Lost diaries


The great diaries of Samuel Pepys weren’t discovered until a couple of centuries after his death. He expected them to be read one day, or at least his biographer Claire Tomalin thinks so. But they could have easily not been found and never been read. Imagine the diarist carefully recording their life, assuming they’ve preserved their days, only for them to be so terribly mistaken? The actual fate of their diaries is not the cherishment of future generations, but the moth or the flame.

Pepys’s diaries were written in a shorthand of his own devising. The poor translator didn’t find the key left in the library, and spent years on them. He could have just as easily given up. And surely many have. The diaries written in code so they can’t be understood in the diarists’ life times. Or hidden in a secret place. Or the contemporary online diarist, using Penzu or WordPress and protecting their online journal with a password no-one will crack… ever. There’s the Christian singer Keith Green who wrote his diary on a computer thirty years ago; the entry he wrote before his plane crashed was corrupted on his computer. I think his widow, who wrote his biography, was convinced it would have been the most profound entry of all. And it is, because it’ll never be read.

What would be the ratio be of lost diaries? How many Pepyses were not discovered for the one which was? And this before we get to the great mass of ordinary diarists without a claim to particular literary merit. There would be less people mourning the loss of their diaries, but their lives may well have been lived as intensely, their existence as precious to them.

In my novel-in-progress, the Sinclair Morgan Library has an entire floor of diaries collected not just from public figures and soldiers, but from every ordinary person willing to donate their diary. Yet the backlog of unprocessed material has piled up; the collection is in disarray, and there may not be a home for them all in the newly corporatised library. I never make their fate clear, but I suspect some of them end up in the skip bins. The protagonist, Tom, was right to be suspicious when they asked school kids for their diaries back in the Bicentennial year.

Which is to say, there are many ways for diaries to be lost, and only a few for them to remain found.

About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

7 responses to “Lost diaries

  • MST

    Diaries are a fascinating topic. There are so many interesting reasons for keeping one. Do you keep one? Are you willing to share with us why?


    • Nathan Hobby

      I do, in a far too sporadic fashion. My diary was once a place to vent and explore my inner world. It’s less of those now. Now I mainly keep it to remember the days. What about you?


      • MST

        Only sporadically, often with years between entries. I simply don’t have the discpline but, when I read back, I always wish I’d written more often.


  • wadholloway

    For many years, at least 30, I have kept a diary, notes, not writing, a brief record of where I was and what, mostly work, but also nights out, I was doing, but even that can absorb me if I happen to pick one up. Not so interesting for others but, I should think.

    Liked by 1 person

  • residentjudge

    I keep a diary and have done so for the past eight years. I write in it every night and it’s probably the only long-hand writing that I do (and often my hand cramps up while I’m doing it!) I’d like to think that perhaps a grandchild or greatgrandchild might be interested in it, or that maybe it might end up in some archive somewhere, but that’s probably exaggerating the importance of both the writing and the writer! I’m grateful to my subject’s sister and mother for keeping a diary even though it is a plodding, prosaic thing with barely two lines per day. I aspire to do a little better than that, although sometimes I’m not much better.

    Liked by 1 person

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