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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.


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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