When one opens a diary there are two things one wants to know. The first is the date of the entries; the second is the age of the author. James Lees-Milne was 36, rising 37, when he started this record on 1 January 1946. He had, however, kept a diary before, during the years of the war, and abandoned it only three months earlier, so he starts here with a practised hand. The wartime diaries have already been published, as Ancestral Voices and Prophesying Peace, and time will show whether this is a conclusion or merely an episode in a continuing labour. Why people keep diaries is a mystery, or if not a mystery a matter of temperament and disposition, which comes to the same thing. A preliminary note in this volume directs the reader to 6 January - if readers 'get so far', the author says in what must be a sally of politeness, for it would be a faint-hearted reader who did not get to the second page. 'An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end?' He says there is 'no explanation': but the question itself tells us something. James Lees-Milne is no Pepys, writing secretly. He foresees a reader and, it is to be assumed, publication. 'Being a bad Catholic,' he says, 'I used, when I went to confession, to skate lightly over sins I had a mind to while emphasising those I was less inclined to ... So too, being cowardly, I treated, and shall continue to treat, my diary like an intimate friend who mustn't know everything.' That is a kind of frankness, but an imperfect kind, with one eye on a public, like most of the 'frankness' of the 20th century.
LRB 17 March 1983 | PDF Download