Tuesday, December 13, 2005


On reading other people's diaries

Last winter I got lost in the highly wonderful doorstop The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Great Diarists by Irene and Alan Taylor (Canongate, 2000). I found my copy in a used bookshop on Cape Cod. The title comes from this quote from William Soutar: "A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen." Oh dear. Among the many other entries, this fine book contained selections from Pepys, and when my husband found the first three volumes of Pepys's diary at a library sale this past summer (one dollar each), I took them home. I've since tracked down all the other volumes except for VII and VIII, if anyone has them languishing aound unread (University of California hardcovers in dust jackets, please - but I will resort to the recent sofcover reprints if I must). I'm now in the midst of volume V. His voice is so distinct and alive, and he is as candid as can be. He's worried about his wife, the people renovating his house, his job and co-workers, his digestion, how to better himself in the world, and how to keep his impulses in check. The immediacy with which he relates these concerns makes the diary a page-turner three and a half centuries later.

Pepys on Shakespeare's "Midsummers nights dreame": "...which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." (vol III p.208)

I'll post more at a later date on Pepys and his book collection. Some of my favorite entries in the diary so far are, of course, those that mention his visits to his booksellers.

I don't particularly enjoy the illicit thrill of reading another's private diary. For me it's more that the diary writer shows the totality of the self. How people really think and act. This is one reason that The Assassin's Cloak is so good, the selections that the editors chose are so telling about basic human nature.

Now if only some worthy publisher would reprint the complete diaries of James Lees-Milne...

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