Dear Diary, you’re probably the world’s most underrated source of history

History is written by victors; diaries corroborate or counter their narrative — truthfully, copiously and colourfully

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Nazis, Jews, Polish, death, Claus von Stauffenberg, Germany, Hitler, The Federal, English news website
Anne Frank's diary is seen as an authentic source of information on Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.

“Worked till lunch. Had bridge here. Knitted till bed. A very noisy evening with planes, guns and bombs.”

“Had to spend night in shelter with kids and Nanny as bombs fell near.”

These are a couple of entries from the diaries of renowned children’s author Enid Blyton in September-October 1940, during World War II. What makes it interesting is that amid the current season of Blyton-bashing, where readers are calling for her works to be ‘cancelled’ over concerns of xenophobia and racism, the diary entries reflect the feelings of an ordinary woman anxious about the war — a mother worried about her children’s safety. While nothing perhaps condones racism and xenophobia, one at least understands where she is coming from.

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This is what diaries do. They break down past events into smaller, simpler bite sizes that give you a well-rounded picture of what happened. The facts and details they put out reconstruct not only the life of that single individual but also the times they lived in — fragmentary details that help construct a whole. They move the past into the space of the private and allow us to see a broader, more nuanced history.

The written records of the past have almost always been about the rich, the powerful or the extremely talented — kings, traders, artists, warriors, rebels and so on. That very little is known of the common man down the centuries has always been a drawback of recorded human history.

Journals or diaries, essentially a feature of the recent centuries, substantially address this gap. While even about three centuries ago writing was the prerogative of the privileged classes, the spread of literacy in the later times means diaries represent the thoughts and feelings of a wide range of people.

Varied perspective

Diaries also give various perspectives on historical happenings. Take the example of Madras’ (now Chennai) ‘Emden bombing’, wherein, in 1914, the German light cruiser Emden was engaged in the bombardment of the Madras harbour. Interestingly, diary entries of residents in the city’s George Town area, close to the harbour, revealed panic, while those from elsewhere in the province just recounted the incident with academic precision.

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What works against the use of diaries as a source of history is the question of privacy. Most were written not to be read by anyone, or at least not everyone. Each region has its own set of laws governing the privacy of deceased individuals, so publishing the diaries, or even using them for research, throws up legal challenges.

Official sources, too

There are chunks of recorded history to which diaries have contributed substantially, and are taken as official sources. Anne Frank’s personal accounts, written when she was in hiding amid the German occupation of Amsterdam in the 1940s, published under the title The Diary of a Young Girl, have made her one of the most discussed victims of the Holocaust. To date, it is considered one of the most authentic sources of the Nazi regime.

Another diary that has been extensively used in the writing of history is that of Ananda Rangam Pillai, a dubash with the French East India Company in Puducherry. His diaries, spanning 1736-61, throw light on the personal lives of the colonialists as well as those of the ordinary people in the coastal city at that time.

There is also journal-writing that is part of the writer’s official repertoire. There is RK Narayan’s My Dateless Diary, where the author leaves the fictional town of Malgudi to recount his experiences in the US. The book, written in a personal diary style and published in 1960, was among modern India’s earliest travelogues and considered among Narayan’s best works.

Reviewer Pulkita Anand, in literary publication Tint Journal, calls the book “a lively and germane account of his visit to America on a Rockefeller Fellowship and discusses deeper subjects such as conflicting economic, political and social systems.”

Similarly, the diaries of psychologist Carl Jung, writer Aleister Crowley and essayist Anaïs Nin are considered integral parts of their contributions to their respective fields.

Some of the early sketches of cartooning legends such as Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney and Tintin creator Herge (Georges Prosper Remi), drawn from their personal collections, show how their art evolved over the decades. Art scholars delve into them to spot the resemblances to the characters that they created much later in their professional lives.

A place under the sun

Historians have mostly tended to ignore common folks, who get very little representation in written accounts of the past. Women, in particular, have been largely left out, too. So, many contemporary historians are digging deep into journal entries to learn more about these populations.

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For instance, New York-based Swann Auction Galleries holds diaries — it calls them ‘manuscript journal’ — of ordinary people whose entries hold historical significance. “Women were often left out of history books until recent decades, but diaries record their daily lives in a way that is difficult to uncover through other sources,” it says on its website.

Among the gallery’s possessions was the ‘Meticulous Manuscript of a Saloon Keeper in Reno, Nevada’. Swann’s website says the saloon keeper, George C Bryson, “wrote every day from 1903 to 1917 in an incredibly tiny and meticulous hand, describing his life of wrangling drunks, police raids, and late-night poker games, concluding with his improbable elevation to police court judge”. The diary got sold last year.

Another of Swann’s possessions was the diary, spanning 1853-61, of Alida Taber, the wife of a whaling captain who often accompanied her husband to remote corners of the globe. The journal “includes passages written at sea and illustrated with whale stamps, interspersed with sections written while managing a household alone in Massachusetts while her husband was at sea”. This diary was sold in 2019.

More recent events

Diaries are not just about long-past events. Relatively recent, fully documented occurrences also can be interpreted in multifarious ways by diarists.

Take the example of 9/11. Even as we have video footages and extensive official papers on the terror attack on the Twin Towers, a TikTok video covering the diary entries of a young Canadian girl on the event has gone viral. It is a raw personal take on the fear and trauma the attack invoked, and the style appeals immensely to a younger audience that was either not born then or was too young to know what was happening.

And not all diaries need to be about facts. Reading the linear accounts of individuals ­— known or unknown — can be a pleasure in itself. What were the major events in their lives? What interested them? What changes can we observe in them over time? How did they change their perceptions?

There are also ‘composite diaries’, where individuals collate events occurring over many years. These, too, have several literary merits.

Diaries piling up at home?

Today, in the age of Twitter and Instagram, where minutiae are recorded digitally, diary writing is not as popular as it was earlier.

Yet, several households have piles of old diaries at home, penned meticulously by great-grandparents and aunts and uncles long gone. Most are seen to have little value, and are often sold by weight to the local recycler. Some may be just records of daily events and domestic expenditure, but these could again be a rich source of history. The little details stand out, and the larger ones form a frame around which to understand their life.

Antiquarians suggest a thorough read before the disposal process. There might be nuggets that could use preservation. You can also buy and sell old diaries on e-commerce platforms such as eBay and Snapdeal. If you are not keen to buy old diaries, but like to read them, there are thousands of entries on Pinterest.

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