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The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each encounter with a writer’s diary – whether I’m reading Dorothy Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf, John Cheever or Katherine Mansfield – prompts me to return to my own. And so reading Sally Bayley’s The Private Life of the Diary, fresh off the presses, has sent me scurrying back to my black notebook and black ink pen, ready to catch the cream of the morning.

In her biography of the diary form, the ‘story of the diarist as they move through the stumbling plot of life’, Sally combines astute readings of the best diarists with slivers of her unusual childhood in a matriarchal, overcrowded house on the Sussex coast. The book’s heroes are Woolf, Pepys, Boswell, and Plath, but her net catches other riches: Susan Sontag, Adrian Mole, John Lennon, John Adams, Emerson, Alan Clark, Tony Benn, and, my favourite fictional diarist, I Capture the Castle’s Cassandra Mortmain.

Sally’s own experiments with the diary form – as a seven-year-old sent to Switzerland as her family’s emissary; or dawdling in a nearby wood in order to find a private space of her own – are summoned by and threaded through the books she reads. Her readings expertly catch the tone and timbre of her writer-characters. ‘Diaries plunge us into the whirlpool of other people’s lives’, she writes on Woolf’s early diary: Plunge is a very Woolfian word. Flux is another, as is muddle. The Private Life of the Diary is what happens when you spend a life in books: language leaks from the pages, pooling into the writer’s reserve. Yet, with the confidence of a lifelong reader, Sally is never reverent: she’s not afraid to be bored by Sontag’s brittle intellectual posturing or to deflate Pepys’ pretentions.

Like the best diaries, this study is a collage of glittering fragments; of difficult memories; of the many attempts it takes to make a self; of nostalgia and historical distance. Besides the champagne of the book’s contents, The Private Life of the Diary is a beautiful artefact: slim, sleek-paged, type-set in Caslon, with a scarlet ribbon to keep your place as you dip in and out.

I was lucky enough to have Sally as my tutor at Oxford. She taught me Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell; we talked Boswell, and Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge. She carried them at her fingertips. I was delighted to see that The Private Life of the Diary elegantly reveals the curious mind that ‘sauntered’ – as she would say, quoting Thoreau – through my tutorials, her wide ranging showing that nothing in the canon was safe from her sharp eye and sharper ear.

But the best part of The Private Life of the Diary is that it will send you back to the books: back to the Woolf who gossips about Bloomsbury love affairs and who worries about what her friends think of her novels; and to the Pepys who rashly buys a sword on credit. It’s a must-read for anyone who scribbles.


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