I’ve been reading some diaries lately. Not mine. Those of far more interesting people. It’s been like listening to a friend who’s just come back from holiday, telling you all about it. Not just any friend, but a really good story-teller who brings all their experiences to life. Of course you weren’t actually there, but it feels as if you were in the next room, watching and listening. And what I find really entrancing in my recent favourites is that they’re writing about their everyday lives two or three hundred years ago:
Samuel Pepys, of course, writing up his day late into the night and reporting the watchman just now walking under his window.
Fanny Burney. whose family friends include Dr Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and who was for five years lady in waiting to George the Third’s Queen Charlotte, and who witnessed the first of the King’s attacks of madness. She married a French emigré and was caught up in the confusion surrounding the battle of Waterloo; but though the big moments are fascinating, it’s the meals and meetings, the immediacy of everyday life that I find most enthralling. Popular and enjoyable though her novels are, they don’t have the immediacy of her journals.
Frances Trollope, mother of the more famous Anthony, and herself a novelist of distinction, writes about nine months in Vienna in 1836-1837. Of course the city is very different now – but many of the places she writes about are more or less unchanged. And to hear about people like Metternich (Historical Figures to us) described as people you have met, as she did … well, it feels no more like “history” than last month’s newspapers.
William Hickey, the “Georgian Rake”, wrote a long and lively memoir, which is almost as good as a day-to-day diary. These are real lives in real places, not costume drama. Not dressing up.
In many ways it’s the immersion that counts. Extracts will not quite do the trick. It’s the getting to know the writer, their likes and dislikes.
So I commend them to you. Take time over them and you will be rewarded.
(image scanned by Phrood; Original by Edward Francesco Burney (1760-1848) - Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246115)