Written by Charlotte Duff
Since approximately the age of ten, I have tried to keep a diary. In fact, almost every Christmas I have asked for one. New Year’s Day comes, and I vow that I will write in it religiously. Of course this doesn’t materialize and instead, pages are left white and clean as if brand new. I’m sure there’s probably a drawer or box in my house stacked with forgotten notebooks and diaries.
I suppose blogging and twitter are the modern forms of the diary, and I definitely subscribe to using both of those. However, retweeting and hashtagging and posting a tweet of a hundred or so characters isn’t quite as satisfying as the act of physically writing.
Diaries are artefacts of the soul. They capture moments and memories from the mundane and everyday to the extraordinary and historic.
So, instead of attempting (and failing) to write in a diary, I have taken to reading them instead. I devour them, there’s something that feels forbidden and secret and I always feel a little sense of guilt whilst reading them. Diaries are everywhere and always have been, from the musings of Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf to fictional favourites such as Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole. Here are a few of my favourite fictional diaries, and I have also included a recently published real life diary too.
I am starting my compilation with the runaway hit, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This thriller sold millions of copies, and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Gone Girl falls into many categories of contemporary fiction, but primarily a domestic thriller, it explores the dark heart of a broken marriage as Amy Dunne goes missing and her husband Nick is the prime suspect. Amy’s blood is found in the kitchen, and Nick struggles to portray himself as a grief-stricken husband desperate to find his wife.
Flynn also uses Amy’s diary as a literary device; how much do we really know about Amy and Nick’s seemingly perfect marriage? Can we trust what either of them say is the truth?
Both Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators, and Flynn’s inclusion of Amy’s diary further plays with notions of the truth and how we recount and often twist events and memories.
Her diary is fictive in that it is purely inventive Amy is aware that the diary will be found and so she constructs her own version of her marriage and life with Nick. She portrays herself as a loving and devoted wife who begins to feel threatened by her husband. In her diary, Amy is a work of perfection, innocently blinded by love. She carefully threads details into her diary that she knows will be read, and that will paint Nick in the worst possible way:
“He promised to take care of me, and yet I feel afraid. I feel like something is going wrong, very wrong, and that it will get even worse. I don’t feel like Nick’s wife. I don’t feel like a person at all: I am something to be loaded and unloaded, like a sofa or a cuckoo clock. I am something to be tossed into a junkyard, thrown into a river, if necessary. I don’t feel real anymore. I feel like I could disappear.”
She later writes that she is pregnant, and afraid for her life. The final line in her diary reads;
“I catch him looking at me with those watchful eyes, the eyes of an insect, pure calculation, and I think: This man might kill me.”
This diary that Amy has written and made sure will be discovered by probing police has been a work of fiction itself. What follows from this final entry is (spoiler alert!) the fact that Amy is very much alive, and has framed Nick. There are three Amy’s. Amazing Amy, the fictional angelic little girl whom her parents created for their series of books, Diary Amy, the Amy that was pregnant and frightened of her husband, and the real Amy the Amy who has pretended all along to be the “Cool Girl” but has grown to hate her husband and is willing to show us just how much.
I won’t reveal much more of the plot, but I will say that Flynn’s use of the diary is integral to Gone Girl’s success. Up until we find out Amy is alive, we have read her diaries and feel for her. We feel for the bright and sparkling girl who has lost a part of herself in the throes of love. We feel for the Amazing Amy who tries to be everything for her husband, and in turn feels frightened and alone. When the diary is revealed to be a way for Amy to trick the police, it is also revealed to be a trick on us its readers too.
Bridget Jones’ Diary
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones is one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about diaries in fiction. Bridget’s diary is utterly hilarious and honest, and captures perfectly the life of a single thirtysomething living and working in London. From the pushy and embarrassing mother, to the sweary yet loveable friends, it never fails to make me cackle with laughter. The film was released in 2001 and I can watch it whenever (Christmas usually) and still laugh and wince at the same time. Everything, warts and all, is written in the diary calories and fags consumed, awkward turkey buffets, hating Mark Darcy, flirting with Daniel Cleaver, and wanting to staple things to her colleague Perpetua’s head. She also writes lovingly of her friendships with Tom, Sharon and Jude.
Bridget Jones’ Diary is hilariously witty and uplifting, but it is also reflects very real parts of life that we all experience such as love, heartbreak and loneliness. What Helen Fielding does with Bridget’s diary is add a little bit of sugary lightness to remind us that things usually work out okay in the end. A particular favourite entry of mine is this one:
“Oh, God, I’m so lonely. An entire weekend stretching ahead with no one to love or have fun with. Anyway, I don’t care. I’ve got a lovely steamed ginger pudding from M&S to put in the microwave.”
I always turn to Bridget if I need to laugh, or need a comforting and familiar friend.
I Capture the Castle
Published in 1948 and written by Dodie Smith, this is the comingofage tale of Cassandra Mortmain. Set in a crumbling castle in the English countryside, this novel has all the trappings of the classic that it has become. Cassandra writes in her diary as she grapples with her eccentric family; her beautiful and vacant sister Rose, her writer father who is struggling to produce another hit, and her artist stepmother Topaz who can often be found wandering naked on a hilltop.
Cassandra’s story begins with the iconic line;
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
Her diaries, “The Sixpenny Book” and “The Shilling Book”, evoke all of the heartbreak and angst of teenage girlhood. Cassandra’s diaries are a way for her to make sense of the world around her as she changes from a teenage girl into a young woman. Her initial worries about writing a diary soon wither away once she has started filling her sixpenny book up with entries:
“I am surprised to see just much I have written; with stories even a page can take me hours, but the truth seems to flow out as fast as I can get it down.”
When her sixpenny book comes to end, she is surprised that she should want to carry on writing a journal instead of an attempt at a novel but finds herself unable to resist.
I think one of the reasons for I Capture the Castle’s enduring success is Cassandra herself. She is a bright and quiet girl, writing a journal of a simple yet happy life amongst the cold ruins of a castle in Devon. She tells her diary everything that she cannot say out loud, and uses her diary as a form of solace and comfort from her unusual family and the various happenings that go on around her. Her diary gives her the voice that she often finds lost and quietened amongst the chaos surrounding her.
I first read this as a teenager, and have since returned to it and still find it as endearing as ever.
The Diaries of Adrian Mole
I can’t remember what drew me to these incredibly successful books, but I do remember that I was always thrilled when a new diary belonging to Adrian Mole graced my bookshelf. Set in 1980s Leicester, Sue Townsend’s masterpiece follows the awkward and teenage Adrian as he navigates growing up, life and love. The diaries chronicle life under Thatcher’s Britain, and also grapple with themes such as divorce and social class. If they sound a little dry by my description, believe me they are hysterically funny.
There are so many wonderful quotes from Adrian Mole, but here are a few favourites:
“Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual.”
“There’s only one thing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, and that’s listening to their problems.”
“My skin is dead good. I think it must be a combination of being in love and Lucozade.”
“I have a problem. I am an intellectual, but at the same time I am not very clever.”
A Notable Woman: The Diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt
One last recommendation: A Notable Woman: The Diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt ed. by Simon Garfield. These aren’t actually fictional like my other recommendations, but they are so utterly wonderful and charming that I just had to include them. These diaries span sixty (sixty!) years from Jean’s first girlhood entry in 1925 to her last few entries in the mid eighties. There’s something deliciously magic about combing through the life of someone else. Jean might be an ordinary woman like you or I, but her musings and ramblings about love, life, hopes and dreams are wonderfully poignant and wildly amusing. Her diaries hark back to a time of both innocence and change, and are a historical document as well as a love letter to the art and delights of diarykeeping.