Diaries of different kinds. Chris Mullin, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys and Francis Kilvert
‘They say failed politicians make the best diarists, in which case I am in with a chance’
You may not think that political diaries are your thing and probably it does depend to some extent on your own convictions as to which you’ll find appealing but only an Attila or a Ghengis Khan would take exception to the marvellous record of the first years of the Blair government as described by Chris Mullin in A View from the Foothills. He is scrupulously fair to comrades and opponents alike, showing remarkable prescience in his opinions of many of the people surrounding him. Descriptions of the inner workings of Parliament combine with his admirable honesty and integrity (he blocks his own upward rise in the party by voting against the Iraq war) to provide a fascinating read.
A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin is published by Profile Books.
Vol.2 Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 appeared in August 2010 also published by Profile.
‘What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, and life breaks in’
Quite a lot of life ‘breaks in’ to Virginia Woolf’s diaries: you may be expecting only lofty musings about Art and Literature (and there are plenty of those) but you also get Virginia’s amusing helplessness in the face of her bullying domestic staff; her worries about what to wear when going out to dinner; her love for her family and friends (and sadness at her childless state); her forebodings as war looms and her relationships with Leonard, Vita Sackville-West, Lytton Strachey, T S Eliot and Dame Ethel Smythe among others.
Above all, there is her need to write; as she ponders and plans a new book, the reader of the diaries is allowed to see the creative process at work, the development of ideas and her overwhelming urge to commit her thoughts and feelings to paper. This is followed by painstaking correction, re-reading, re-writing, the shy and fearful presentation of the work to Leonard for his approval and, almost always, her amazing lack of confidence in the finished product. Then come relief and surprise when the books sell well.
The other main thread is her mental health: it’s not a solipsistic preoccupation, more a kind of background worry which turns to black despair when she realises that she is going to be afflicted by depression. The most powerful passages in the diaries deal with the onset of these attacks:
Wednesday 15 September 
A State of Mind. Woke up at perhaps 3. Oh its beginning its coming – the horror – physically like a painful wave swelling about the heart – tossing me up. I’m unhappy, unhappy! Down – God I wish I were dead. Pause. But why am I feeling like this? Let me watch the wave rise. I watch. Vanessa. Children. Failure. Yes I detect that. Failure failure. (The wave rises)……………I can’t face this horror any more.
Virginia Woolf: Selected Diaries. Abridged and Edited by Anne Olivier Bell is published by Vintage.
Other enjoyable diaries:
There are plenty of good editions of the most famous of diaries. These are vivid, absorbing, and full of life and interest: his accounts of the Restoration, the Plague and the Great Fire of London are classic examples of descriptive writing and for three and a half centuries have provided important eyewitness testimony for historians. See also Claire Tomalin’s marvellous biography of Pepys.
Many of Kilvert’s diaries, describing his life as a vicar in the border towns of Bredwardine and Clyro were censored or destroyed by his wife and descendants but those which remain run from 1870 to 1879 and record the landscape, the people and his work in great detail. The writing is so delightful that it immediately seizes the attention and interest of the reader. As a snapshot of everyday experiences in a remote community this has become a classic work of biography and is recognised as a work of literature in its own right.
Incidentally, it is now recognised that the diaries contain possibly the first accounts by a sufferer of the condition now described as ‘cluster headaches’.
If you like the idea of dipping into lots of different diaries, by writers, artists, actors, politicians, royalty, ordinary people, soldiers and clerics, The Assassin’s Cloak is a great anthology of diary writing, arranged in date order, so that you can turn to any particular date and read entries by, for example, Alec Guinness, Evelyn Waugh, Andy Warhol, Barbara Pym, John Evelyn or Queen Victoria.
Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.
(H D Thoreau 21 October 1857)
The Assassin’s Cloak is edited by Irene and Alan Taylor and published by Canongate Books