I am a compulsive diarist and have been since I was 16. My daughter fantasises that even as a mad old lady in the attic I will still be tapping out my diary. I have to do it. If I don’t, I feel almost ill, as if I am only half living. Do I want my diaries published? Yes, I do, though I did not write them for that purpose. I am 66 and, due to the sheer number of words, they would fill 20 volumes. I feel that if they are not read, my life as a writer will have been wasted.
The diarists with whom I most empathise were also compulsive, though I admire those who deliberately chronicle an important period of history. Victor Klemperer, a professor of languages who was the son of a rabbi but had an Aryan wife and remained in Dresden throughout the war, wrote I Shall Bear Witness, a diary that records the daily restrictions and persecution suffered by Jews. The young Anne Frank knew the value of what she was documenting about her Jewish family while in hiding in Amsterdam, but her diary was also her secret friend. She called it ‘Kitty’.
Compulsive diarists are ambivalent: we want to be private but we want our thoughts to be appreciated. When Jean Lucey Pratt, some of whose diaries have been published as A Notable Woman, began her first in 1926, aged 16, she wrote: ‘This document is private.’ But as her life unfolded and she realised that her career as an author was not going to take off, she started to treat her diaries more seriously. On Christmas Day 1934, she wrote: ‘7 p.m. A diarist must do what other writers may not… His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallise moments on the wing so that future generations will say as they turn the glittering pages, “This was the present then. This was true.” ’
Alexander Masters’s new book A Life Discarded, which was reviewed in The Spectator by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in April, is about another compulsive diarist. In 2001, Masters was handed 148 tattered notebooks found in a Cambridge skip. At first, he read bits at random, assuming wrongly that the diarist was male. Once he had realised his mistake, the diaries appealed to him because ‘I wanted to know what the women I passed in the street or sat beside on the train were thinking, and these books, I thought, would tell me.’ Even when Masters tracks down his diarist, the mystery is maintained. He refers to her as ‘Laura Francis’ — which is not her real name. Laura’s diaries are unselfconscious. A typical entry reads: ‘I think if one saw Rose West in M&S, one would be able to see she wasn’t right in the head.’
Laura’s initial attitude to her diaries ran quite contrary to Jean Lucey Pratt. At 20 she wrote: ‘Hope my diaries aren’t blown up before people can read them — they have immortal value.’ Laura has written more than 22 million words, but now in her seventies, she has no interest in publishing them or even rereading them. She told Masters that she keeps going because ‘I like the sound of the pen on the page.’ He asked her how she would feel if she stopped. She replied: ‘I wouldn’t feel quite myself.’
I sympathise. However, unlike Laura, I realised when looking through my old diaries for Woman’s Hour how much pleasure rereading them can give. My recorded life from 16 can be, for me, like going to the cinema every night; a fresh vision plays out on every page. In 1967, at university, I revisit my first meeting with ‘charismatic Clare’, a fellow student, who wore ‘blazing blue tights’. In August 1981, I record the joyful birth of my daughter in the now defunct West London Hospital, ‘surrounded by sunshine and helpful Caribbean nurses’. In 1988, I note my five-year-old son’s imaginative farewell to the little girl beside him on a plane to Majorca: ‘See you again when I’m a fat old man!’
What I love about reading diaries is the unexpectedness: evidence of how your life can change quickly. On VE Day evening, Jean Lucey Pratt writes of feeling ‘intensely lonely’. Just weeks later, she is mistress to not one but two philanderers. On 3 July 1945, she describes one of them as ‘M’: ‘Shabby blue suit, tired, flushed, as though he had been drinking heavily all day. A really shoddy little businessman. Pah!’ Then, six days later: ‘Heart is singing again. M phoned and came round… Yes, I am his mistress now, his mistress… Later I asked: “How many girlfriends have you?” “Five,” he replied, promptly and coolly. “Three are in Sheffield.” ’
It is worth emphasising here that what makes Pratt a great diarist is her honesty. The true diarist must never avoid looking bad.
Elisa Segrave is the author, among other books, of Ten Men and The Girl from Station X.