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Writing Diaries

Writing Diaries

In recent years diaries and other examples of life-writing testimony have been seen as having something important to add to historiography of the past. Diaries have been written for hundreds of years of course and their recognition as an important historical source has in turn given rise to a research field focussed on identifying styles and types of diary record and ascertaining the purpose for which they have been written. Feminist historians have made a very valuable contribution to this field, identifying that women diarists changed the focus and the content of their diaries in tandem with the greater educational and career opportunities open to them in the years during and after first wave feminism of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century. In very broad terms, women with limited social and employment scope beyond their duties and responsibilities in the domestic sphere tended to keep diaries (and were encouraged to keep diaries) to demonstrate their competence at managing household matters or, prior to marrying, were encouraged to record their reflections on their spiritual and moral education in preparedness for the important and inevitable responsibility of being a wife and mother. However, as opportunities for women to flourish outside of the home grew as the feminist and suffrage movement grew in political strength over the first decades of the Twentieth century, women who were looking outside of the home for fulfilment – which in large part meant education – were writing diaries which reflected their aspirations. There is much more evidence in the diaries of the inter-war period in particular of women articulating their ambitions, their frustrations, exploring ideas and opinions related to their studies, politics and current affairs. The diaries were very different to those of their predecessors but they still manifested a tension between society’s gender normative expectation of a woman’s future and the future imagined by the diary writer.  Although great strides had been made in respect of women’s equality, the pressure on women to prioritise marriage and motherhood over a career was still great.

Apart from the gender issues which shape the crafting of a diary, there are a seemingly infinite number of styles and approaches to creating a journal record. There are those who write a diary specifically to manage a difficult period in their lives. The diary is a cathartic ritual which provides a structure and the impression that the writer maintains a control over events. There are those who write diaries because they want to combat isolation by simulating a connection with the outside by producing text in dialogue form. There are those who use the diary as a place to gather descriptions of happenings and personalities in their lives to provide the data for future fiction or documentary work.  There are those living chaotic lives who quite simply want to stop the moment and reflect on their thoughts and feelings.  Indeed, every diary and every diarist’s purpose for writing their diary differ although broad similarities can be drawn.

Madeleine’s diary changes in tone, style and purpose over the four or so years of its writing which, quite apart from the content about the Occupation, make it such a fascinating and valuable document. In the first instance, she begins to write it as a letter to replace the letters she can no longer send to her parents in York. As such, it is set out like the letters she sent home during the Phoney War the previous year and the text is written as one half of an imagined dialogue with her parents. This epistolary style never entirely disappears over the course of the diary but other characteristics evolve which fit with certain of those outlined above. There are instances where it is clear that Madeleine’s meticulous documenting of the everyday is a note-taking exercise for a future project which may be a novel or an autobiographical piece of work. She says as much when she declares that she just notes down people and things and hints and traces of what she wants to remember later. There are lists of rationing measures, household budget matters, work shifts and other arrangements like private tuition and babysitting which enable her to maintain necessary organisation in her life. There are passages written in the literary styles of her favourite authors and reflections on the quality of the books she is reading. One might expect that she would write more about the military aspects of the Occupation but she says little until the weeks running up to and including the Liberation in 1944.  Madeleine’s account of the Liberation stands out from other testimonial accounts of Liberation because, in keeping with the style of the rest of the diary, the dense detail and regularity of the entries meant that the minutiae and the fabric of the everyday was maintained in addition to her eye-witness account of fighting.

The Blaess diary is certainly an engaging and important historical record. It is also an example of how life writing can be employed as a coping mechanism. The diary helps her to imagine and enact discourse with the parents she can no longer see thereby helping her manage loneliness and isolation. And, by noting down challenges and difficulties and the successful strategies employed to overcome them, she uses the diary as a source of  reassurance and support there to be read back over when needed.  It is broadly accepted that diarists can keep journals to try to maintain or restore psychological health in times of stress or crisis. Even the genesis of a diary, the reason why it comes into being, has been interpreted, most notably by Philippe LeJeune, as a saving recourse, a catharsis, a means to maintain self-control whilst living a crisis.  When the crisis ends so too, invariably, does the diary.[1] To an extent Madeleine’s diary fits with this model.  The meticulous note-keeping format maintained throughout enables her to impose order  not just on the things happening in her life but on thoughts, feelings and sensations promoted by depression and anxiety which may have otherwise overwhelmed her. Lists are one way of doing this and Madeleine’s daily diary entries do, on occasion, read like lists. She notes the people she has seen, the books she has read, the people she has taught and, on occasion, synthesises this everyday data into lists. She does this with every new rationing quota announcement which she sets out food item by food item.

The value of the diary as a living history which makes a contribution to our understanding of the period of Occupation is clear. The density of the detail logged over a period of four years make it a unique historical record. But it holds many more intriguing and enlightening narratives in respect of gender, the evolution of tertiary education for women, the purpose and place of life-writing in wartime and its use as a panacea for psychological distress. These are just a few of the areas of interest and there are inevitably many more possibilities for interpretation  in the many thousands of words with which Madeleine unselfconsciously records everyday life.  This is the diary of a young woman who is first and foremost focused on surviving the Occupation with her scholarly ambitions and future plans intact. to the UK after the war.


Philippe Lejeune, ‘How Do Diaries End?’, Biography, 24, 99-113.

(Source text WRUP diary)