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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Diaries of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Reflect All of Life

The Diaries of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Reflect All of Life

Reagan: One of Presidents Who Kept Diary - US Fed Government
For centuries people from every walk of life have kept accounts of their daily lives, which are at once historical masterpieces and exercises in hubris.

Mae West said: Keep a diary, and some day it’ll keep you’. Oscar Wilde quipped, ‘Inever travel without my diary. I like to have something sensational to read on the train’. Both remarks suggest diaries are not only kept for private thoughts/remembrances, but may also be read in the future by others. This applies to the famous or those close to events, like politicians or creatives.

English 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) set the standard. He lived in interesting times, but also was privy to workings of the English crown restored in the person of Charles II after the divisive years of the civil wars, 1642-1651. He was a Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, famous for reforming administration and professionalism of the Navy.

But it was his coded diaries that have become a primary source of the period, containing eyewitness accounts of landmark events like the Great Plague and the Fire of London. The journals also catalogued intimate details of a lively, middle-income functionary, his love life and domestic arrangements and concerns.

Teenage Flight from Nazis: Anne Frank’s Diary

Anne Frank kept her diary while in hiding from the Nazis in German-occupied Holland in the Second World War. It has become a potent symbol of Holocaust resistance. She was one of the million Jewish children who perished in concentration camps.

She, her family and other Dutch Jews hid in a secret annex to an apartment in Amsterdam, provisioned secretly, keeping movement/noises to nights when the local business community went away. In a plain book, she recorded her perceptions, hopes, emotions and problems associated with the cramped hiding place where she lived for two years, in terror.

In August 1944, Anne Frank’s secret annex was discovered; they were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to camps. Anne and her sister died of typhus in March 1945, just weeks before British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen. Only her father survived, along with her dairy. It has been published worldwide and to this day, The Diary of Anne Frank remains an essential part of education across the world.

Political Diarists Set Their Record Straight Through Writing

US Presidents who have set down their experiences and thoughts include, John Adams (2nd), John Quincy Adams (6th), James Polk (11th), Harry S Truman (33rd) and Ronald Reagan (40th). Among British politicians given to secret jottings are: 1960s’ Labour Cabinet Ministers Richard Crossman and Tony Benn, and more recently, PM Tony Blair’s chief political adviser, Alastair Campbell.

Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of Prime Minister Asquith kept one, as did US General George Patton, Canadian Premier William Mackenzie King and Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels.

From the world of arts and creativity, musings survive from novelists Arnold Bennett; Germany’s Thomas Mann; Louisa May Alcott; Fanny Burney; George Eliot; Iris Murdoch, Sir Walter Scott; George Sand; Alice Walker and both Fyodor Dostoevsky and his wife Anna, and Tolstoy and his wife Sophia, who apparently read each other’s diaries.

Writers, playwrights and poets have shared their inner secrets through journals, including Sylvia Plath; Virginia Woolff; Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Max Frisch; Allen Ginsberg; Andy Warhol; George Bernard Shaw; Gerard Manley Hopkins; Beatrix Potter; Joe Orton, and English Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.

‘Alice’ creator Lewis Carroll kept a diary, as did Buckminster Fuller, designer and engineer along with Che Guavara; British occultist Aleister Crowley; painter and film-maker Derek Jarman; Czech writer Franz Kafka; Swedish philosopher Kierkegaard and French philosopher Simone Weil; aviator Lindbergh’s wife, Elisabeth, and Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Nijinsky.

Musicians Pete Doherty, Kurt Cobain, Marianne Faithfull, Courtney Love, Canada’s Alanis Morissette, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, Cosima Wagner, second wife of composer Richard Wagner (who also kept an account) and daughter of Franz Liszt kept one each.

Famous Fictional and Infamous Fake Diaries

Since the public never seems to tire of private, often honest musings of people they know about, there has over the years been a ready market in fictionalising or fabricating diaries for publication.

Bridget Jones Diaries is a 1996 novel by Helen Fielding made into a movie in 2001 about a single woman in her thirties in London, and it chronicles her loves, friends and fantasies. There was a follow-up movie in 2004: The Edge of Reason.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1982) is comedic fiction written by Sue Townsend and is described by publishers, Penguin as “an unabashed, pimples-and-all glimpse into the troubled life of an adolescent. Writing candidly about his parents’ marital troubles, the dog, his life as a tortured poet and ‘misunderstood intellectual’, teenager Adrian Mole’s painfully honest diary makes hilarious and compelling reading”.

Fabricated diaries, designed to con publishers and readers, include The Hitler Diaries. West German magazine Stern reported in 1983 the discovery in East Germany of 62 handwritten volumes of secret diary by Adolf Hitler. It sparked a storm of controversy and interest, but after time people realised they were the biggest historical hoax of the century.

Over the years since Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were shot as the last war ended, there’ve been several fakes purporting to have been written by the pair. The most notorious made the claim that he had confessed to having 14 simultaneous lovers.

Faked or real, famous or infamous, diaries provide fascinating glimpses into the worlds of other people.

First published on Suite 101, 5 June 2010.

Photo: Reagan: One of Presidents Who Kept Diary – US Fed Government

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