I love reading other people’s diaries. Obviously I mean the historical ones, which makes it alright to pry. Or, if I was interested in the living, then it would be fine to read a diary intended for publication by its author – which raises the question about how far any diarist intends his or work for an audience. Did Pepys, as he scratched the smutty bits in his secret shorthand, really hope that no one would ever read them? Did Frances Burney when she addressed her diary to “Nobody” really accept that only Nobody would read it?
I don’t know, but I do know that both diaries are terrific reads. Diaries are wonderful for all sorts of reasons. They are great for historians. They’re great for historical fiction writers. And they have a meaning all of their own, though what that meaning is is hard to define.
I’ve been reading the diary of Joseph Farington RA (1747 to 1821) for the years 1796 to 1798. Farington was a landscape painter, an active member of the Royal Academy, a husband, a member of the Society of Antiquaries, and an avid gossip. You follow him as he deals with artists whinging about where their paintings should hang in the Exhibition; lobbying the Treasury for tax breaks for artists; studying the reviews of his own work – which he has pasted into his diary; doling out charity to impoverished artists and their families. You follow him to friends’ weddings, to club meetings, to election meetings, to dinner after dinner – the last so important to him that he usually draws a little diagram of the table and marks where everyone was sitting. You listen to the advice he gives to his pupils, younger artists, women artists.
And above all you listen to his gossip. And how he loved to gossip! Hearsay was the ink he dipped his pen in, and nothing he heard was unworthy to be recorded. Thus you learn from him that: “Fox rises a little after 8 – breakfast at 1/2 past 9 – dines at 4 – Coffee & Tea at 6 – light supper at 10 – bed at 11 – drinks about a pint of Port at 9 after dinner – reads aloud 3 hours every evening after tea – a translation from Livy.”
What people earn and how they spend it fascinates him. “Emanuel the drawing master at Lynn asked…25 gns a quarter for 2 lessons a day”. Lady Mansfield “had £5000 a yr left her as a jointure by Mansfield part of which was to go away if she married again”. Two new swords cost “12 guineas”. Romney got “300 gs for a picture”. “Two fowls sell for Sixpence” on the Isle of Man. Slaves in Demerary fetch on average “abt £50 a head”.
You learn that Lawrence is “a male coquet”, that Fox and Mrs Armstead are inseparable, of Opie’s divorce and remarriage, Sir Brooke and Lady Boothby’s separation. You listen to Sam Lysons tell Farington that he heard at dinner last night that Mrs Dunnage’s brother-in law-found her in bed with Sir Thomas Turton, who is married and has five children. Later you follow the court case with all the interest of any Hallo magazine reader.
Farington chatters about royalty, politicians, artists, actors. He obsesses about his and his friends’ health. He enthuses about the discovery of a top-secret painting “process”, a technique supposed to have been employed by Titian. And on and on: there’s so much here it’s impossible to do it justice.
Marvellous stuff for anyone interested in the eighteenth century, but as I hinted earlier, far more than that. But what? What is it about diaries that is so gripping? What is this glamour that the dead exercise over our minds? Is it that their lives are done, their perplexities resolved, so that we who come after have the comfort of seeing, or imposing, patterns that they could not have seen when they lived? That in seeing how their suspense ended – that greatest suspense of all: how and when will I die? – we can for a while forget our own? That we can enjoy with them a special kind of relationship, one we cannot get through the exchange of words with the living where egos clash and muddy everything?
Then there’s the miracle of their survival: how many documents do not survive, how many stories are never heard? There’s the thought of that other person’s long-dead hand moving across the page, recording his or her thoughts and feelings so that we can discover them today and think and wonder. And there’s the past, that strange, unknowable, unfathomable past that for all the research in the world (and all the cant of “historical accuracy” in historical fiction) breaks like a bubble the minute we think we’ve grasped it.
Perhaps diaries exercise such a fascination because they are ghosts, and ghosts are marvellous things.