Diaries and Journals – A Fascinating Literary Genre

Leelananda de Silva, Courtesy of Sunday Island, 12 December 2010

One distant day, in the early 1950s, my great-grandmother, who lived at Kataluwa, Ahangama, asked me to read to her from a treasured little hand-written volume which she kept by her bedside. She was in her eighties, and her eyesight was failing. The volume was a diary which she had kept every day of her six-week pilgrimage to India in the 1920s. It was written in Sinhalese. After she died, the diary too was gone, never to be found. This was the first time that I had come across a diary. Later on, in the 1960s, there was the diary of Leonard Woolf, edited by S. D. Saparamadu.

This must be the first diary published in Sri Lanka. Later on, Wilfred Jayasuriya published a selection of diaries of Government Agents. These are valuable contributions. Thirty years after Woolf left Hambantota, an Englishman by the name of Butler, came to live in a house named ‘Repton’ (his old English public school). Butler was an eccentric character, and kept very much to himself, walking miles and miles every day. He kept a diary of the natural life of Hambantota, of birds and flowers, and trees and of the changing scene. He could tell you when the flamingos came to Kalametiya, to the day for the last twenty years and more. Butler’s past is shrouded in mystery. The story goes that he was in charge of the Queen’s House gardens, and that he was asked to leave his job because he was rude to the Governor’s wife. What happened to his diaries, remains a mystery. Talking of diaries, I cannot forget Dr. A.J. Wilson, my lecturer in Political Theory at Peradeniya, who gave me one of my earliest volumes – the published diaries of Kingsley Martin, then editor of the New Statesman and Nation in London.

Diaries are a rare occurrence in Sri Lanka

 Diaries are a rare occurrence in Sri Lanka, even those intermittently kept. In England and in Scotland diaries and journals are more common. The total stock of published diaries and journals in English must be a couple of thousands, much smaller than the stock of novels, biographies and autobiographies. In any one year, the number of diaries published is probably ten to twenty. Diaries are a literary sideshow. Recently, I came across six large volumes of hand-written diaries at the home of Michael and Sarah Kettlewell, in Chipping Norton, Oxford. These diaries are those of Enid Dawkins, Sarah’s grandmother, who wrote them in India where she lived, first with her brother, and then with her husband, both foresters in the British colonial service in the latter part of the nineteenth-century. There is a vast amount of information on the social life of the places where Enid Dawkins had lived. To publish them require an enormous amount of labour to edit them. Many Englishwomen in India kept diaries of their time in the country, and several of these have been published. Recently, the Oxford University Press published a selection of some of these writings by Englishwomen.

In 2003, a gentleman by the name of Paul P. B. Minet, launched a quarterly journal, The British Diarist. The journal brought to light a large number of forgotten diaries of the obscure, and of the more famous. Regrettably, The British Diarist ceased publication after eight issues. Mr. Minet ran a bookshop in the village of Ticehurst in Kent, which at that time had a large collection of diaries. Collecting diaries means visiting second-hand bookshops in various nooks and corners of the United Kingdom, a pleasurable activity in itself.

Diaries and journals can be grouped into several categories. There are literary, social, political, diplomatic, royal, colonial diaries. The better ones cut across these boundaries and include in their pages all kinds of views, observations, comments, gossip, anecdotes and memories. Most diaries were written without any intention to publish them. Some of the more recent ones – those of British politicians like, R. H. S. Crossman, Tony Benn, and Alan Clark – have been intended for publication. When that happens, there is a change in the spirit of keeping diaries. Many diaries have been written to keep later generations of families informed of their backgrounds. The Woodforde family, coming from the counties of Northampton and Somerset, have kept diaries for the last 250 years. One of the Woodforde family diaries – The Diary of a Country Parson – by the Reverend James Woodforde was published by Oxford University Press in 5 volumes. The great days of diarists were before the twentieth century.

The first proper English diary is attributed to Sir William Dugdale in the seventeenth century. The diaries of Samuel Pepys in the late seventeenth century are justifiably famous. Country parsons appear to be popular among diarists. The Kilvert diaries kept by the Rev. Francis Kilvert when he was a parson in the latter part of the eighteenth century are now widely read. There is a Kilvert Society which keeps his memory alive. Kilvert was a Cambridge graduate, and wrote of common day to day things of the countryside in beautiful English. He died in his early thirties. Diaries of interest are not always by the famous. There are many published diaries by common people – shopkeepers, housewives, working-class men and women. It is difficult to do justice to the vast array of diaries that have been published. One has to be idiosyncratic and pick on a few of recent years to provide a taste of what these diaries are like.

 Virginia Woolf

I might start with Virginia Woolf. Her diaries, covering the first four decades of the twentieth century, are now published in five volumes and have been best sellers. These diaries are in their own way a history of the famous Bloomsbury circle of intellectuals and friends of one another, which included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, the painter, Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister) and a few others. Virginia wrote her diary not for publication, and her forthright views might irritate contemporary readers. An extract from her diary for 3rd – 5th November 1917 has this bit of interesting news of Ceylon: ‘And Perera came to tea, & I shut him alone with L. having no wish for more yards of lace. I think, however, that L. is now menaced with a gold watch, owing to the success of the Ceylon business. The Daily News bursts out in three separate places in indignation.’ This refers to the E. W. Perera-Baron Jayatilaka Mission to London, which was assisted by Leonard Woolf. This illustration is only an isolated tit-bit from an assortment of riches.

Beatrice Webb, with her husband Sidney, was the co-founder of the London School of Economics. She kept a continuous diary for over fifty years, from the 1880s to the early 1940s. It is a diary replete with references to intellectual, political and social issues of the day. She had a good eye for the charming anecdote and upper-class gossip. About H. G. Wells, a friend of hers: ‘We have seen something lately of H. G. Wells and his wife. Wells is an interesting, though somewhat unattractive personality except for his agreeable disposition and intellectual vivacity. His mother was the housekeeper to a great establishment of forty servants, his father the professional cricketer attached to the place. The early associations with the menial side of the great man’s establishment has left Wells with a hatred of that class and its hatred towards the ‘lower orders’’ (14th February 1902).

Scandalous affair

 Then about William Beveridge, director of the LSE, who was conducting a scandalous affair with the secretary and assistant director of the school, Lucy Mair, who later became his wife: ‘The Beveridge-Mair entanglement has become a hot-bed of intrigue and scandal at the School. The husband has considerately left England and settled in Australia; the children refuse to live at home; Beveridge has handed over his country cottage to Mrs. Mair in order to regain his freedom during the recess, and rushes off to the Continent with his motor car. He recently moved out of his next-door Campden Hill house to escape her attentions, but she followed him to a flat within sight of his new abode in the Temple, from which she spies on his movements.’

John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist, was President Kennedy’s ambassador to India at the time Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister. His diary of these years, 1961-3 – The Ambassador’s Journal – is a brilliant evocation of the last years of Pandit Nehru. There was a close relationship between the Prime Minister and the ambassador. The volume is revealing of the constructive role that can be played by an ambassador in bilateral relations and in a country’s development. The diary ranges over serious issues and political and social gossip. In 1963, there was a major crisis in the relations between China and India. The government of Ceylon made an attempt at mediation, with Mrs. Bandaranaike visiting both India and China. Galbraith’s diary entries for January 10th-15th 1963 refer to this episode.

“…then on to the airport to greet Mrs. Bandaranaike. She is here from Ceylon as part of her effort to bring peace between India and China… The Bandaranaike Mission is here but has brought nothing new… The Bandaranaike Mission has now departed, the Indians having accepted most of its proposals. As long as the Indians thought the Chinese had accepted the proposals in principle, they rejected them in principle. When it became evident that the Chinese had largely rejected the proposals, the Indians accepted in principle, rejecting only the things they didn’t like”.

Highly acclaimed

Chips Channon – Conservative parliamentarian, married to a Guinness heiress – moved in the highest circles, and his diary for the period 1934-58 has been highly acclaimed for its political and social chatter, especially during the days of the Second World War. There are interesting snippets of the high and mighty. On 1st July 1943 he makes this entry:

“Brendon (Bracken) also told a fantastic tale, which I believe to be true, of how Woodrow Wilson for nine months refused to receive Lord Grey of Fallodon when he was Ambassador in Washington, because of an alleged indiscretion of one of his subordinates, a man who has recently been killed in an air raid at Folkestone; apparently he made indiscreet remarks about the President and Mrs. Wilson’s early relations, which were repeated at the White House. Wilson never got over it, and for nine months, England’s Ambassador and a man of such integrity and high reputation as Lord Grey, was not received, and was unable to present his credentials”.

The episode that caused so much coolness was the repetition of a famous Washington story, that Mrs. Wilson had declared, “when Woodrow proposed to me I was so surprised that I nearly fell out of bed”. This story has to be viewed in the context of President Woodrow Wilson’s famously high moral principles. Lord Grey, was later the British Foreign Secretary at the beginning of the first world war.

A poignant Sri Lankan footnote to Chips Channon’s diaries is worth mentioning. Both of them are no more – Nissanka Wijeyaratne and President J. R. Jayewardene. I gave the former a copy of the Channon diaries and he relished it. He then gave it to President Jayewardene, now in retirement who had enjoyed it very much, as Nissanka told me. President Jayewardene read this volume not long before he passed away. Both of them belonged to a generation which could savour the intrigues of British high society in the 1930s and 1940s.

I cannot resist including one more extract from the diary of Cynthia Gladwyn, the wife of the British Ambassador to the UN in the early 1950s. It is a delightful piece of UN snobbery. The diary extract for 23rd March 1953, reads:

“We had a big dinner for the Edens one night…. At the Eden party, old Trygvie Lie (UN Secretary General) did a monstrous thing, unheard of in the history of protocol, I ‘m sure. When he looked at the table plan, he observed that Mike Pearson, (Foreign Secretary of Canada, and President of the UN General Assembly) had been put on Clarissa Eden’s right, (she being a joint hostess) and he on his left in the second grandest place. So, he pushed past Gravett (probably the butler) into the dining room and altered the cards around. Later we went into dinner, Mike made for Clarissa’s right and sat down, but old Triggers turned him out, saying, his card was there. We couldn’t quite understand what had occurred and so left it. Fortunately, Mike Pearson didn’t mind”.

There are so many other fascinating diaries of recent years. Harold Nicholson, diplomat, politician, journalist and socialite kept a diary which is now published in three volumes. John Colville, Churchill’s war-time Secretary, is illuminating on the goings-on behind the scenes during the war. Richard Crossman, the Labour Cabinet minister, kept a diary published in three volumes. It is said that Crossman, who was a brilliant Oxford don in politics, entered the Cabinet, to observe how a Cabinet actually functions and to keep a diary, so that it would provide the raw material for his magnum opus on Cabinet government. But I must stop here.

Diaries need not be kept only in English. The ordinary man and woman in Sri Lanka, with their fluency of expression, can keep diaries not necessarily for publication, but for their own and their family’s information and entertainment. I would presume that keeping a diary increases one’s powers of observation. A diary need not be a daily grind. It can be randomly kept when things are of interest, and there is leisure to write. Recently I came across a reference to diaries kept by old people who live in retirement. Their diaries are of their memories, and they are of no less interest. Diaries are the literary creations of the common man.

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