How often in a crime drama or novel the detective seeks out the diary of the victim and from it deduces all sorts of information. Like many people I do keep a diary but the only clues to future readers would be appointments and meetings I have made and odd details such as family birthdays and which rubbish bin should be put out in a particular week. I do record holidays and important dates but very much in note form that others may struggle to follow.
Diaries have been important documents for historians. There are famous diaries such that of Samuel Pepys and the Diary of Anne Frank which have helped us to understand the history of their period. Queen Victoria is known to have kept a diary from the age of thirteen until shortly before her death and other people from the upper classes detailed their travels or their day-to day lives.
Some diaries, such as The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and Kilvert’s Diary have been turned into TV documentaries or films. Clergymen in particular seem to have recorded their lives or their discoveries in other fields with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne being considered one of the first to record such detail.
However, the diaries I find most fascinating are those written by people in humbler occupations, often people we would not expect to be able to read or write at all. I have had Anne Hughes “The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796-97 for many years and it seems her mistress required her to be able to read and write to help her at the Big House and so she was later able to record her own daily round on the farm as well.
An Oxfordshire Market Gardener by Joseph Turrell of Garsington is an example of an agricultural record and I have come across similar accounts written by footmen in grand houses or housekeepers, too. Seeing the upper classes from the point of view of those who served them can offer a very different picture.
Gilbert White is said to have been an early contributor to our knowledge of British Flora and Fauna and many others have added to this knowledge by recording their observations. The four Gloucestershire sisters and their aunts who faithfully collected and painted all the flora of their surroundings between 1828 and 1857 in Frampton on Severn have provided a valuable document for scientists tracing the spread or decline of species over time.
When writing about a historical event diaries or journals may well provide the quotes you need to add detail to the account and these same documents provide essential background for those writing historic fiction, too.