That urge to write a life down: it has come to most of us. Circumstances drive us into the act of recording details from our lives: Anne Frank responded to the stress of incarceration in a tiny secret hideout by writing, eloquently, evocatively. Samuel Pepys was a systematic archivist at heart, recording the details of a life full of event at a fascinating time.
And Joe Average has his share of diary writing. Take the fabulous introduction written, ostensibly, by Charles Pooter in Diary of a Nobody: “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.”
The details of the Nobody invented by George and Weedon Grossmith prove totally engrossing: from his affable friends who pop round for chats, to Sarah the cantankerous maid, to their headstrong son Lupin: the whole diary is a romp around the fine detail of a happy existence.
Highlights include Lupin’s pony-and-trap road rage; and his spectacular avoidance tactic when he loses Charles and his friends money on a ‘sure thing’: he jumps out of the drawing room window and runs away.
I keep my eye on the new bloggers coming through on WordPress. That first post after the generic ‘Hello World’ is so often a variation of Pooter’s introduction. It is a tentative toe into the world of diary writing: and a few go on to make it part of their day-to-day existence.
Why do we do it? Share the detail of our life with anonymous readers?
Dr Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist from the University of California in Los Angeles, thinks he may have the answer.
It is roughly three years since he and his team got together a group of people and scanned their brains before they wrote. Half were asked to write about neutral experiences: half chronicled a recent emotional incident.They wrote for 20 minutes a day, for four consecutive days.
And the scans revealed more than any diary could: it concluded that those who wrote about their emotions were unconsciously using a part of their brain which helped to reduce strong emotions.
Dr Lieberman told the Guardian: “Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally. Whether it’s writing things down in a diary, writing bad poetry, or making up song lyrics that should never be played on the radio, it seems to help people emotionally.”
So writing a diary can overcome emotional upheaval, and actually make you happier, it seems.
Which is a good thing, especially if you’re the reigning monarch of a country and an empire. Queen Victoria wrote diaries throughout her 64 year reign. She wrote to the diary alone: a private audience with a notional reader.
She started her diaries at the age of 13, and tailed off just weeks before her death, creating 141 volumes and some 43,000 pages. The tales chronicle her meeting, marriage with and mourning of Albert, her many struggles with matters of state, and issues great and small.
Initially they were very private: latterly one could get to see them by special appointment at Windsor Castle.
But to celebrate our present queen’s milestone 60-year reign, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and The Royal Archives have collaborated to put the whole glorious lot online.
We can peruse Victoria’s words, some written in Victoria’s hand: and soon transcriptions of pages will also be available.
You can find them here. An unbelievable window into history in which one can read about the events of the last Diamond Jubilee, courtesy of the present one.
But it’s only for a short while. From July 2012, the diaries will be available only to those in the United Kingdom, and to specific libraries elsewhere.
So here are your starters orders as we in Britain head into our weekend of Diamond Jubilee celebrations: Ladies and gentlemen, these diaries are historical gold dust. They have been available to a chosen few academics for a very long time. And unless you live where I live, you have a month – a precious window – to read the diaries of the lady who gave her name to the Victorian era.
On your marks.