Monday, July 10, 2006

I keep writing about diaries even though I don't keep one

And that's because I've been reading such interesting examples. I began Frances Burney's Journals and Letters over the weekend, and I'm only about three entries in, but already I am coming across some wonderful passages. I wrote a while back about feeling uncertain about audience and having trouble finding a voice that felt comfortable and honest while trying to keep a journal. Burney has something to say about this as well. This is an entry from 1768, when Burney is not quite sixteen:

To whom, then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising and interesting adventures? -- to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? the secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections and dislikes -- Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved -- to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection, Time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody's self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear, the secrets sacred to friendship, Nobody will not reveal, when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favorable ....

From this moment, then, my dear Girl -- but why, permit me to ask, must a female be made Nobody? Ah! my dear, what were this world good for were Nobody a female? And now I have done with preambulation.

I think this is a pretty good way around the audience problem (if, indeed, you have an audience problem, which I know many of you don't). I am always happy when I find that the writers I'm reading have the same problems and preoccupations I do. She's both keeping the journal private by writing to "nobody" and creating a sort of character, "Nobody," to whom she can write. This character is one who appears in her fiction as well: Evelina is a "nobody" too, with no name and no place in the world. She refers to herself as a nobody, and she signs her first letter, written to her guardian:

"Evelina ----

I cannot to you sign Anville [a made-up name], and what other name may I claim?"

And her journal entry identifies "nobody" with women, pointing out that women have no real legal or political status. They are both necessary to the world and without any stable identity in it. (For a critical treatment of this theme, see this.)

Here's a bit of wisdom from Burney, now just barely 16:
Those who wander in the world avowedly and purposely in search of happiness, who view every scene of present Joy with an Eye to what may succeed, certainly are more liable to disappointment, misfortune and sorrow than those who give up their fate to chance and take the goods and evils of fortune as they come, without making happiness their study and misery their foresight.