Japanese Folklore to Anne Frank: A Brief History of Diaries

When the opportunity arose to write this piece I jumped at the chance, immediately consulting the pile of tattered, dusty journals stored under my bed. You see, fellow reader, I too was a diary writer. And what images that conjures up! The lone man, tweed, tobacco-stained fingertips, driving rain outside, crackling fire inside, using his pen to funnel his unrequited love from heart, to crisp white page. Or the Princess with ringlets, sat stifled in her satin rooms, composing letters in looping calligraphy that cuss her haughty Mamma and lay bare parliamentary scandals. Or the child, plum-cheeked with violent joy, scribbling on his favourite subject: the routine torture of Mr Tiddles, the family cat.

What I discovered when trawling down memory lane was that I clearly wasn’t a literary giant. Alas, in between the latest drama ensuing in my social circle, and what I had for dinner that night, my diary was just a rundown of my scholarly routine. Hardly stuff to make the publishers at Penguin Classics sit up. However, not all diarists are as uninspired as my thirteen-year-old self. Diary-keeping has been an expression of self and literature which we can trace to ancient times, though it’s been shown to be a relatively recent medium in the culture of Western Europe.

The oldest known diaries came from East Asian cultures, and went by the gently dreamy, softly secret name of “Pillowbooks”, evoking images both of hiding the writing in the privacy of your bed, and of jotting down your innermost thoughts.

Japanese court ladies collated their introspective musings within these, as early as the 10th century. Not only were they reflections on daily life, but explorations of drama and fantasy. Bordering on the realms of fictional writing, their melancholy lamentations captured the intimacies of a life and mind long subjugated within society. Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji, is thought to be one of the earliest published authors documenting life within the confines of the Emperor’s palace. Her journals are absorbing in their exploration through female eyes of a period in history marked by its patriarchal muting of women. Her words open us up to the situation in a time when women were rarely seen and never heard, as she writes of marital relations; “When there are crises, incidents, a woman should try and overlook them”. And of bitchy gossip overheard in society:

““Well, we never expected this!” they all say. “No one liked her. They all said she was pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful. But when you meet her, she is strangely meek, a completely different person altogether!”

All with a brilliant smattering of very cryptic, Japanese-style zen epitaphs such as; “If you are scorched earth, I will be warm rain” and, “If like the leaf of the wisteria through which the sun darts his rays transparently you give your heart to me, I will no longer distrust you.”

Whilst diaries were kept in the West as early as the time of the Puritans, where arrivals to America from the Mayflower jotted down their latest discoveries, the intimacies of personal writing did not mature until much later. During this period, diaries were more a religious impulse and a way of making the authors’ life a witness to God, summarising the anxious, self-examining religiosity of the seventeenth century.

It was during the Renaissance that diaries really began to develop, with the notable Samuel Pepys leading the way. For a decade he recorded daily British life and the major events that shaped society around him. Celebrated as one of the greatest diarists of all time, his works were first published in the 19th century, creating great fanfare within literary circles and defining the pleasure we take in reading literature of this kind today. His witty insights are all the more charming for showing us that really nothing has changed over the centuries. For instance, on the effect of dining he wrote, “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody”, and on giving up alcohol he wrote, “I do find myself much better and to mind my business better and to spend less money”, a sentiment I’m sure we can all sympathise with deeply. While on Christmas day in 1665, he recorded:

“To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding…; and the young people so merry one with another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them.”

Then, in the late 18th century, during the period of the French Revolution, introspective diaries took shape with the ‘journal intime’ developing out of an intense desire to explore individuality. Examining conscience and emotions, these were a psychological take on what had once been a routine form of note-taking.

Whilst Pepys may hold the title as the greatest diarist, perhaps the most recognisable is Anne Frank. Penned whilst in hiding, her diary functions as a cultural artefact, providing a unique and rare insight into Nazi Germany from the perspective of a young Jewish teenager. Anne’s father Otto sought to publish her writings after the Holocaust, which left him the only surviving member of his family. Like many young girls of her age, Anne comments on daily life, love and family tribulations, despite the intense historic period she was living in. Eloquently inscribing; “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn”, Anne sums up what diaries mean to us, they’re a chance to expel our worries outward into the world. This sort of catharsis makes for honest, raw material, that readers can relate to.

But how has the diary fared in this modern age, where our thoughts are more likely to end up slung on Twitter for the consumption of our peers and public alike? Have the likes of WordPress blogs and filtered Instagram posts overtaken the way we record our deeper experiences? If everyone can be tracked down on at least one form of social media, do we even bother holding a space for the world of our private thoughts, or has the need to share and be validated overtaken the art of recording the rich fabric of our inner lives? This is perhaps too big a question, which we haven’t had enough time yet to answer. We don’t know what the advent of the internet will really bring, though it is fair to say that frequently social media serves as a “highlight reel” of our best moments, glossing over our problems or hardships. Our vanity chips into the image we present to the world, taking away from the honesty and rawness that is so present and so loveable in diarists.

The truth may well be that instead of using the diary as a prop for self-reflection, we will become too concerned with editing our lives for a global audience. In theory this isn’t life-threatening, but in practice the idea of learning about ourselves by responding to people’s comments, instead of by listening to our own instincts, clips our wings and narrows our world.

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