On how Pepys kept his diary
Pepy’s wrote his diary from notes – whether on the day, or weeks later
Whilst diaries have a value in their historical immediacy they are generally far from giving the sense of the living moment. In Pepy’s ‘what is seemingly the most spontaneous and living series of entries in the diary, the long account of the Great Fire, was, as Pepy’s himself states, entered into the diary-book three months or more after the event. He has had a time to consider and reflect, to ‘contextualise’ what took place.
What do I make of this?
Pepy’s prepared loose-leaf notes and wrote his diary upon the day or later, often leaving space to fill. Anais Nin wrote continually, but typed up copies from the manuscript and had a hand in editing the volumes before they were published. Henry Miller drew on his experiences in the Mid 20s to mid 30’s in New York and Paris to write his autobiographical fiction. My own diary, like some I have read, like ‘belles lettres’ or essays are (is) a dry log book like record of events as they take place. They are a satisfactory record but do nothing to have ‘no sense of the moment.’
And how should I react?
Should I make, take and keep notes then write it all up at the weekend?
Pepys composed his diary in five stages:
First, the accumulation of bills, minutes, official papers, news books and rough notes on a day’s proceedings.
Second, the gathering of these into a form which combined accounts with diary style notes.
Third, the entering of the account and business matters into the appropriate manuscript/books, and the first revision of the general entries which were intended for the final manuscript.
Fourth, entry of these notes into the diary-book (with care and over time), adapted to the space.
Fifth, reading over the entries that had been made shortly before, making small corrections and stylistic improvements and inserting some further details at the ends of paragraphs and entries.’
From W. Matthews, ‘Introduction to Pepys Diaries II, ppcii
Where does this leave me? With a system? Four books (four books as Anais Nin imagined ideal), more chosen titles being diary, dream book, notebook and scrapbook. The diary, the ‘ivre d’or’, would be assembled on a sometimes daily, sometimes weekly (even monthly) basis; the dream book from early morning jottings put through a question and answer session on a WP (currently the Amstrad); a notebook (such as this), a journal of notes, extracts comment and ideas – not on the day’s events but for academic (or self-intellectual reason); and scrapbook to preserve relevant cuttings kept from the day (week or month) or world events, goings on, points and pictures of interest – possibly with the option to include my own scribblings.
If these four books couldn’t preserve an accurate record of my age what could? A camcorder strapped permanently to my shoulder?
William Matthews goes on to say what makes a good diary and what makes a bad one.
‘Almost all diaries that give genuine and protracted pleasure to an ordinary reader do so because the diarists possessed, instinctively or by training, some of the verbal, intellectual and emotional talents that characterise the novelist. Diaries are not novels; they are bound to reality, with its deplorable habit of providing excellent story situations and so artistically satisfactory ends.’
But also the man, Pepys, because of his variety of amateur interests had a passion for life which sustains a diary which requires a rich weave of activity if it is to remain interesting.
‘Pepys was a typical 17th century virtuoso, a man who justified himself by the diversity of his interests.’
W.M. Pepys VI, ‘Diary as literature, ppCxii
‘His literary instinct led Pepys to relate a story excitingly whenever the materials gave him the chance … diaries bring a reader closer to human actuality than any other form of writing. As life-records they present a natural disorder and emphasis which is artfully rearranged in biography, and so somewhat corrupted. As self-delineations they deal directly with people and events which in the novel are subjected to the stresses and conventions of art and design. And in many ways they are the most natural and instinctive product of the art of writing.’ (W.M. Pepys Vol 1, ppCXii)