The Fascination of Diaries

Over the years I have adored reading and writing diaries.  I was thinking about diaries this morning when I came across  Mary Stolz’s In a Mirror on my shelves. Published in 1953,  this “teen” novel is written in the form of a journal. The narrator, Bessie Muller, a junior in college, hopes to understand her life by writing about it.

Stolz was a popular writer of children’s and Y.A. (then called “teen” novels) from the ’50s to the ’80s.  Her novel The Noonday Friends was a  Newbury Honor Book.  Stolz was far from my favorite writer, but she wrote a staggering number of books, which I added  to my stack if I couldn’t find anything else.

  In a Mirror looks quite intriguing, and I have no idea if I’ve read it.    The narrator begins.

To begin with, if you’re going to keep a journal at all, you must be as honest, and must make yourself as clear as your ability and your reservations will allow.  Ideally, you should begin as soon as you learn to write, so as to avoid having to bring things up to date.  Ideally, of course is a word like perfection or eternity—you can say, but not achieve them. I shall need, therefore, having started this, to go back and forth, getting a bit of the present, filling in with a bit of the past.  Keeping a journal must certainly improve my writing.  Perhaps at the same time it will clarify, somewhat, my personal puzzle….  Writing, I guess, is my way, though no doubt I’ll wind up with unresolved sections.  Who will not?

This morning I also made a  list of diary novels I have thoroughly enjoyed, in case this one doesn’t pan out.  One is an actual diary.

1. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Written in the form of a diary, this endearing novel explores Cassandra Mortmain’s  impoverished life in a  castle her father bought on a whim.  He is a blocked writer who now does nothing except read mysteries; Topaz, his wife and Cassandra’s stepmother, is a former model who likes walking nude in the woods at night; Rose, Cassandra’s beautiful older sister, is crankily searching for a husband, but there are no young men in the vicitinity; and younger brother James is an excellent student.  The plot turns comically romantic when a wealthy American family with two adult sons rents a house nearby.  In one scene, Rose is so embarrassed by an ancient fur coat (no one knows what kind of fur) that she hops off a train, runs away, and is mistaken for a bear.

2.  D.E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books, a quartet of interwar novels written in the form of diaries,  Mrs. Tim Christie (known as Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in the UK), Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home.  Mrs. Tim is a British officer’s wife with a terrific sense of humor.  In one of my favorite entries, she discusses fashion: her husband, who doesn’t notice what she wears, obtusely wonders why she needs to own more than one dress.  Family life can be difficult, since the Christies must move around, but Mrs. Tim is always amusing.  In another comical scene, their rambunctious daughter asks embarrassing questions when the colonel’s meddling wife drops in to tea.  (N.B.   The Mrs. Tim books are based on Stevenson’s own diaries, which a friend encouraged her to publish.)

3. Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. This is the actual diary of Bythell, who owns Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, The Bookshop, in Wigtown, which has been designated a Book Town.   Here you’ll get the inside scoop on bookselling. I enjoyed his short, curmudgeonly entries.  

4.  Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man.  The dying hero , Chulkatirin, calls himself “a superfluous man.”  He is courteous, attractive, and well-educated, but contemptuous of society.  (Think of Puskin’s Eugene Onegin.)   Chulkaturin decides to write a diary to analyze his pointless life.   He claims he accomplished nothing and was unloved and superfluous.  He was especially unnerved by his misperception that a  young woman was in love with him, until he noticed her enthusiasm as she danced with another man.  (By the way, scholars adopted Turgenev’s phrase “superfluous man” to describe a popular character type in 19th-century Russian literature.)

5.  Doris Lessing’s The Diaries of Jane Somers consists of two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could…., published pseudonymously under the name Jane Somers.  In the first novel,  Jane Somers,  a middle-aged editor of a women’s magazine, befriends Maudie, a “tiny, bent-over” woman” in her eighties who is the stereotype of a witch.  Jane finds herself helping her out—somewhat reluctantly, because Maudie is cantankerous and even smells bad.  But she learns to respect her, and realizes she is doing things for her she hadn’t done for her mother.  In the second novel, Jane is growing older but unexpectedly falls in love with Richard, whom she encounters literally in the street.