With today being World Book Day, thought I would post a list comprised of ten great diaries and journals (headed by author name, and set out in chronological order of their being written – I like to be precise, or should that be pedantic?).
Christopher Columbus. A reconstruction of Columbus’ journal of his first Atlantic voyage, featuring the discovery in 1492 of the Americas (although the primacy of this is now disputed) was published on the five hundredth anniversary of the event.
Samuel Pepys. One man’s massive chronicle of life in London during the 1660s, combining scenes from domestic life with work as a civil servant, on the fringes of government.
Here is a link to a piece on Pepys:
James Boswell. He enjoyed fame as the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson, but Boswell’s greatest achievement was the writing of a magnificent journal between 1760 and 1795, with the published edition bringing together diaries, letters, and memoranda, covering a strange mixture of excitement and dark obsession.
Evelyn Waugh. The comic novelist wrote diaries, at intervals between 1911 and 1965, from childhood through to his maturity. A Roman Catholic and political reactionary (he complained that “the Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second”), Waugh has been a strange influence on me.
Vera Brittain. Her diary from the 1930s provides a fascinating account of literary pursuits, political activism, and family life – including the childhood of Vera’s daughter who became Shirley Williams, the Labour politician who helped found the Social Democratic Party.
George Orwell. He kept several diaries during the 1930s and 1940s, covering domestic routines, political events, his travels around Britain, and a trip to Morocco. Surprisingly Orwell wrote very little about his prolific writing career in his diaries. Orwell’s collected works have been brilliantly edited by Peter Davison, and in The Orwell Diaries, overlapping pieces have been intercalated (a magical word that was new to me).
John Steinbeck. His Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters is not a conventional diary, being instead a series of letters (addressed to Pascal Covici, his editor), written into the book that also held the manuscript of the relevant novel. Steinbeck muses upon literary creation, his ideals, and motivations.
Tony Benn. One of Britain’s greatest politicians, and a man seemingly obsessed with the detailed recording of events, Benn has published papers and diaries stretching from 1940 to 2007, combining accounts of his extraordinary public activities with parts of his personal life.
Alan Clark. The late Conservative MP lived in a castle, was a prolific womaniser, and political cynic. Clark was also a brilliant chronicler who, perhaps unintentionally, provided what I believe to be the strongest reflection of the (awful) ethos of Thatcherism. A minister in the government of Margaret Thatcher, Clark was considered as her official biographer, before Thatcher set out on her own to write a two volume autobiography. Reading Clark’s diary was a guilty pleasure.
Zlata Filipovic. Zlata’s Diary is a poignant view of the destruction of childhood innocence by war, in this case the civil war that brought the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Written when Zlata was aged between ten and twelve, her diary sees normal life descend into a terror, which she survives with bravery.