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Diaries and Journals

Many times have I alluded here to the transcription of my great-grandfather’s journals, this being my family history labour since February 2010.  In the course of the transcription, often challenging to decipher and requiring use of a magnifying glass,  often baffling as to strange abbreviations and archaic terms, I have frequently thought about the nature of diaries and journals:  why people keep them, and what they might convey about the mind of the writer.

Whole books have been written about how to write journals and diaries.  There are in them lists of the reasons for the writing, examples of  the styles of writing, and the processes of getting the words on paper.  My sense is that they are all just about useless, except for one thing:  they do suggest to the person who has the impulse to start one that on the whole it’s a good idea, if that’s what you feel like doing.  The rest is just filler.

My great-grandfather, Henry Thomas Wake, hereafter referred to as HTW, began one when he was 21, at which time he  had been on his own in the big city, a boy from a country village, for four years.   It seems to have been a sort of dare with his friend, that they both start diaries.  In June 1852, he wrote the reasons for starting a journal  or diary; he used the terms interchangeably, but  I define journal loosely as a record of a life made roughly daily, without space limitations , and a diary  as a record of a life made within the limitations of the few lines in book ruled for five years of entries on a page.

Here are his reasons:

“…before we parted Watson and I resolved each of us to keep a Diary of passing events, etc.  Our motive for so doing was in the first place to assist the memory by recording such facts and speculations, connected with our own observations, as we thought worthy or remembrance.  2ndly  it would be an exercise for us in English composition, and perhaps be a means of improving us in that branch of literature.  3rdly and lastly,  to preserve correct dates or remarkable events which are so soon forgotten unless noted with pen and ink.”

By 1866 – the year I am now working on -  HTW had several times noted his anniversaries of journal-writing, (“This concludes my first month of diary writing;”  “This is the tenth anniversary of my diary.”)  He makes, however, no reference to whether his friend Watson had been similarly successful.

Started thus, HTW continued his daily entries  until he was in his seventies. At this point – the end of September 2010 – I have transcribed fourteen years’ worth of his entries, more than four thousand of them.   His entries will continue until a few years before he died in 1914.

A blog is a sort of diary or journal – with differences.  A blog entry may be unrelated to the date, and while it is often connected in some manner to what is going on in the writer’s life, it more usually arises from the life of the writer’s mind, rather than of the writer’s quotidian experience.  In consequence of my interest in the “mental landscape” as described by Ursula LeGuin in “The Language of the Night,”   I follow a number of blogs, in addition to making irregular contributions to this one.  Blogs usually are written around one subject, and can be understood outside  the context of the physical life of the writer.

It is difficult now to picture how precious were books and indeed the paper they were printed on, a century and a half ago.  Nothing was wasted.  HTW through the first decade of his diary is working up toward what will become his life’s vocation of antiquarian bookseller.  If he came upon a battered book that was of some interest, though falling apart and missing pages, he got his hands on a complete copy and HAND-PRINTED the missing pages, often the  title pages, and rebound it.    The implicit paradigm is strange to us now, we who discard and recycle a slightly battered book as being too poor for inclusion in a used book sale.  And space in notebooks too was valued.  Two of HTW’s early journals were contained in  the unused pages of notebooks of other people.  One of these was his father’s notebook containing his record of his buyings and sellings and daily activities as farm bailiff and head gardener on the country estate of a wealthy London banker.  Scattered through the notebook were empty pages, which HTW used for his journal.  His father’s farm record is worthy of transcription on its own, and might call for even more Internet research to understand the references.  An entry like “Tuppence for hay wagon toll,” evokes a picture of even farm tracks being toll roads, in a world where the user paid  directly for WHATEVER he used. 

Another of HTW’s journals  was written in the unused pages of  a notebook which had first been used by a Bishop in the North of England to record notes for a botanical work he was writing.  Again, HTW filled the unused pages with his journal.  And in addition, wherever there were blank spaces on a page – anywhere in any of his journals -  he would enter short notes on a wide range of subjects, whatever interested him at the moment, and usually date the entries.  Thus a journal nominally for the period  of April 1861 to May 1863 might contain entries dated any time in the next decade or more.  This practice has made decisions about the use of these entries a considerable challenge, and after much thought and with my sister Mary’s help, the decision was made to place the “non-journal” entries in proximity to the journal entries by date, but set out in another font to make clear their being other than regular journal entries.

Beginning his diary when he was 21 as he did, HTW’s entries might be expected to change over time, and they do.  I made one abortive effort to keep a journal, unwisely beginning it shortly before the birth of my first child.  Her arrival put a stop to spending time in that manner, it seems, but having kept those early efforts I can now be embarrassed at myself when young, in the ponderous self-consciousness of my writing.   HTW’s entries reflect his maturation, and also his changing focus as his life changes, from being single and on his own in London, to being married and becoming a father; from  being spectacularly concerned with the cost of EVERYTHING,  to costs disappearing from his journal when he obtained a “Cash Book” whereafter, presumably, his concern with costs continued but  was not reflected in the journal. 

HTW became an antiquarian bookseller in the 1860s, and made his living thereby until the end of his days.  With the help of my search-skilled daughter Allegra I have been delving into the references found on the Internet about his business.  So far – and my search is by no means complete, I have found his advertisements to buy books appearing in half a dozen periodicals.  I plan to include these references in the journal, in the relevant time period.  He didn’t advertise to SELL books; for that he put out a monthly catalogue illustrated with his tiny drawings.  I have several of these catalogues,  and full sets of them are in the Archives of the British Museum, and in the Derby County Archives, Derby being his county of residence for the last decades of his life.

Reflecting about this process of getting into the head of my great-grandfather through his journals,  I have been struck that the time-travelling I am doing – back a century and a half  and an ocean away – is a eerily uneasy experience.  My great-grandfather doesn’t know that he and his Lydia are soon to have their last child – my grandmother, and that six years later Lydia will die of a condition that would not have killed her now.  That two years later he will remarry and will have two more children.  That four of his children will die before he does.  In 1866 he doesn’t know this, and I do.