Thursday, May 21, 2015

More Historic Diaries

Leo Tolstoy
Continuing to share the history of diary keeping from Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, I was not surprised to see that writers and authors are often diary and journal keepers.  One example is, however, rather unique.

Sonya Tolstoy
From the beginning of Leo Tolstoy's courtship of his wife-to-be Sonya in 1862, until Tolstoy's death in 1910, Leo and Sonya kept diaries.  In her book, Johnson writes:  "A year into their marriage, Tolstoy decided they should share theirs.  For forty-two years, they read, wrote in and commented on the other's diaries."  Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, grew from a seed planted by a story he read in his wife's diary!

Fanny Burney (1752-1828)
Frances d'Arblay, known as Fanny Bruney, was a member of the literary circle that included Boswell and Johnson in the 1700s.  In 1768, when she was only fifteen years old, the clever girl began her practice of diary keeping with these words:  "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."

Dorothy Wordsworth
Like Sonya Tolstoy, another female diarist aided a famous relative.  In this case it was Dorothy Wordsworth who kept a diary to "give pleasure" to her brother, William Wordsworth.  She was twenty-six years old when she began in 1798, and William acknowledged that "She gave me eyes" through her journal entries.  The sketch of Dorothy is taken from her biography.

Alice James
Alice James, sister to novelist Henry and philosopher William, began her diary in 1889.  At her death in 1892, her brother Henry described her diary as "heroic in its individuality...Her style, her  power to write--are to me a delight."  Despite the praise of his sister's writing, he burned the diary!  We know what she wrote only because her companion had copies printed.

Anne Frank  (Fair Use)
War is often the inspiration for keeping a diary.  Perhaps the most famous war diary in the world is the one kept by Anne Frank.  Her second day's entry could not have been more wrong, for she wrote:  "Writing in a diary is really a strange experience for someone like me.  Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musing of a thirteen-year-old school girl."  Those musings, begun in June of 1942, ended August 1, 1944.  A noncombatant, young Anne Frank, kept one of the most read diaries about war that has ever been published.

Siegfried Sasson

World War I, with the horrendous loss of life as troops faced modern warfare in a way unlike past wars, produced a group of poet soldier diarists, among them Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.  In this 1916 diary entry, Sassoon wrote:  "As I sit in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings...Heaven is furious with the smoke and flare and portent of shells, but bullets are a swarm of whizzng hornets, mad, winged and relentless.  There are still pools in the craters; they reflect the stars like any lovely water, but nothing grows near them."

Mary Chestnut, age 13

Perhaps the most powerful diarist of the Civil War was a woman.  Mary Chestnut was the wife of a Senator, and when the War began, a Confederate soldier.  She had lived in Washington in the early years of Lincoln's presidency but returned to their home in the Confederate South when war came.  She was a sophisticated, well-educated woman raised in a slave-owning family, but as an adult the idea of slavery and the war being fought over that issue left her in anguish.  She socialized with men leading the South in the war that she questioned, and her diary became a place to express the feelings she could not speak.  On Spetember 20, 1863, upon seeing open railroad cars transporting sleeping Confederate soldiers, she wrote:  "...soldiers rolled in their blankets, lying in rows, heads all covered, fast asleep.  In their gray blankets, packed in regular order, they looked like swathed mummies."  Chestnut's diary was first published in 1905.  Historian C. Vann Woodward used her forty-eight copybooks, 25,000 pages that she had revised from the original diary, to restore and annotate what she had written.  His work was published as Mary Chestnut's Civil War and won the Nobel Prize.

Dame Ellen Terry
Alexandra Johnson ends her Brief History of Diaries with a chapter devoted to online diaries and blogs.  You may read my own blog on that subject at "Keeping a Journal," in the blog archives of 6-6-2013.  Johnson quotes Ellen Terry's definition of a diary:  "What is a diary as a rule?  A document useful to the person who keeps it, dull to the contemporary who reads it, invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it!"  Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), pictured at right from a painting by her first husband, George Frederick Watts, was the leading Shakespearean actor in Britain, and her respect for the English language can be seen in her wise definition of diary keeping.

Isaac B. Werner found his journal useful as a personal reference to aid in his farming, as well as an occasional place to vent frustration.  There is no evidence that he shared his journal with any contemporary, but I, more than a century later, have become a student of the era and community about which Isaac wrote, and his journal is certainly a treasure to me!

If these brief samples of diary and journal keepers over the years have made you curious, you may read more in Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief Histoy of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs.


The Blog Fodder said...

My mom had a 5-year diary which she kept up until she was married. My sister has it as she found it after Mom passed away. Most is pretty boring but there is enough good stuff that I am sure Mom is horrified we have it.
Now people write diaries for others to read, so we miss their private thoughts on issues.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Now those "private thoughts" are on Face Book! ;-)