The strange forces of the world seem to have made it so that I have read a book about diaries straight after this year’s and last year’s exams. Last year’s was Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded read whilst waiting for the EU referendum results. This book follows Masters’ obsession with the 148 idiosyncratic diaries his friend finds in a skip. This year’s was Sally Bayley’s more general The Private Life of the Diary. As the subtitle has it, it is “a history”, not a definitive, authoritative account but rather the work of an academic mind in which scholarly interests and personal history meld.
The diary is a democratic literary form, but only on one side. Any literate person can keep a diary, but that does not mean anyone will read it. Diaries are typically locked away from the eyes of family and friends, but are often written with some intention of preserving things for posterity. Even if we are a nobody now, someone in the future will be fascinated by our musings, we say. When I was about nine or ten I read Anne Frank’s diary more or less continuously and authored my own mundane diary, one volume was even a facsimile of Anne’s red check book. I wrote with the egotism a clever, praised child has. I loved history and was convinced that I was the sort of person who would become famous, so the scribblings of my forming mind would sure to be treasured and poured over.
These diaries went the way of ignominy and obscurity, as is the fate of almost all diaries. But a few are treasured as literature, history or the great expanse between the two. These are the subject of Bayley’s book, selected as exemplars of all the reasons diaries are kept. There is self improvement in the mode of Boswell, natural historical observations like Kilvert, a discovery for me, and a domesticated Orwell. There is the precise documentation of Tony Benn or the racy gossip of Alan Clark in the political diary. The star turns are undoubtedly the visionary literary diaries of Woolf and Plath and Pepys’ personal-political hybrid diaries. But all the diaries are united by a desire to capture experience and explore the workings of the inner self, whether to come to decide on political action or to understand your own conscience.
In a case of form mirroring content, Bayley intersperses her literary criticism with recollections of the role diary writing has played in her early life; from her grandmother’s notebooks full of the contacts needed to keep the household running and her mother’s book of rose breeds to Bayley’s childhood diaries kept under the bed and the teenage diaries hidden from staff of a psyche ward. The diary in its many guises has helped constitute and maintain the self for Bayley and her family.
Many column inches have been written on the rise of narrative non-fiction, some disparage that writers – mostly young women – dare insert themselves into a scholarly work. Admittedly, excessive focus on the author can distract and dilute the effect of the research. But used well, as it is here, I find it academically honest to remind the reader that you are a subjective flawed human, not an omnipotent oracle of academic brilliance. This approach is especially fitting for The Private Life of the Diary. Diaries inherently centre the self, so by bringing her own life into the narrative Bayley doesn’t position herself above her subject matter, but rather shows herself immersed in it.
The book is both personal and universal, and a wonderful work of accessible, humane literary criticism.