Diaries and Journals

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.Diary 1

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.Diary 3

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.Diary 2

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.Diary 5

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.

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6 Responses to Diaries and Journals

  1. Bob Scotney says:

    My diary is a series of things to do, blog statistics and coded reference to the walks I take each day – all of no interest to anyone and with no historical worth. Log books (diaries?) from projects I have worked on might be more interesting to some if they knew what the data was connected to.

    I’ve read the diary of Anne Frank but have never tackled any others; memoirs are not the same thing – especially if politicians are involved – as they tend to put a slant on events,

  2. Ann Williams says:

    Hi, Bob, great to hear from you again. I think most of us use diaries for practical day to day recording these days but even comments on the weather or what is blooming in the garden can be of use to scientists in the future. I am not so sure of their use for the average fictional detective however.

    I haven’t read all the books mentioned in full, just dipped into for inspiration, although I found Kilvert’s diary entertaining and all the more so after visiting Clyro where he was living at the time. In his diary he is very dismissive of tourists so it would be interesting to know what he would make of being the subject of a tourist trail himself.

    I think it is the diaries of people like the market gardener, though, that give a better picture of life of the times. He talks of what he has planted and what has germinated but he also details cricket matches, unusual weather and food and drink he has enjoyed. Real insights into daily life.

  3. Hi Ann and Happy New Year. Great to see one of your lovely posts coming through.
    I enjoy reading diaries and have often tried and failed to keep a journal type myself. I’m particularly interested in the Anne Hughes one you mention and will see if I can find a copy. Anne

  4. Ann Williams says:

    Hello Anne and Happy New Year to you, too.
    The Anne Hughes diary was published by Penguin. I’ll send you more details later. She lived on a farm near Chepstow in Monmouthshire and she really did write about anything and everything. Apparently the BBC did a programme based on her diary in 1978 but having two small children at the time it obviously passed me by. However, it wouldn’t have been long after that I picked up my copy at a school fete and I still have it as I find it a lovely book to dip into. It is very readable.

  5. Patsy says:

    My great grandfather kept a diary. Mostly it contains notes about tasks done on the farm and livestock records. As my family still live there it’s interesting to see what has, and what hasn’t, changed.

  6. Ann Williams says:

    What a great family treasure to have, Patsy. It is records such as these that are helping those looking at climate change to look for trends from the past, too, but on a personal level the insight they give into daily life is invaluable.
    Quite a few such documents have now been published and I find them fascinating reading. Sadly none of my ancestors chose to write anything down. My grandfather did write on the shed door the dates when he planted certain items in the garden and pinned up the cards from his produce show wins on the ceiling of the shed but that was all swept away with the shed!

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