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About diarists, and diaries of the intimate kind

Sophie Pigott

The first time I heard of the Samuel Pepys Club was some years ago, after a lecture the subject: “Why did Samuel Pepys write a diary?”  I was keen to join the Club but felt I was not knowledgeable enough about Pepys and his time. My interest is mainly in diarists.  Despite the fact that I am French and had only to my credit that I had read the diary in its original language (it took me a long time because I was taking many notes and quotes), I was accepted in the Club. I spend almost half the year in France, so am not able to attend many events and have not met many other members yet. On the application form, one question was: “What contribution do you think you might make to the club?” and my answer was: “Giving the point of view of a diarist, perhaps…” Here it is.

The question has been asked many times as to why Pepys wrote a diary: not just a record of his daily activities but something so very personal and intimate that he is often characterised as being naïve and candid (as if sincerity and truthfulness were not usual in a very intimate diary). I must admit I have never been convinced by the various reasons given. Indeed, I often sensed that many of the authors/lecturers who wrote/spoke about Pepys were not themselves diarists and therefore somewhat at a loss to explain why Pepys did so.  As Frank Kafka wrote: “Goethe’s Diaries. A person who keeps none is in a false position in the face of a diary.” (29th September 1911).

Of course I have not read every line written about Pepys, nor attended every lecture about the great man, and I need your indulgence on this.  But as an ex-diarist myself (I started as a teenager and stopped when I got married at 39, although I still write in it once in a while), I believe I can give an insight into what could be the main reason that pushes some people to write an intimate diary: pleasure!  But this kind of pleasure does not appeal to everyone. It can be likened to a sort of hobby: if you are not enjoying bird-watching, to take one example, you will always have difficulty understanding what pushes someone to try to see as many different birds as possible and what extreme pleasure they get from the sight of a rare bird.

Pepys’s diary: a ‘journal intime

In what follows I am only speaking of what is called in French a “journal intime” (an intimate diary) and that very personal quality of a diary excludes for instance travel diaries, war diaries, spiritual diaries or those written to keep records of work done, accounts, special events, etc. One has to compare like with like and nobody can deny that Samuel Pepys’s diary is a very intimate journal.

Intimate diaries are not common and for a good reason: it is usually not the kind of writing one would like to see published and become public knowledge. The really intimate diaries we can read now have generally been published after their author’s death.  And when a diarist (often after hesitations) accepts that his prose will be published, he or she usually revises the text and edits it extensively.  The existence of an intimate diary is often kept secret, although some diarists might reveal the fact exceptionally to very close friends or their spouse.  Pepys’s wife Elizabeth knew about his diary, and Pepys himself says that he mentioned it to two people between 1660 and 1669. But not everything Pepys said, did or thought is written in its pages. I wonder if he told Sir William Rider that, like him (Diary, 26th March 1664), he was keeping a diary. When, on the 3rd September 1666, Pepys wanted to save his precious journal from the incoming fire, it was at Sir William Rider’s Bethnal Green lodgings that he deposited his “money and plate and best things (…)”. ” I am eased at my heart to have my treasure so well secure”, he wrote later, and we know the diary was part of this “treasure”. Pepys went to Bethnal Green on the 8th and “fetched away (his) Journall-book to enter for five days past”.

Unlike some other diarists, Pepys, being a man of order (“My delight is in the neatness of everything” 10th August 1664), wanted a strict entry for each day, and felt obliged at times to write back if he had been unable to pen what he called his “observations” [1] on the proper date. This is not a widespread practice among diarists who keep a diary for years. Most will write when they can, without trying to stick to the daily tale. Many do not explain why they write a diary because they are basically writing only for themselves.  But from time to time a remark here or there will reveal to the observant reader something of the diarist’s mind.  Pepys himself did not say much about the reasons why he started to keep a diary. Did he keep notes of a personal kind before January 1660? Personally, I think it is quite possible but we don’t know for sure. As far as this type of very personal writing is concerned, we are only able to judge by what has survived and is accessible, and that is the tip of the iceberg!

I am absolutely convinced that Samuel Pepys never intended to have his Diary published.  In general, the moment someone knows his/her diary will be read by someone else, the relationship between writer and text alters. “After endless false starts, writes Sir Henry Channon (1897-1958) on 20th April 1934, I have decided definitely to begin my diary again, and only hope I shall have the patience to continue. But as I am dictating it, it may be less scandalous and spontaneous than before.”[2] It is quite common for a diarist to abandon his diary for a length of time, and start writing again later, as in the quote above. Perhaps Pepys did. The diary he kept during his trip to Tangier in 1683, while accompanying Lord Dartmouth in charge of evacuating the English colony, has survived. It is far less intimate than the great Diary. If, later in life, Pepys wrote some personal notes about some events or thoughts he wished to remember, we cannot know.

Keeping a diary is quite common, but intimate diaries are very rare

Many people keep a diary and it would be wrong to believe that Samuel Pepys was the “inventor” of the genre. Intimate diaries were kept long before his time but – and that is the trouble with intimate writings – very few of these texts survive and, when they do, even fewer were published.  Many of them will probably never be published because they were written by people leading an ordinary life (most diarists are middle or upper class, few are part of history in the making as Pepys was), writing for themselves and never wishing to see their prose published. A lot of private diaries are still in the diarist’s family, often unknown to his or her descendants, lying in attics among other papers. Many have been or will be simply thrown away. To quote Edward Gildea, publisher of The Diarist’ Journal, an American monthly: “There is an awful lot of writing going on that nobody knows about.

Perhaps some precise numbers will give an idea of how common diary writing is. Heather Creaton in her book [3] lists 883 unpublished diaries, and adds a second checklist of 244 published diaries… and these are only the ones that relate to London, wholly or in parts. She also excludes diaries only concerned with work and business and those that are entirely spiritual, political or parliamentary. Her interest was mainly in the social, domestic and personal content. The dates of these diaries rank from 1581 (the next being from 1628) to 1971. Keeping in mind the strict criterion of relating something about London, that is more than 1,000 personal diaries surviving and a bit more than 20% published…  It is remarkable that very few of these are deeply “intimate”.

The best diaries are those in which the voice of the individual comes through untainted by self-censorship or a desire to please. First, and foremost, the diarist must write for himself, those who do not, who already are looking towards publication and recognition, invariably strike a phoney note”, writes Alan Taylor in his introduction of The Assassin’s Cloak. “Without the commonplace and the trivial the best diaries would be bereft of much that makes them compelling and enduringly fascinating.”[4]

Writing a diary is a pleasure

For many people who are curious about human nature and like introspection, writing every day about their life, about what they did, what they thought, what they felt, can be extremely pleasurable.  It helps keep alive memories that might otherwise be forgotten as the years pass by, and creates a kind of “double” – another “me” who is, at the same time, “me” and someone observing “me”. The diary becomes a dialogue between me and that “other me”.  And that “other me” knows me so well than “I” cannot hide anything and would feel uncomfortable if “I” was doing so.

That is what novelist Fanny Burney observes in her diary on 27th March 1768, when she was 16: “ To have some accounts of my thoughts, manners, acquaintances and actions, when the hour arrives in which time is more nimble than memory is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal. A journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open up my whole heart! But a thing of this kind ought to be addressed to somebody – I must imagine myself talking – talking to the most intimate of friends – to one in whom I should take delight in confiding, and remorse in concealment…” The same idea is detailed by the naturalist W. Barbellion (1889-1919): “To keep a journal is to have a secret liaison of a very sentimental kind. A journal intime is a super-confidente to whom everything is told and confessed.” (6th August 1915). Sincerity is of the utmost importance.

William Soutar, a Scottish poet (1898-1943) who was housebound and wrote an important “journal intime”, develops the idea: “There is a quirkiness about a diary which cannot be assessed; something which may seem to the diarist himself to be of real importance may in later days prove a bore; and some little aside or comment which just dropped from his pen, by the way, may prove to be a most penetrating glimpse of a situation, or a revolutionary flash lighting up some strange corner of the spirit. The true diary is one, therefore, in which the diarist is, in the main, communing with himself, conversing openly and without pose, so that trifles will not be absent, nor the intimate little confessions and resolutions which, if voiced at all, must be voiced in such a private confessional as this.” (29th September 1943).

This sort of “confession” is not understood by everyone and some will continue to wonder why Pepys “tells us” about his constipation for instance, or that he had “so great a list [desire] to pisse” at the Coronation ceremony (23rd April 1661). But of course he does not “tell us” since his diary was never intended for us! It is just the truth. Why invent a fake “publishable” reason if there is no intended readership?

The pleasure of keeping a diary is also expressed by Leo Tolstoy in 1850 (14th June): “ Once again I have taken up my diary, and once again with new fervour and a new purpose. How many times is that? I can’t remember. Never mind, perhaps I’ll drop it again, but it’s a pleasant occupation and it will be pleasant to re-read it, just as it was pleasant to re-read my old ones. There are lots of thoughts in one’s head, and some of them seem very remarkable, but when you examine them they turn out to be nonsense; others on the other hand seem sensible – and that’s what a diary is needed for. On the basis of one’s diary it’s very convenient to judge oneself.”

It is interesting to note that Tolstoy speaks of the convenience of a diary “to judge oneself”, which is a further reward for a person who likes introspection. A diary is a great help to know oneself, to analyse the reasons behind one’s actions, to admit some unpleasant behaviour or admire some clever turn. On this, my favourite episode in Pepys’s Diary is when he is given an envelope by Captain Grove, in which he feels money (3rd April 1663). “I did not open it till I came home to my office; and there I broke it open, not looking into it till all the money was out, that I might say I saw no money in the paper if ever I should be questioned about it.”  The intimate diary acts like a conscience, forcing the diarist – if he or she does not suffer from delusion – to fight shortcomings and to try to be a better person, for his/her own sake or for the sake of others. Pepys’s vows not to drink wine or go to the theatre for a while are in some ways illustrations of his bargaining with his conscience, his questioning of whether or not he should pay some forfeiture when he does not respect his earlier vows, and how a personal diary can, in effect, become another ‘self’.  The degree of sincerity in such a process can vary wildly. On this, I think Samuel Pepys was absolutely sincere and that is what touches us today.

Diarists and their specific character

Without going into a thorough psychological analysis, it is fair to say that most intimate diarists will be persons of what is called a “secondary” character, by contrast with a “primary” character who lives the present moment and for whom any life experience produces an immediate effect but short-lived. In a person of “secondary” nature, the past impressions persist without interruption into the present. They last for a long time. People of a secondary character also tend to live in the future and worry well in advance of what might come. Pepys is of that type: “…the natural aptnesse I have to be troubled at anything that crosses me” (7th February 1662). ‘He delights’, wrote Claire Tomalin, ‘in remembering the past and in planning the future.’ [3] Most intimate diarists have emotive natures, in various degrees. Pepys uses his diary as a very efficient emotional outlet, “a safety-valve to my passing emotions” (John Nevinson, a costume historian, 1904-1985), quoted by H. Creaton, op. cit.). Eugène Delacroix stressed the same benefit in his diary: “I am taking up my journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming the nervous excitement that has been tormenting me for so long.” (15th April 1823).

If today we are lucky to be able to read these very personal “confessions”, it is because it is very hard for a diarist to destroy his or her “journal intime”: you do not kill a close friend…  Only moments of extreme emotion, anger, despair, etc.  can lead to such a destruction.  Samuel Pepys himself, on the day he decided to stop writing his diary, said that it was “ almost as much as to see myself into my grave” (31st May 1669). And he was only stopping to keep it, not destroying the pages where it was written. Another famous diarist, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, a Swiss philosopher (1821-1881), writing on a day he could not find one of his diary notebooks, reveals by his panic how much the physical object means to the diarist: “ From the painful shock I felt when I failed to find the notebook No 13 of my diary, I was able to fathom the distress that would bring me the loss of this 6,000 page manuscript. It would be seventeen years of life almost taken from my memory. For these intimate pages are like my souvenirs themselves. A fire, moving house, some accident take from me that chest [where he keeps his notebooks], and I feel diminished in my soul, lessened in my being, mutilated, impoverished, irreparably bare. (…) I can be destroyed almost entirely. (20th May 1864) [5].

A diary cannot contain everything the diarist has done or every thought that crossed his or her mind. As Barbellion put it: “The most intimate and extensive journal can only give each day a relatively small sifting of the almost infinite number of things that flow thro’ the consciousness. However vigilant and artful a diarist may be, plenty of things escape him and in any event re-collection is not re-creation…” (6th August 1915). For instance, counting how many times Samuel Pepys mentioned washing his feet does not mean he never washed them more than that during the nine years or so covered by the diary! He could have washed them on a day when his mind was on more important events in his life…  And we should not be surprised either by his contradictions. They are part of human nature. Lord Byron notes in his diary on 6th December 1813: “This journal is a relief. When I am tired – as I generally am – out comes this, and down goes everything. But I can’t read it over – and God knows what contradictions it may contain. If I am sincere with myself (…), every page should confute, refute and utterly abjure its predecessor.”

Diarists are a very varied group:  Lord Byron did not re-read what he had written, but Tolstoy did, and with great pleasure; and so did Delacroix: “I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my journal. I regret the gaps.(…)”(7th April 1824) [5]. At times, Pepys went back to some part of his diary and noted once or twice that what he was putting down on the paper was for a later use, to justify himself. However he does not seem to have re-read it extensively [6].

Keeping a diary will not appeal to everyone; and in many cases, the impulse to do so will die out very quickly. Some important events may trigger in people the desire to keep a record of what is happening, but generally people will soon lose interest. For instance, many people started a private diary in 1939 at the outbreak of the war, but very few kept writing through the whole of the war and beyond. After relating each day what was happening according to the newspapers, most got bored, while some continued because they were also noting down their own experience of the war, the rationing, the disruptions of their ordinary life, their fear during air raids, etc. You only keep a diary if you enjoy it, and you enjoy it more if you are including your point of view, your reactions, your thoughts…

For some people, generally of an emotional nature, keeping a “journal intime” will be tempting and will become a very pleasant activity. But this kind of hobby (because it is a hobby like bell-ringing or train-spotting) will not be understood by everyone and cannot be to everyone’s taste. But if you are keeping a very personal diary, you will naturally understand what was going on in Pepys’s mind. You will know the man from inside and probably will share many characteristics with him: the same ability to observe your own behaviour, the same emotions that allows memories to stay vivid even after many days have passed, the same desire to discover what kind of person you are, warts and all, the same willingness to be absolutely sincere and honest about yourself, the same curiosity about the world in which you live and the people you meet, the same pleasure to write about your life.

Samuel Pepys had precisely the personality and the qualities that intimate diary-keeping calls for. His interest in himself and in his own progress in life, his introspective mind, his all-inclusive curiosity, combined with the fact that he had enough time to write and that he had much to tell, being in contact with many prominent people and witnessing so many important events, led to his never being short of something to tell or comment on. He enjoyed the whole process and was not so much inclined to compose essays on more academic subjects. It is interesting to note that the book he planned for so long about the history of the Navy was never written, despite frequent encouragements from John Evelyn. Unlike his friend, he only published one book in his life (Memoirs relating to the State of the Royal Navy, 1690). He certainly would have continued his diary if the increasing problem with his eyes had not stopped him doing so.

In the end, the question is not really why Pepys kept a diary but rather why he wrote one so intimate and honest, and so interesting. But the more intimate and honest a “journal intime” is, the more pleasurable, the more cathartic, since writing an intimate diary is almost a therapeutic process. One learns so much about oneself on the way that it can quickly become addictive to an inquiring mind. We are extremely lucky that Pepys’s diary happened still to be among his books at the time of his death in Clapham, and that the great care he took to protect the whole of his library saved the diary from destruction. It is a rare privilege to be able to read an intimate diary that has not been edited and cut, especially one that takes us so far back in time.


[1] “Up early to write down my last two days observations.” (17th May 1660); “I went about setting down my last four days’ observation this morning.”(22nd May 1660); “(…) the Admiralty Office (…) where I stayed and writ my last observations for these four days last past.” (19th July 1660).

[2] Sir Henry (Chips) Channon wrote a diary from 1918 until his death. He became an MP in 1935 and later a member of the House of Lords. He deposited his notebooks in the British Museum, and asked for them not to be opened until 60 years after his death. But he had a change of mind one year before his death and he began to edit them himself. Frank Kafka reacts in the same way: “Here is my diary, he writes to Max Brod, his friend and biographer. As you will see, I faked a little, because it was not intended for me alone.”

[3] Heather Creaton, “Unpublished London Diaries, a checklist”, London Record Society 2002 (vol 37), particularly the Introduction. Also Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys, the Unequalled Self, chapter 6.

[4] The Assassin’s Cloak, an Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists, Edinburgh, 2000, ed: Irene and Alan Taylor; a superb anthology of quotes from many different published diaries. The introduction explains many aspects of diary keeping.

[5] Delacroix had only started his diary on 3rd September 1822: “I am beginning my journal, the journal I so often planned to write. My keenest wish is to remember that I am writing it only for myself; this will keep me truthful, I hope. So I will become a better person.”  He stopped keeping it in 1824 and went back to it from 1847 to his death in 1863. His Journal intime is one of a rare kind: the diary of a painter.

[6] See The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Latham and Matthews, 1970, vol. I, Introduction pp. lxviii-lxix).