Who do they think they are?
Dr Brooke Magnanti brought me to an understanding of the dilemma of the diarist which I did not have in my lifetime and which other famous diarists had not properly conveyed to me. The implied need for anonymity against the fevered desire for recognition, that is the diarist's dilemma. She wrote to be read, to be recognised with praise and gold, though not to be identified. The clarity of her dilemma arose from her being a lapsed whore, one who had abandoned her trade for a more respectable yet less rewarding profession. This is not a woman who is ashamed of what she has done, she simply believed that it would not be in her self-interest to be associated with her recent deeds at this stage in her life. She invited the world to look at her diary but not at herself. She assumed a nom de plume, the ruse of many a great teller of fictions. As a calculation of continued anonymity this was clearly flawed. A writer of fiction is not laid bare by their narrative invention. A writer of facts about themselves may not be immediately stripped naked but they cannot avoid being left in considerable deshabille. The calculation of Dr Magnanti may have been as specious as my own. She protected her identity with great skill for several years. This was only possible because she was not in the public eye - though she was presumed to be - and she named no names. When fame and other rewards came calling she surrendered the respectability of Dr Brooke Magnanti with charming aplomb.
Pepys at play
Belle at work
Photo: Brooke Magnanti, tvrage.com
Image: Samuel Pepys, arlindo-correia.com
Image: Gentlemen at play, en.wikipedia.org
Photo: Book cover, find-book.co.uk
How did my mind run when I committed the first entry to my diary? My recollections are dim but it is clear that I was afraid of discovery or why else would I use Thomas Shelton's system of writing? Dr Magnanti and I recorded our life in London with similar honesty, though her embellishments may have been greater than mine. The difference is that I was in public office and I scurrilously described figures in even higher office without disguising them. The personal cost-reward balance should Samuel Pepys' diaries ever have hit the streets of Restoration London weighed considerably heavier on the cost side. Cold reason surely determines that I never meant my diaries to be published? If that reason pertained to my scribbling, why did I make fair copy of my rough notes, have the loose pages bound into six volumes, and catalogue them in my library with all the other books?
Compared to other diarists, Magnanti has helped more in unravelling my motivations. The great diarists were predominantly literary artists who kept journals so that their musings could be read. They address each page of their journal as though it were an audience. They are testing theories, story lines and dialogue to be refined later as fiction, poetry or play. A diary created an existential experience which helped them balance their lives and their creative works. My diaries were not literary efforts and were not designed to build or add lustre to my reputation. Like Magnanti's work, they had a purpose that hid behind a cloud. In her case, the cloud was anonymity , in mine it was invisibility. I'm sure we both hoped our cloud would clear. We weren't like Beatrix Potter who probably meant it when she said "No one will ever read this," about her cryptic jottings. Or Franz Kafka, who must be genuinely appalled that his friend and literary executor Max Brod ignored his instruction to burn his diaries. Unlike Potter and Kafka, Brooke Magnanti and Samuel Pepys would never have been read if we had not kept a diary.
Who would have thought that the seminal diarist Samuel Pepys could have a kind word for the efforts of Belle de Jour? Has it surprised you that I am content to be measured alongside her instead of Woolf and Thoreau? Our diaries stand apart from ourselves. Ours is not the Book of Self which all other diarists aspire to write. For different reasons we hid the Self while knowing in time the Self must out.
Thank you , Brooke, I now accept that.
I enjoyed your subject matter too, which will surprise no one, least of all my wife.
Samuel Pepys’ opinion was interpreted by Lucy Stockham, Feb 2011
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My wife would not understand why I am so moved by the diaries of Belle de Jour. She would draw conclusions that are misplaced.
For ten years I spied on my own thoughts, deeds and aspirations, committing them to paper unflinchingly every day in tachygraphic code while keeping their readership to one my entire life. Over the next four hundred years, I and countless other people have wondered why.
A diary can be more searing than a mountebank's dental extraction. If there is not pure pain within it somewhere, the diarist is either a mere record keeper or blindly travelling the pot-holed avenue of self-delusion. An aide memoire is not a diary. A diary scours the nerve endings and applies poultices in equal measure. A diarist must have the steady hand of the barber-surgeon or they may sever an artery. No one but they may know of their deathly bleeding because a diary should only ever have one reader in mind.
Yet how delicious it is to read another's closely private thoughts, to be intimate with their soul. The diarist knows this, so why would they ever write in the expectation that no other being would share their documentation of joys, tediums, passions and humiliations?