The keeping of diaries prompts the question why, and for whom? James Boswell at 22, and going to London for the first time, piously hoped that keeping a diary might engender 'a habit of application and improve me in expression', possibly even 'make me more careful to do well'. At all events, 24 pages of this self-imposed devoir were sent off each Tuesday to his friend John Johnston of Grange, a dullish youth of about Boswell's own age, but one in whose affectionate and uncritical company he felt more at peace than with anyone. Fanny Burney, who commenced a journal at the age of 15, gave as her reason that 'when the hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory' she might have a record of her thoughts, manners, acquaintances and actions. It was to be a journal, moreover, in which she would confess 'every thought', 'open my whole heart'. The only proper recipient for such a treasure, she observed archly, was - Nobody. But in the end she succumbed to writing for a favourite sister and the family friend, Daddy Crisp, so that her journal was, after all, less private than it might have been, and certainly less private than Anne Lister's.
LRB 4 February 1988 | PDF Download