I’ve tried keeping diaries over the years. I’ll go through a week or a month or a year where I do—then I’ll completely give it up. Now I have a notebook that holds everything from writing ideas to shopping lists to a Sudoku I’ve copied out or to a page or two of my current WIP. About once every five years, it might even include a poem. Even in the years when I am more or less journaling, I don’t think it’s anything my estate will want to publish after I’m gone.
And that got me thinking about diaries I’ve read, autobiographical and fictional. The two most famous at the moment are the genuine Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and the fictional Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Both are critically acclaimed, but I must admit some difficulty with reading them.
With Anne Frank, it was my sympathy for the character, and my utter devastation at the end that haunted me. Reading it at an age not far from Anne’s, I found myself utterly immersed in her world. With Bridget Jones, my issue was total lack of sympathy, as I found her rather whiny and self-involved. Still, though, it had its high points and I was glad of the happy ending—just not enough to read the sequel.
Another book I remember from childhood was called A Year of Janie’s Diary by Margaret Balcome. It’s out of print now, but it was a good, solid YA read. Written in 1965, it’s not as old as me, but since the character was a teen and I read it in the late 70s, there were some insights into the changes just a few years can make in society. I think it was this book that encouraged me to keep a diary in the first place.
As a sometimes writer of historical fiction, I find that diaries are utterly invaluable sources for period research. While they may exaggerate or underplay an event, the wording, the daily activities, and the feel of the time are incontrovertible. The UK government has recently released some excerpts of the diaries of Queen Victoria, and the insight from them is astounding. https://www.royal.gov.uk/pdf/victoria.pdf
What I really love about reading old diaries is this—while they teach us more than anything else can about a time period, they also show us that people are still the same. The human spirit transcends the ages. And that is a valuable lesson or reminder in itself.
(Image of Queen Victoria and her servant Karim is in the public domain.)