton was a complicated woman, born and raised in Belgium and with a strong feeling for Europe, but an American for most of her long life. She was a second-rank novelist and a worse poet, a lesbian of hysterical temperament, a fine teacher of literature who inspired tremendous devotion, and not only among young women. She took herself very seriously.

The best of her journals, The House by the Sea, is an account of her move from the small village community of Nelson, where she had lived with her long-time companion Judy and been the social focus, to an isolated house on the coast of Maine, with only her dog and cat for company - though she entertained numerous visitors. She writes about the emotional traumas of such a life-changing decision, the rewards and difficulties of living alone, the making of a garden, about which she was passionate, the beauties and moods of the sea and of the woods behind her house, friends and fellow-writers, work, love affairs, lecture tours.

As I read I thought I came to know Sarton well, as a creative spirit, a generous and unselfish friend, home-maker, devoted lover and life-enhancer; how proudly she struggles, how hard she works, how dedicated she is, how much she cares for and admires others, how greatly she cherishes her past friendships with people like Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, the Huxleys ...

I loved the house and garden, their surroundings, the dog Tamas and the cat Bramble. I devoured all Sarton's journals, through the course of which she meets ill health, age and infirmity, a stroke, the deaths of friends, and faces the decision to leave a house too large and isolated for an old woman. But gradually and despite her best efforts to conceal herself, we begin to glimpse another person ... demanding, querulous, conceited and self-regarding, difficult, intolerant. Yet until the last brief, sad, complaining jottings, we follow this writer and her life, fascinated and repelled, interested and infuriated, admiring and moved.

It was not until I read Sarton's biography, by Margot Peters, that I discovered the truth about her life and character and discovered what a deceiving concoction the whole journal is. Not a line is spontaneous, not an entry unselfconscious. And yet from these very facts we learn a great deal more about Sarton than she could possibly have realised. The writer who tried to conceal much of her real self exposes it unwittingly and lets us deeper into her psyche than any biographer. That we do not see ourselves as others see us is one of the great diary lessons.

James Lees-Milne saw himself pretty clearly and did not much care for what he saw. He may not have begun writing his diary with one eye on future publication but that awareness comes fairly soon along the road travelled by his half-dozen volumes with their evocative titles - Caves of Ice, Ancient as the Hills.

If you want to experience the merry-go-round of upper-middle-class life in the 20th century you can do no better than follow Lees-Milne, as sharp-tongued, melancholy, jaundiced and reactionary a commentator as ever lived. He does nothing to ingratiate himself with us, has no desire to be liked any more than he would like us. He hates modern life and times, laments the decline of almost everything, is a ferocious snob. But like all the best diarists and almost in spite of himself, he has the keenest of interests in life, a refusal to be only an old fuddy-duddy; he will try almost anything, from a new film or fashionable play to a young lover - he is easily besotted with hopeless people.

"Tuesday March 13th. A letter this morning. I could not bring myself to open it till after luncheon. Took a strong drink. Was ever a man of seventy more blessed? It is going to be a platonic relationship and possibly the deepest of my whole life."

Diaries give us an entrée to circles we would never normally move in; Lees-Milne takes us to dreadful dinner parties at Badminton House when the fox-hunting Duke of Beaufort was cracking the whip. In May 1979, when walking his dogs, he has an angry confrontation with the man they all called Master. "He was almost apoplectic ... Said he would not have our bloody dogs on his land. Bloody this and bloody that ... Then he called at the house. Again he ranted. He sent the keeper after the dogs. Keeper called and also said he would shoot them if ever again they were seen loose ... all in concern about some cubs which his hounds will tear to pieces before the autumn is through. Ghastly values, ghastly people. How I hate them. I shall never set foot in the big house again ... and I shall never again speak to the hell-hound."

Lees-Milne never ceases to surprise us.

Even if he did have one eye on publication he is scathingly honest with and about himself, a curiously endearing amalgam of the vain and the modest, the proud and the humble. The overwhelming impression is of someone who never lies.

If an insight into the human condition, wit, wisdom and a share in another's life and times are what most of us ask of a diary, the blessed ability to sketch a scene or sum up a person in a few perfectly chosen words must still come top. The best diaries are rich and yet succinct. Rambles don't do. William Plomer hints that much of the Kilvert he omitted was ramble. Scott never rambles. Nor does Pepys. He was another Walter Scott for me until I stumbled upon the entries put up daily by that public benefactor Phil Gyford, who has made Pepys the subject of his blog. Gyford will put a daily entry from Pepys's diary on his internet web-log until the whole is there in 10 years' time. Reading the entries on the internet, just a page a day, has given Pepys an immediacy, a freshness and an excitement it failed to have for me in book form. The medium has revealed the message.

Does anyone now keep a diary? Of course they do. Thousands of people. They just call them blogs and put them up on the web instead of down on paper.

But let blogs be a treat for another day.

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Private Lives
Saturday, January 10, 2004