On the television suspended above the news reporters’ desks, the set tuned permanently to Sky News, an advert appears for Whiskas cat milk. 

Me: I buy that for my cats. 

James: Why, what’s wrong with ordinary milk?

Me: Cats are lactose-intolerant so they can’t drink milk from cows. 

James: What, so they actually milk the cats?

Me: [horrified pause] No.

This is from my 2007 diary, back when I worked in the newsroom for a national newspaper. As a journal entry, it’s never going to rival the musings of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. But it sums up the most memorable thing that happened that day. 

Diaries fascinate me. I suspect that the attraction dates back to a 10th birthday present from my aunt, thrust into my hands in 1984. A small hardback volume stuffed with high quality blank paper, it was a magical gift. But the best part was a miniature lock and key. Secrets are very important when you’re 10 and now I had somewhere to put them, away from prying eyes, accessible only by me.

And so began my daily diaries. I continued for another 12 years or so, meticulously recording my thoughts and experiences in a multitude of books. Some were day-to-page purchases from WHSmith while others were pocket-sized volumes with barely enough room to bleed out my teenage angst. Occasionally they were themed – I remember a Winnie-the-Pooh edition, complete with beautiful quotations by A. A. Milne. What they all had in common, once I’d splattered my emotions across their pages, was brutal honesty.

Having spent so much time baring my soul, I rarely revisit. On the rare occasions when I’ve flicked through them, I’ve wondered about that other person. Who is that girl and what was she thinking? But I’ve kept them safe, and not for any notion of future publication. These diaries are for me. For the older me. For the future grey-haired woman who, when she feels strong enough, will look back at her younger self. 

Of course, that’s the problem with diary writing – who are you writing for? Is the diary a confidant or a posterity vehicle? Private or public? Leaving aside the frankly depressing fact that, in the 21st century, diaries are fast becoming obsolete, the question remains: is it OK to read other people’s diaries?

As an avid consumer of journals, I have to say that, yes, it is. While history reveals that family members have burned relatives’ intimate accounts, my feeling is this: a diary is written for an audience, even if that is an audience of one. And don’t we all secretly hope that we’re interesting enough to merit publication?

Secret Voices

So, to the history of diaries. Journaling has long been regarded as predominantly a female occupation, dismissed out of hand for generations. Women writing were feared, squashed and ignored for centuries. It may come as a bleak surprise to learn that the majority of diary anthologies are almost exclusively populated by male authors.

Consider, for example, one of the most lauded collections. I paid cash money for The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. It was a crushing disappointment. I soldiered on until page 123 (and the typeface is really, really small) before I gave up. Yes, there were female writers in there, but the males seemed to be in the ascendant. The same men cropped up again and again and many of the entries were proper dull. 

Imagine my delight when I learned of a new anthology, published by Batsford and edited by Sarah Gristwood. Secret Voices: A Year of Women’s Diaries is a revelation. Even before I read the first entry, I was entranced by the elegant simplicity of the cover and the quality of the paper. I love a thick, heavy page, and I lose my head over the heft of a hardback. This is a book which demands to be admired. 

Thankfully, the words on the page mirror the quality of the production. What joy to immerse oneself in a volume dedicated entirely to women writing their diaries. And thank you to the editor for veering from well-known authors and admired female figures to unsung heroes and so-called ordinary women documenting otherwise undocumented domestic lives.  

Here we have Sylvia Plath juxtaposed with Jilly Cooper, Beatrix Potter nestled against Queen Victoria. As Gristwood says in her foreword: “Anthologies not devoted specifically to women still include an alarmingly low percentage of female diarists.”

She goes on to say that “Secret Voices aims to reflect the totality of experience described in women’s diaries”. It’s a lofty claim but Gristwood comes close to her goal. Her eclectic choices make for an entertaining and informed read, even if she is stymied by the lack of more modern entries (I blame email and smartphones). 

Some entries lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous, adding to the collection’s charm. “I was totally alone all day – not even a wrong number on the telephone to break my solitary confinement,” writes Miles Franklin, while Barbara Pym confesses that “I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to it being seen”. 

Dear Diary…

While I will always love male diarists – Alan Bennett and Kenneth Williams spring to mind – my connection with the words of women like Dorothy Wordsworth edges closer to the marrow. Say it quietly but her brother William often plundered his sister’s diaries for ideas. Look at Dorothy’s entry about daffodils and you’ll see what I mean. 

But here’s the thing. Despite all the excellent qualities of Secret Voices, it can’t escape the age-old problem that besets all anthologies: the necessity for biographical information. Happily, this edition eschews the footnote and the pages are clean and beautifully laid out, making it a pleasure to read. But the temptation to flick back and forth in order to glean details about the diarists is overwhelming. I took to pasting Post-it notes in the back of the book in order to minimise my constant search for an author’s bio. 

Nevertheless, this is a gorgeous and glorious book. Gristwood has done a fine job and, as one of her diarists, Ivy Jacquier, says: “What wonderful things there are in the world, only one must look for them.”

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


Secret Voices: A Year of Women’s Diaries is available to buy now