Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on diaries

I finished Privacy: Concealing the 18C Self by Patricia Meyer Spacks and thought I'd give you a few quotations I liked. These come from Spacks's chapter "Trivial Pursuits," which is about diaries. She discusses Frances Burney's journals, which I recently got a copy of, and, happily for me, Spacks introduced me to more 18C diaries which sound fascinating, including James Woodforde's Diary of a Country Parson and the diary of Elizabeth, duchess of Northumberland.

Here is Spacks on why we like to read the diaries of famous people:

Surely we also want, when we have an opportunity to penetrate the "private lives of public figures," the more primitive gratification of discovering that other people, even famous people, "public" people, resemble us. Self-doubt afflicts everyone. Could others be as undisciplined, as wavering, as rebellious, as lazy, as -- fill in the blanks -- as we? Do others have such nasty thoughts and impulses? We read diaries partly to find out, to glimpse the shape of other people's self-doubt and their ways of triumphing over it, to see how they resolve the struggle between good and bad proclivities. We long for consoling testimony that others, like us, have something unmomentous yet personally important to conceal. Diaries allow us to investigate the gap between public persona and private actuality, not only in order to judge success but to reassure ourselves that the discrepancies we discover in ourselves exist everywhere.

I liked, when I was reading Virginia Woolf's diary, to be reminded that she had no idea she was going to be famous. When famous people are in the midst of doing the things they will become famous for, they don't know how things will turn out, and they can be just as anxious and uncertain and doubtful as we are.

I was interested to discover that Spacks shares some of the uncertainties of audience that I felt when I tried to keep a journal:

The diaries that Woolworth's sold in my youth, for the use, mainly, of teenage girls, had tiny brass locks and keys. The idea of a secret life of writing lured me into a small investment, but my diary survived only six days: it made me too self-conscious. That diary was to be my secret, but already I had become a severe critic of my own writing. The journal's scanty entries did not measure up to my standards ... If [diarists] provide their own audiences, they must dread themselves as critics. Diarists in effect interrupt their own privacy by their records of their lives: they forever have a witness in themselves ... Dividing themselves into experiencer, commentator, and audience, they can control no part of their willfully fragmented selves.

And one more; here's Spacks on what diaries accomplish:

A diary like Woodforde's validates the aspects of life that we take for granted, or even actively resent. "Public" personae conceal the universal secret that most "interesting" lives rest on a substratum of predictable and repeated small occupations. To write with precision about the things that one does all the time, almost without noticing, declares their importance.

This last quotation is almost enough to get me to write a diary again. Almost.