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10 June 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 7:59am

From religious reflection to mummy vlogs: diaries through the ages

Journals help their authors understand the truth of lived experience, reveals a new exhibition.

By John Mullan

Why keep a diary? An absorbing and sometimes droll new exhibition in London surveys the history of diary-keeping, particularly over the past century, and gives sometimes contradictory answers to this question. It is a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College and the Great Diary Project, the latter dedicated to rescuing and archiving a growing collection of diaries. The emphasis is on “ordinary” diarists, and on the ways in which keeping a diary has been changing over recent decades.

In earlier centuries, the point of ­keeping a diary was to give a minute account of yourself to God. Diary-keeping was closely related to the growth of Protestantism. No wonder that those Protestant protagonists of 18th-century novels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, take so readily to diaries. Self-recording signalled religious self-inspection. The purpose remained powerful even as religious devotion waned. When he recommended logging 13 virtues a day, Benjamin Franklin was attempting an ­Enlightenment version of this. When he recorded his whoring as well as his intellectual conversations, James Boswell was not only boasting, but also puzzling over his own sinful nature.

Diary-keeping was therefore a discipline. Samuel Johnson recorded his need for a diary in order “to methodise my life, to resist sloth”. But then he never did it. This exhibition shows the uninitiated how diary apps can now make that struggle with sloth much easier. Sign yourself up, and the software will weave information about your whereabouts, the weather and contemporary
events into your record. Just a few words from you can make an entry look rich.

Modern diary-writers can bring to the form some of the self-seriousness that was quite proper in an earlier, religious age. A magnificently solemn quotation from Susan Sontag adorns one of the walls. “I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here,” she announces – to ­herself. “. . . I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down.” Among the handful of celebrity diarists whose work is on show, the actor Kenneth Williams has something of the fierce purpose of self-investigation. A few pages of his copious journals display, in his appropriately fastidious script, his social unease, his frequent ennui and his fascination with his every physical ailment.

Naturally, it is difficult to know a diary from what can be displayed (often just two open pages) in an exhibition. The samples of “ordinary” journals from the Great Diary Project do, however, show something of the weird unselectiveness that is native to the form. An entry from a 2015 volume narrating a doctor’s diagnosis of cancer sits next to the record of Andy coming over to strim the garden. Another diarist’s notice of her sister’s death gives way, in the following entry, to her trying on a new green skirt: “Looks very nice and fits well.”

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One of the weirdest diaries (if that is the right word) sampled here is one Peter Fletcher’s record of all his sneezes since July 2007. Each entry describes where he was and what he was doing when he sneezed. Not very interesting, you might think (perhaps not very trustworthy: can he always be recording the circumstances before they are forgotten?). Yet Fletcher’s filmed commentary on his project is an absurdist version of what was once the religious self-discipline of diary-keeping. The point, he explains, is to cheat his own preconceptions about what is important in his life. Which is just what a true Christian was once trying to do.

There is much here in the way of “life­logging”, a new kind of personal accounting for its own sake. Historians have long made use of the diligent financial account-keeping of diarists in previous centuries; it is more
difficult to imagine that anyone will derive interest from the electronic records of sleep patterns, food consumption, exercise or internet usage that we are busy compiling.

Electronic devices make this easy, but you can see in written samples from the early 20th century how ingrained (and pleasurable?) the habit has long been. Diarists record the books they have read or the vagaries of their health, but also their dreams, or even all their phone calls. It is impossible to know if the female diarists who list the boys/men they fancy or dislike (and occasionally have kissed) are representative, but there is a sinking feeling they might be.

Expectations about what diarists should record were often inherent to the printed form. Early diary-keepers were annotators of thickly printed almanacs. Later, a would-be diarist might purchase an amateur photographer’s diary or a farmer’s diary or a musician’s diary. A sample from a Japanese Kokuyo brand diary shows pages divided into prescribed spaces for things to do, moods, promises, meals, weather – and then a small space labelled “Please use this space freely”. A thoroughly scary weight-loss diary from 2000 requires the diarist to fill in “Best thing that happened this week”, “Biggest challenge of the week”, “Favourite meal”, “One thing I learned” and “Top priority”, before coming clean on “Weight” and “Weight loss”.

Displayed here are some sharply contradictory attitudes towards the making of a record of the self. One glass case includes samples of “secret” diaries marketed to young girls. They come with their own padlocks and often with dire warnings on the cover, directed at anyone except the owner who might think to read the pages. What is the point of a diary if it is available to anyone else? Samuel Pepys famously developed his obscure code to keep his diary safe from prying eyes. So, too, in the early 19th century, did Anne Lister, at least for the parts of her personal journal covering sexual relationships with other women. In such instances the diary feels like a private witness to reality – a record that exists to confirm to the author the truth of experience.

And yet, in more recent incarnations, records that are still self-styled as “diaries” seek to publicise themselves. Carolyn Burke began putting her diary online in 1995, and here you can read her burbling with delight at the number of hits – 100,000 a week, or is it a day? – that she gets. You can watch the “mummy vlogs” that exist in order to contribute to some kind of collective archive. “It’s so lovely to have these memories to share . . .” You can share in any number of accounts of self-improvement. Yet there is a subtext. In the very last room of the exhibition, visitors are invited to write their thoughts on diary-keeping on coloured pieces of paper and stick them to the wall. Many have done so. Strikingly, these scattered reflections fail to confirm the assertions of empowerment made elsewhere. These anonymous commentators seem to equate diary-keeping with anxiety or inadequacy. “I used to write a diary because I was lonely”; “I write in my diary when things are tough and I’m feeling anxious”.

Novelists have liked to treat diaries as sensitive graphs of feeling, readers sometimes being asked to imagine shaking script, or entries blotted with tears. Yet nothing fictional can match the most distressing exhibit here, which comes at the very end. Most real diaries do not end so much as stop, but that of the artist Keith Vaughan (1912-77) did have a pre-planned conclusion. Suffering from terminal bowel cancer, he took a lethal dose of barbiturates and composed an entry as he waited for its effects to overwhelm him. Here are his final sentences. “65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure I did some good work.” The handwriting of the last few words slips away from the lines on the ruled page. Vaughan’s commitment to his diary was as complete as any devotee’s to their religion. 

“Dear Diary” is at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, King’s College London, London WC2, until 7 July

John Mullan’s books include “Anonymity: a Secret History of English Literature” (Faber & Faber) and “How Novels Work” (Oxford University Press)

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special