What surprised me most as I was reading Revelations: Diaries of Women, edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter, was how polished many, maybe even most of the diaries, were that were represented in the anthology. When I first mentioned finding this book, several people noted that they might feel a little uncomfortable reading such private reflections that these women kept in their journals and diaries, but if you have any hesitation about picking this up, and maybe any published diary, you needn't have. Even Anne Frank, a young woman of fourteen, rewrote much of her diary, which surprised me. I assumed it was all just as she put it down originally. A number of diarists in this collection reworked their writing. Some naturally so as they were authors with an eye to being published or were working out ideas in their mind and on paper.
Many of the excerpts were from diarists I was already familiar with like Sophie Tolstoy, Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf (to name but a few) but even more were by women I hadn't come across in my readings previously, like Evelyn Scott. And reading this book, which I think I want to own now, has sent me in ever new directions, like wanting to explore the art of Käthe Kollwitz, or read diaries I only got a tiny sampling of (or that others suggested to me as good examples of the genre)--like Sei Shonagon, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Boykin Chestnut.
Since the book was compiled in the mid-1970s there is a strong feminist leaning in the choices I think. Although they cover the spectrum of different roles women have played over time (daughter, helpful sister, mother, artist), there is much about the psychology of women. Unsurprisingly considering these are diaries, there is a lot of self-reflection and self-analysis and there is a lot of depth in these pages, too. In some cases I think I was expecting something a little different, though I was never disappointed. Some of the excerpts really were small works of art, and on occasion I admit what the diarist was writing about and the style with which she wrote went a little over my head.
There is so much variety in these pages, it's hard to give more than a very broad overview, and as much as I would like to write about each and every diarist it would be too hard in one short post. I will just mention a few favorites, however. I've never been especially interested in the Civil War era of American history (I should probably not admit that), but after reading both Frances Anne Kemble and Mary Boykin Chestnut's diaries, I'm inspired to follow up. I've already got Mary Boykin Chestnut's Diary to read and am even contemplating reading Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, which I somehow missed reading when in school, as my next classic. I'm still intrigued by Anais Nin, even though I wonder how much is fictionalized in her diaries, and I was surprised by how uncertain Virginia Woolf could at times be. I was very touched by much of what I read and found so many of these women truly amazing. This is a real gem of a book, and as I have barely touched on what it has to offer, I recommend it if you are interested in the genre.
I'm now reading the first of seven diaries by Frances Partridge, A Pacifist's War: Diaries 1939-1945. I could never be a diarist, at least not like the women who were excerpted in Revelations. Partridge's Diary, however, is (and perhaps in part due to how it was edited) more along the lines of what I expecting when I thought of reading diaries. Her entries are far more standard in what you might imagine as a daily journal. She chronicles the things she does, the people who come to stay, bits about the war as well as how she feels about world events and her views on pacifism and politics. There seems to be less introspection, at least to the extent that I found in Revelations, though that isn't a criticism only an observation. As a witness to history, I think Partridge will be wonderful to read. I'm quite curious about her now and would like to read something more to get a sense of her life and background.
I've accumulated so many great diaries now that I am tempted to pick up another to read alongside. Perhaps something that is more of a narrative almost since Partridge's diary is presented in often brief daily entries. I'm going to try and resist, but I tend to cave in easily to reading whims. I am thinking of buying The Assassin's Cloak by Irene Taylor, which has been recommended several times over now, and reading it every day. If I understand the set up--each day has different diary extracts, so I could reach each date and work my way through the course of the year.
So I'm moving along slowly with this project (that didn't really start out being a project), and that's okay. There is so much interesting material out there, I think I'll be kept busy by it for months and still not lack variety in terms of reading choices.