A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries – Thomas Mallon (1984)

Found this older book edition on the TBR the other day when I was bibbling around, and being in the exact right mood for diaries (someone else’s – not mine!), I pulled this off the shelf. I had originally expected to read an anthology of different diaries from different people in different years, but when I got into this read, I realized that it was more academic and organized than I had thought. 

Thomas Mallon, Ph.D., is (or was?) faculty at Vassar College who teaches in the Department of English, and I’m thinking that this book was probably part of a tenure requirement packet. Saying that though doesn’t imply that I thought less of it, by any means, but it was surely a more serious read than I had prepared for. This was fine in the end, but it did need a mind shift to get there after the first few pages.

So, this was not the book that I had thought I was going to read, but it turned out to be really interesting all the same. It was still a book about diaries, but the contents were organized thematically (as opposed to by author or time period) and so the usual suspects that typically make diary-related anthologies were also supplemented by less well-known ones as well, which was an enjoyable extra. 

Each chapter was called a large thematic title (e.g. Chroniclers, Pilgrims, Prisoners, Confessors etc.) and it was pretty interesting to read how the author had grouped the diary entries. Additionally, the book was more than just selected authors. It was also quite an academic treatise on the history of diaries (and those who wrote them), on the trends and patterns of diary-keeping, and on the many situations in which people have written them. 

So, the contents included Samuel Pepys, but also Parson James Woodforde (The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802); of Jerome K. Jerome’s Diary of a Pilgrimage along with the travel diary of 15-year-old Miss Julia Newberry who was dragged across a long tour of mainland Europe with her incredibly rich American mother; the journals of Pope John XXIII and author Annie Dillard… 

Curiously, I was most interested in the diaries completed by people who were imprisoned in some way, physically or mentally, whether fairly or unfairly so. Anne Frank is in there, but so is Hitler’s “master architect”, Albert Speer and his diary, Spandau

(Being a big fan of 1980s English music, I naturally thought of the old group, Spandau Ballet, and wondered if their band name was anything to do with this Speer’s Spandau, but disappointingly, the group name only arose from when a friend of theirs saw it written on a wall in Berlin on a weekend trip. Huh. 

And then digging a little deeper, it turns out that Spandau is the name of an old town near Berlin. The actual prison was there until it was demolished in 1987, after its final prisoner, Rudolf Hess, had died. The prison was demolished to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. Well, well. Now you know.)

Back to the book at hand: there are all sorts of lesser-known diarists here which I’ve noted for further perusal: William Allingham (1824-1889), a rather sad and lonely guy who was on the very edge of the Pre-Raphaelites (such as Tennyson). Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963) wrote ten million words (no exaggeration) who led a very quiet life in Boston, but longed to talk with interesting people. He even put a newspaper ad out that asked “for interesting people to talk” with, each paid 75 cents/hr to tell their stories to old Arthur as the visitor sat in front of a black curtain with Arthur sitting behind it. (Nope. Not weird at all. No sirree bob.)

A female partner to old Arthur would be Eve Wilson, whose words comprise The Notebooks of a Woman Alone (1935). Eve worked on the edge of poverty as a governess, and whose real life seems to echo that of the single middle-aged women who were the protagonists of mid-century authors such as Margaret Forster and Anita Brookner et al. You know – Eve really reminded me Brian Moore’s character in The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (1955). 

So, lots of food for thought in this read and lots of other breadcrumb trails to chase after for future reads. The author seemed to be pretty erudite and witty in the end, and I enjoyed this one. Plus – one more off the old TBR. 

Other diary-related reviews include:

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)

Diary without Dates – Enid Bagnold (1917)

Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield (1930)

The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries – Irene Taylor & Alan Taylor (2001)

The Country Diaries – Alan Taylor (ed.)

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