The Private Life of the Diary with hot chocolate

Mise-en-abyme may sound a cum­ber­some phrase, but when you try to describe what it actu­ally means — the place­ment of a thing with­in a lar­ger copy of itself, ad infin­itum — its three words  sound down­right eco­nom­ic­al. (One of the most fam­ous mise-en abymes is Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wed­ding, in which the mar­ried couple is reflec­ted in mini­ature in a mir­ror, in which a min­is­cule ver­sion of itself is end­lessly rep­lic­ated.) Sally Bay­ley has cre­ated a form of mise-en-abyme with her new book The Private Life of the Diary. It’s a his­tory of the diary as an art form, but with its intric­ate, inter­cut struc­ture, its intim­ate tone and its light­ness of touch, it acts as a spark­ling and highly ima­gin­at­ive journ­al about journ­als. She includes entries from the diar­ies of Pepys, Vir­gin­ia Woolf, Alan Clark, Sylvia Plath, Henry Dav­id Thor­eau and the fic­tion­al Cas­sandra Mort­main, mar­ry­ing each extract with a sharp, insight­ful ana­lys­is of intent. Plath’s adoles­cent reflec­tion that ‘I am in the mood for Thun­dery poetry now. I wish I had the exper­i­ence to write about it’, is, as Sally Bay­ley points out, ‘a neces­sary part of her ego devel­op­ment, her egot­ist­ic­al com­ing-of-age story. At the heart of this story are the thoughts of a girl who longs for omni­science.’

Amongst the most extraordin­ary diary entries come from Sally Bayley’s own journ­als. Brought up in a ‘small, stacked-up house’ crammed with six­teen or sev­en­teen people — her moth­er, aunt, grand­moth­er and scores of sib­lings and cous­ins — she longed for pri­vacy. House­hold shop­ping lists had entries such as ’20 pints of milk, 10 pack­ets of but­ter, 8 pounds of minced meat’ and the Extra Sharp Cana­dian Ched­dar had to be bought in blocks ten or twelve pounds at a time, which ‘shame­fully required a lady’s shop­ping trol­ley to pull back.’ When she was only sev­en years old, her moth­er sent her to Switzer­land alone, with a small bag, a cam­era and a diary. Her instruc­tions were to ‘bring all the big events, the sights and the sounds, back home and share them’. As she wryly points out, ‘My adven­ture, like my diary, was not my own. … From the first, my diary was nev­er private: it belonged to my moth­er, my aunt, my grand­moth­er, my broth­ers and cous­ins. My diary was already pub­lic, already owned.’

On a second vis­it abroad, but still only a child and with the same instruc­tions to gath­er import­ant inform­a­tion to bring back, she described her daily routine: ‘Every morn­ing, after choc-au-lait, in the kit­chen with the high win­dows and long wooden table, I pulled out my note­book and added more names to the list of pas­tas Madame Gros­jean had taught me.’ There’s a brave but slightly mourn­ful qual­ity to the prose of this explorer-child, gath­er­ing up testi­mony to take back to the tiny house in Sus­sex filled with expect­ant rel­at­ives wait­ing to devour her diary. It made me want to make home-made choc-au-lait for just a few rather than for expect­ant hordes.


  • 750ml full cream milk
  • 80g 70% cocoa solids chocol­ate
  • 50g good milk chocol­ate
  • 100ml single cream
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded
  • 1 tea­spoon sug­ar
  • pinch of salt
  • Half tea­spoon cin­na­mon powder

Heat the milk until it’s nearly boil­ing. Grate the chocol­ate and stir it into the milk, along with the chilli, sug­ar, salt, cin­na­mon and cream. Allow to steep for five minutes and then whisk it. Drink it on your own with your diary.

The Private Life of the Diary ends with instruc­tions on how to keep a diary like Sylvia Plath, Vir­gin­ia Woolf, James Boswell (‘buy your­self a small but sturdy writ­ing bur­eau’) and, my favour­ite, like Cas­sandra Mort­main. ‘Choose an out­land­ish pos­i­tion. Per­haps a bath or a sink.… have some Shakespeare close by for ref­er­ence. I recom­mend the com­ed­ies because things work out best there.’

Sally Bay­ley has cre­ated an eru­dite, beau­ti­fully struc­tured and beguil­ing book. It’s a life story of the diary that does full cred­it to its long and com­plic­ated exist­ence. It’s often funny, some­times bleak, always intel­li­gent.

Sally Bay­ley, The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets (Lon­don: Unbound, 2016)

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12 thoughts on “The Private Life of the Diary with hot chocolate

  1. I always find that, not being a cof­fee or a tea drink­er, hot drinks don’t tend to fall into my daily routine all that often. Your choc-au-lait looks won­der­ful though Charlie; adds some of the fun back into it. Great post again!!

    • Thanks, Boin­sey. You may enjoy the addi­tion of the chilli, or you may hate it of course. But I feel sure you’ll like the book.

  2. What a lovely look­ing hot chocol­ate recipe! I’ll be sure to try this, per­haps even while read­ing Sally Bayley’s book, which sounds both intriguing and just my cup of tea (hot chocol­ate).

  3. I’ve only bought cook books (and wine books) from Unbound to date. Time to include some oth­er non-fic­tion based on this review. Sit­ting down at a sturdy writ­ing bur­eau with a cup of steam­ing chilli chocol­ate right now — in my ima­gin­a­tion.

    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book as much as I did, Sally. I hope you enjoy a real, as opposed to an ima­gined, hot chilli chocol­ate before too long. Hav­ing said that, what tem­per­at­ure is it at home for you at the moment? A hot chilli bever­age may be just what you don’t need.

  4. I love hot chocol­ate, Charlie and I have been known to con­sume sev­er­al a day. Now that I live on a boat it is a staple. My grand­moth­er made us hot choc as a treat. There were too many of us in my fam­ily for all of us to be able to drink hot choc but it was a secret ritu­al between my grand­moth­er and me and a for­tu­nate hanger-on or two.

    • I had the feel­ing, read­ing your book, that hot chocol­ate had a spe­cial place in your memory — hence the recipe. As a child, you would prob­ably have thought that a chilli ver­sion was dread­ful, but I think you’d like it now.

  5. What anoth­er bril­liant post. Crack­ing pho­tos and beau­ti­ful writ­ing apart from the appet­ising sub­ject. Worth wait­ing for. You ought to have hun­dreds of appre­ci­at­ive responses.

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