British and Irish Literature Diaries
Polly North
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0188


Diarists are drawn from all walks of life and are very various in their practices, languages, cultures, formats, gender identifications, sexual preferences, politics, and periods. Diaries are equally and literally various in their accessibility and readability: many are not published, others are destroyed, misplaced, or hidden, or so damaged, coded, or illegible they cannot be read. Diaries almost always bear the marks of their authors’ personalities: though akin, no diaries are quite alike. Each threatening to disprove a cherished rule. All united only by being so different from each other. The family of diary characteristics outlined here is offered as a guide, not a rule. Diary writing is, variously, regular, frequent, spontaneous, extempore, fragmentary, dated, frank, private, personal, and introspective; quite often diary writing is undertaken as an exercise (that is, for its own sake as a process). It is some permutation of these characteristics that often constitutes a diary, and any permutation is capable of having great quality. There will be reticence and eloquence across the board, from the future planning of a purpose-built appointment diary to the deliberate introspection of an extempore or retrospective diary. It is worth noting that two features of the diary form, and they are often seen as the quintessence of diary writing, are that its entries are personal and are ascribed a date or are serial. However, even these characteristics are no more definitive than they are the stand-out feature of all diarists. Firstly, we will take a brief look at the relevance of time to many diarists and diary formats. For millennia, dated commentaries have been found in annals, chronicles, almanacs, and other formal records. They were and are crucial documents, not least in allowing the flow of events, or their timeline, to be assessed. These formal time-concerned texts continued to fulfil their original purpose as records of state or other activity, not least by leaders and their officials. But gradually they also became documents in which personal notes were made in a dated format. The arrow of time takes on a peculiar significance in the diary. For example, the pages of a modern shop-bought diary are often date-marked. But a diary’s pages are filled with how time is subjectively experienced; emotions and the vicissitudes of memory will affect the ways in which objectively measured time is experienced and accounted for. The second characteristic of diary that we will remark on here, and its most quintessential, is that it will almost always be in a vital and fundamental sense personal. Even at their most quotidian, diaries reveal personal details relating to their writers. For example, the most perfunctory appointment diary reveals what its diarist wanted to remember. When we look into the heart of the personal, we often touch on profoundly important yet inveterately ambiguous ideas, including what it is to discern, verify, and describe the nature and content of our human experience. Diary writing is an excellent springboard into thinking about what it is to express and experience, to be conscious of, one’s public life and one’s personal inner life. Identity, subjectivity, responsibility, and agency all come under the microscope. To explore a diary is also to wonder about the ways in which we handle our epistemological and ontological constructs. Though this article is less about the content of diary criticism and more about the nature of diary writing, a brief word on the significance of the personal in diary writing will highlight how important this characteristic is to critics and diarists alike. Pre-1970, there were a small handful of European academics, such as Georg Misch (A History of Autobiography in Antiquity) and Arthur Ponsonby (English Diaries), who considered life writing, in particular autobiography and diary, worth studying. They had found that diary-like texts, from as early as 450 BCE, were a good measure of the development and history of mind, or the idea of a “self.” It is now the case that diary criticism from the early nineteenth century onward charts changing academic attitudes to the personal. Post 1970, academic recognition for diaries and their significance has been on an upward curve. Criticism, terms, and approaches evolve, but the desire to pick over the nature and content of human experience remains a constant. If one spends any time at all reading diary criticism, one soon finds oneself on the front lines of a culture war, that between the pragmatic, humanist tradition and ideas that are more akin to the Postmodern or Structuralist challenge. Often, the essence of it all is this: Do we own our capital V “voice,” or are we cyphers and proxies for society and our material make-up? In this way, diary writing leads us to examine the foundations of vital human frameworks, including those that make up our personal, moral, and physical lives. But it does so with a keen eye for the variety and ambiguity of life’s experiences and explanations. Four points on the scope of this bibliographic article. Firstly, it is designed to support the general and academic reader of diaries. Though I hope it will be of interest to diarists, the article has not been written as a guide to how, where, when, and what to write in a diary. Secondly, the terms “diary” and “journal” are often used interchangeably, especially in North America and France. This article focuses on primary and secondary texts that use the term “diary.” The memoir, compilations of private letters, and autobiography (even biography) are also closely linked to the diary. This family of forms, including diary, have been dubbed life writing or ego-documents. The commonality is that journals, memoirs, etc., usually express a perspective on events the authors were part of or observed. These forms diverge from the diary—especially its spontaneous and extempore form—in that they are usually carefully considered and retrospective; they are often written with hindsight, tackle longer periods of time, and/or have a predesignated focus. Thirdly, the article concentrates on the form’s development and reception as a historical and cultural practice, specific primary texts, and the location of primary texts. Sections of the article, including Reference Works and Academic Journals, are a sound introduction to the form, as an academic subject. Finally, autobiography has traditionally been accorded higher levels of academic respect than the diary, and there is a wider availability of materials on this life-writing form. The article will touch on issues relating to autobiography when they are pertinent to the diary.

Reference Works

People have been writing subjectively about what appears in their consciousness for millennia. (See the section Precursors to the Diary Form for exploration of early personal texts.) Further to this and for the same length of time, people have been interested in other people’s personal writing. Evidence for scholarly and lay interest in Western personal, daily (or regular) writing can be found in a range of examples, including early Roman comments on the Royal Journal of Alexander the Great (first mentioned by Plutarch in the first century CE and analyzed in Hammond 1988); Saint Augustine’s Confessions, written to be read out loud in the fourth century CE; and John Beadle’s diary and diary writing manual (Beadle 1656, cited under Characteristics of the European and North American Diary Form, 1500–), also in part written for distribution. Henderson 2019 (p. 10) and Ben-Amos and Ben-Amos 2020 (pp. 75–78) are two of many diary critics to have singled out the success of Samuel Pepys’s diary (first published 1825) in the nineteenth century as representative of rapidly growing lay interest in diary writing, as both a practice and a product. Such regard for the diary grew in tandem with a handful of historians, biographers, bibliographers, and special-interest groups and journals that found scholarly value in the form, as well as entertainment and self-instruction. However, diary critics, such as Lejeune in Ben-Amos and Ben-Amos 2020 (p. 34) and Henderson 2019 (pp. xi and 17) often describe how serious academic and critical literary interest in diary writing did not establish itself until the mid-twentieth century. As such, critical approaches to diary are not quite as mature as those to, for example, drama or autobiography. References to Anglosphere diary writing and its criticism are scattered across continents, disciplines, books, journals, newspaper articles, and web pages. There is a small and growing collection of critical books that helps draw this work together. The list of reference books in this section contains those that are current or critically significant due to their exploration and advancement of theories and approaches to diary. It does not refer to early critical studies of diary.

  • Ben-Amos, Batsheva, and Dan Ben-Amos, eds. The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.

    This collection of essays expands on, or echoes, many of Philippe Lejeune’s historical and theoretical perspectives in On Diary 2009. While Lejeune’s study often illustrates its broader theoretical points with reference to French diaries, The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life includes discussion of transnational diaries and diary canons. Both refer to the development of diary characteristics from the analogue to the digital. The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life is a historical and theoretical review of diary writing practices. It explores many standard, often interdisciplinary and theoretical-critical approaches to diaries, including those deployed in feminist studies, genre study, psychoanalysis, structuralism, historical-materialism, and postmodernism.

  • Cardell, Kylie. Dear World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

    Cardell’s review is of contemporary diary production and publication. Her focus is on digital diary production and the ramifications of the digital age for diary practices, conventions, diarists, and diary critics. Cardell’s work is updated in her chapter, “From Puritans to Fitbit: Self-Improvement, Self-Tracking, and How to Keep a Diary,” in Ben-Amos and Ben-Amos 2020 (pp. 399–410).

  • Cottam, Rachel. “Diaries and Journals: General Survey.” In Encyclopaedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Edited by Margaretta Jolly, 267–269. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2013.

    This extensive and thoroughgoing encyclopedia covers many topics pertaining to diary writing and its criticism, including “adolescence and life writing,” “agency,” “travel diaries,” and “women’s diaries and journals.” It contains entries concerning diaries written between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries and in a number of countries, including Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, North America, Canada, and North Africa. Cottam’s entry deals directly with characteristics of the diary form and its historical, literary, and cultural relevance. Cottam’s focus is on primary texts.

  • Hammond, Nicholas G. L. “The Royal Journal of Alexander.” Historia 37 (1988): 129–150.

    This article sketches a history of scholarly approaches to references by early Roman writers to the journals of Alexander the Great. Hammond argues that Alexander did write journals and that they were read as such by his near-contemporaries.

  • Henderson, Desirée. How to Read a Diary: Critical Contexts and Interpretive Strategies for 21st-Century Readers. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315198057

    Henderson’s review of diary writing is an easily navigable and well-referenced study of standard critical issues pertaining to diary writing and diary reading. The book starts with an analysis of characteristics attributed to the diary form and genre and includes discussions on academic approaches to diary, narrative identity, self-identification, and privacy. It includes authoritative discussion of the issues arising from diaries in archival and digital settings.

  • Langford, Rachael, and Russell West, eds. Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi B. V., 1999.

    This book describes how diary writing has, “often been relegated to the fringes of literary studies as a marginal cultural activity” (back cover) This pan-European and Australian study of diary writing, in all its historical, generic, and cultural diversity, positions diary writing practice as being a multifarious and cultural practice with significant critical capital for academia, especially literary studies. It provides detailed theoretical discussion and is not a quick and general introduction to pre-21st-century theoretical approaches to diary.

  • Lejeune, Philippe. On Diary. Translated by Katherine Durnin and edited by Jeremy Popkin and Julie Rak. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘I Press, 2009.

    Lejeune is a leading European critic and theorist of diary and autobiography, and he was also a diarist. This collection of Lejeune’s essays spans historical and theoretical observations of a form he worked with for over forty years. It is an excellent introduction for the general reader. Translated from the French.

  • Rendall, Steven. “On Diaries.” Diacritics 16.3 (1986): 56–65.

    DOI: 10.2307/464952

    Rendall’s article is a comparison of two European critical textbooks, among the first to be devoted to theorizing diaries: Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries by Robert A. Fothergill (see Fothergill 1974, cited under Characteristics of the European and North American Diary Form, 1500–) and Le Journal Intime (1977) by Béatrice Didier. Through a reading of these two texts, Rendall identifies characteristics often attributed to diary writing. He surveys epistemological and ontological arguments that strengthen or undermine traditional reckonings of these characteristics and, in light of the results of this survey, reviews the applicability of them to diary writing. For example, he identifies that a diary is often thought of as private and discusses the degree to which a diarist may choose to write in private and whether privacy is an obtainable state. The article provides a general introduction to emerging theoretical approaches to diary.

  • Wagner-Egelhaaf, Martina, ed. Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction. 3 vols. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2019.

    Volume 1, Theory and Concepts; Volume 2, History; and Volume 3, Exemplary Autobiographical/Autofictional Texts. This is a transnational study of autobiography and autofiction. It contains references to diary and is included here by virtue of its theoretical and critical dexterity; its significant contribution to the field of life writing; its new and refreshing perspectives; and global outlook. Volume 1 is of particular interest to diary critics. The theoretical approaches in this volume update those discussed in Rendall 1986 and Langford and Russell 1999.

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