Unlike fictional diaries, I can’t recall the first real diary–or edited diary at least–that I read. Possibly though it was Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon. The library at Indiana University had a copy and I read it with delight. Yawn, you say? I beg to differ. He called it in the ’30’s saying that Prince Philip was in the British navy to become Prince Consort–not a complete fabrication, either. Lots of juicy stuff on society and on Edward VIII’s abdication–an obsession for me at the time.
Much later came The King’s Counsellor, the diaries of Edward VIII’s Private Secretary, Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles. Tommy went on to serve George VI and the current Queen. He was Private Secretary during the Abdication and during Princess Margaret’s affair with equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend. His observations were fascinating looks at the royal family, but far more serious ones than the tell-all books of Prince Charles’ valet or the fictionalized “memoirs” of the Queen’s governess.
There are actual royal diaries–the Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom have traditionally kept a basic diary. Queen Victoria’s diaries were “edited” (some say “ruined”) by her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice. In most cases we have only extracts in published official biographies (or extracts used with special permission in unauthorized works). Lord Mountbatten kept very boring official diaries of many of his trips with the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) as the heir to the throne toured the great Empire of the day.
Mary Chestnut was the wife of a Confederate Cabinet Secretary and saw first hand much of the life of the top levels of the Confederate government during the war. Her account of life includes details such as what happened to freed slaves, what daily goods were unavailable, the purchasing power of Confederate money as well as the disagreements within the Cabinet. She did not have children, but her husband’s son served in the Army. This is a classic on the Confederate view of daily life in the war.
World War II
War is a popular time to keep a diary. In fact, in the U.K. a public opinion survey organization called Mass Observation had ordinary people keep and submit diaries during World War II for “the record.”
It’s no accident that as the typewriter, and then the pc, became more widespread, publishing boomed. World War II is perhaps the best documented war in history! Diaries abound covering every aspect of life in it. There are many, many more diaries than just the best known one–Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl provides a very valuable record of the treatment of the Jews, but I’ve never read the entire book (shameful).
I’ve read many wartime memoirs and diaries–these are some of the more memorable ones. No accident that there are two on Churchill–I’ve read nearly everything on him, but these two books stand out for so many reasons. John ‘Jock’ Coville worked for Churchill as a private secretary during most of the war. On the Fringes of Power is his diary. Lord Moran was his private physician who had to travel with him –thankfully, for he was with him in Washington when he had a heart attack that was kept secret! His diary reveals that, like JFK, Churchill kept his energy up with mediation. Churchill at War (volume 1 of Moran’s diaries) and Churchill the Struggle for Survival (volume 2).
I like diaries, too, of ordinary–or not “so” ordinary people, in wartime. Nella Last’s War chronicles her day-to-day existence as a not too happily married woman of about my current age was especially interesting to me. The book Wartime Women is a compilation of other Mass Observation diary entries like Nella’s. Fascinating reading.
American journalist William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary chronicles the rise of the Nazis and the acts leading up to the war. I could not put this book down. It remains one of the most compelling books–not only diaries–I’ve ever read. On the other side (well, sort of….) aristocratic, Tzarist Russian emigre Marie Vassiltchikov was on the side of the Operation Vallkyrie aristocrats who tried to assassinate Hitler. If you read these, along with In the Garden of Beasts, you will be shocked!
Do you have a favorite published diary? Leave me a comment or a link to a post. I love to read about other’s favorites.