The Private Life of the Diary

By Sally Bayley

From Pepys to Tweets: a history of the diary as an art form

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book Launch Talk: A Teenage Elegy (For Talia)

Dear Unbounders

Last night was The Private Life of the Diary launch at the wonderful story museum in Oxford. A few of you have asked me to post the talk; here it is.


A diary is an elegy for moments, hours, days, years spent. The years of my own life that I mourn the most are my teenage years; I was at my best during those years, the years of twelve to nineteen, because I was reading, devouring books, reading uninterruptedly, reading all of Shakespeare and Dickens and Trollope and the Brontes and Eliot,  all that Victorian fiction where women spend a lot of time doing nothing except sitting around and writing letters and diaries and staring out of windows, as Mrs. Dedlock does in Dickens’s Bleak House. Women with bleak and boring lives, women with dresses so tight they couldn’t eat cake or probably even go to the loo or even fart.  I thought they were wonderful!

I didn’t spend much of my teenage years staring out of windows; I spent them out of doors, with a book in my hand and my diary-notebook, roaming the beach and seafront across the main road from our tumble-down (or rather, in real terms, let’s face it, our damp and cold and too-shameful to- be-entered) Victorian house by the sea.

As a fourteen year old girl I was brave, much braver than I am now. I was brave because I didn’t let anyone interrupt me. I didn’t let anyone find me. Now, as a grown up woman, not letting anyone interrupt you or find you is deemed rude or anti social; or in today’s overly applied, overly seasoned term, autistic.  Only a special sort of scholarly man (Mr. Causabon of George Eliot’s  Middlemarch) is never permitted to be interrupted.

But my teenage self, the self that kept a diary, the self that was devout and serious minded and high-minded and full of purpose – at least as much as Mr. Causabon - didn’t allow herself to be interrupted. I just kept going, reading on and on and on and writing, and none of it mattered, none of the reading and none of the writing. None of it meant anything in the scheme of things: within exams or school reports, or essay prizes, or GCSE’s or A Levels or any of the forms of tightly guarded and patrolled assessment that haunt the lives of today’s teenagers and post-teens: the A stars and AA stars and AAA stars and stars and stars.

  At twelve or fourteen I was never a star. But I was quite brave and quite free. I’m much less so now because I mind what people think and I let people interrupt me all the time. Diaries don’t mind what any of us think; diaries can produce an uncensored, unsupervised self, a best or a worst self, riotous and rebellious and rude and full of nerve. Sylvia Plath called this self ‘The Girl Who Would be God’.

  This book is an elegy for my best self, the teenage girl who didn’t care what people thought of her; who didn’t care how she dressed even when she should have done. As a teenager you believe you can be anything: a girl, or a boy, or in the case of Cassandra Mortmain, the farcical and funny heroine of Dodi Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’, a writer. But you can only be a writer if you are reader and Cassandra Mortmain knows this too; she knows that in order to be a writer you have to read a lot of Shakespeare and Jane Austen and then practise writing in your diary. Your diary will help you find a voice, find other lives: fictional lives, fictional plots, novels.  A diary can help you find a subject.

           Diaries watch and observe lives unfolding, they record and keep life cycles. Virginia Woolf, one of the world’s great literary diarists, and another hero of this book, cycled many lives through her diary. To take one example: aged thirty five she found herself very ill, and unable to manage the sights and sounds of the world and its pressing social and professional responsibilities. That year, 1917, she retreated, as she sometimes did, to her house in Sussex, then Asheham House, where she spent several days lying on the Downs watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. She recorded that small miracle in her Asheham House journal, and it kept her sane.  She returned to her caterpillar-chrysalis self day in and day out until she found her social self again: the self that could sparkle and thrill at parties, the self that could quote Virgil and Aristotle, the self that was cleverer, much cleverer than the boys, the self that tore its critical tongue through James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and her deadly rival, Katherine Mansfield, who also kept a biting journal. You might say, if you were glib, which I am going to be today, May 5th, 2016, two days before my older brother James’s birthday, (which I must write in my diary), that Virginia Woolf’s diary kept her sane. It hauled her back from the edge of her own savage wit and depression.             

           Speaking of sanity, this book is dedicated to Talia Woodin whose 16 year life cycle I have been privileged to observe and be part of almost from the very beginning: since she was six months old.  Knowing Talia, and her brother Rafi (and her their colourful entourage) has in some very definite sense, kept me sane.

           Talia, in a sense, is my equivalent of the diary life cycle; for years we lived together. We shared the same tight spaces, the same bathroom, shower, sink, kitchen floor, kettle, tea cups, cat, very bad Rom-Coms!  I watched her grow up and she watched me, I’m sure, grow up (or grow down!) too. Growing up never stops. We shared a lot, including precious private worlds, languages and games.  There was the little known Bra of Doom Show, which involved Talia and her childhood friend, Cinderella, breaking and entering into my bedroom closet to find my raciest bra, which they animated, ventriloquised and then recorded on video (Why Bra of DOOM? Why not Bra of SOON or MOON? BOOM? BOOM?)

           The bra of Doom held forth on all sorts of important world events, but especially, and in particular, my wardrobe choices. (Definitely worth noting!) The Bra of Doom was an animated talking head (attached, I believe to waggling sticks), who had great and marvellous, magical things to say: Bra Prophecies; Bra Riddles, Bra-a-Rama!

           All of this is recorded on video, the millennial teen’s equivalent of a diary. Also carefully recorded is the dressing up game, again,  inspired by my wardrobe. We called this The Matron Game. The Matron Game (just to be clear, I was the Matron) involved  Talia and her brother Rafi, again helping themselves to my rich and exotic wardrobe (Think Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) , spending five minutes with those devastingly tasteful garments getting into character – characters inspired entirely by my clothes. After five minutes they would prance out,  dramatically, from behind clothes doors dressed as a seventeenth century Highway man and a drunk, LA prostitute (obviously!) There are videos to prove this, but thankfully, they are, like diaries, bits of private nonsense, bits of daring, domestic ephemera and nonsense. They are, what my first mother would call, ‘Playing Silly Devils’. Never to be seen again!

           Diaries offer us extra storage space, a hidden closet, more room in which to be or say things we cannot be or say in the world. Diaries offer us the opportunity to play; to be ludicrous. Samuel Pepys, the modern world’s first great diarist, kept his most important things in his closet – something he could afford only after he’d made some money for himself as Charles II’s chief Naval administrator. In his closet Pepys kept his wigs and his self-portrait, his best and vainest things. This book, I’m sure, has several vain and silly things in it; it is, after all, part memoir, part narrative non-fiction and it tells a story: the story of the diary in history, across time and space, the story of the diary as a biography, as a coming of age story, the story of my child turning teenage self  trying to fashion something out of nothing, to spin out a place for herself in the world, a world full of competition – four brothers, one dead, a mother, no father, a grandmother, a mad aunt, and several household hangers-on; a cat, a rabbit a guinea-pig and eight cousins. There was no space in our house for all that stuff, all those people, all that drama. My diary yielded me extra space to live and breathe and grow.  

(READ EXTRACT from Teenage Confessions chapter to conclude)





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