Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Diaries — Moral, Historical, and Critical.

We converse with the absent by letters, and with ourselves by diaries; but vanity is more gratified by dedicating its time to the little labours which have a chance of immediate notice, and may circulate from hand to hand, than by the honester pages of a volume reserved only for solitary contemplation; or to be a future relic of ourselves, when we shall no more hear of ourselves.

Marcus Antoninus’s celebrated work entitled Των εις εαυτον, Of the things which concern himself, would be a good definition of the use and purpose of a diary. Shaftesbury calls a diary, “A fault-book,” intended for self-correction; and a Colonel Harwood, in the reign of Charles the First, kept a diary, which, in the spirit of the times, he entitled “Slips, Infirmities, and Passages of Providence.” Such a diary is a moral instrument, should the writer exercise it on himself, and on all around him. Men then wrote folios concerning themselves; and it sometimes happened, as proved by many, which I have examined in manuscript, that often writing in retirement, they would write when they had nothing to write.

Diaries must be out of date in a lounging age, although I have myself known several who have continued the practice with pleasure and utility.1 One of our old writers quaintly observes, that “the ancients used to take their stomach-pill of self-examination every night. Some used little books, or tablets, which they tied at their girdles, in which they kept a memorial of what they did, against their night-reckoning.” We know that Titus, the delight of mankind, as he has been called, kept a diary of all his actions, and when at night he found upon examination that he had performed nothing memorable, he would exclaim, ”Amici! diem perdidimus!“ Friends! we have lost a day!

Among our own countrymen, in times more favourable for a concentrated mind than in this age of scattered thoughts and of the fragments of genius, the custom long prevailed: and we their posterity are still reaping the benefit of their lonely hours and diurnal records. It is always pleasing to recollect the name of Alfred, and we have deeply to regret the loss of a manual which this monarch, so strict a manager of his time, yet found leisure to pursue: it would have interested us much more even than his translations, which have come down to us. Alfred carried in his bosom memorandum leaves, in which he made collections from his studies, and took so much pleasure in the frequent examination of this journal, that he called it his hand-book, because, says Spelman, day and night he ever had it in hand with him. This manual, as my learned friend Mr. Turner, in his elaborate and philosophical Life of Alfred, has shown by some curious extracts from Malmsbury, was the repository of his own occasional literary reflections. An association of ideas connects two other of our illustrious princes with Alfred.

Prince Henry, the son of James I., our English Marcellus, who was wept by all the Muses, and mourned by all the brave in Britain, devoted a great portion of his time to literary intercourse; and the finest geniuses of the age addressed their works to him, and wrote several at the prince’s suggestion. Dallington, in the preface to his curious “Aphorisms, Civil and Militarie,” has described Prince Henry’s domestic life: “Myself,” says he, “the unablest of many in that academy, for so was his family, had this especial employment for his proper use, which he pleased favourably to entertain, and often to read over.

The diary of Edward VI., written with his own hand, conveys a notion of that precocity of intellect, in that early educated prince, which would not suffer his infirm health to relax in his royal duties. This prince was solemnly struck with the feeling that he was not seated on a throne to be a trifler or a sensualist: and this simplicity of mind is very remarkable in the entries of his diary; where, on one occasion, to remind himself of the causes of his secret proffer of friendship to aid the Emperor of Germany with men against the Turk, and to keep it at present secret from the French court, the young monarch inserts, “This was done on intent to get some friends. The reasonings be in my desk.” So zealous was he to have before him a state of public affairs, that often in the middle of the month he recalls to mind passages which he had omitted in the beginning: what was done every day of moment, he retired into his study to set down. — Even James the Second wrote with his own hand the daily occurrences of his times, his reflections and conjectures. Adversity had schooled him into reflection, and softened into humanity a spirit of bigotry; and it is something in his favour, that after his abdication he collected his thoughts, and mortified himself by the penance of a diary. — Could a Clive or a Cromwell have composed one? Neither of these men could suffer solitude and darkness; they started at their casual recollections:— what would they have done, had memory marshalled their crimes, and arranged them in the terrors of chronology?

When the national character retained more originality and individuality than our monotonous habits now admit, our later ancestors displayed a love of application, which was a source of happiness, quite lost to us. Till the middle of the last century they were as great economists of their time as of their estates; and life with them was not one hurried yet tedious festival. Living more within themselves, more separated, they were therefore more original in their prejudices, their principles, and in the constitution of their minds. They resided more on their estates, and the metropolis was usually resigned to the men of trade in their Royal Exchange, and the preferment-hunters among the backstairs at Whitehall. Lord Clarendon tells us, in his “Life,” that his grandfather, in James the First’s time, had never been in London after the death of Elizabeth, though he lived thirty years afterwards; and his wife, to whom he had been married forty years, had never once visited the metropolis. On this fact he makes a curious observation: “The wisdom and frugality of that time being such, that few gentlemen made journeys to London, or any other expensive journey, but upon important business, and their wives never; by which Providence they enjoyed and improved their estates in the country, and kept good hospitality in their house, brought up their children well, and were beloved by their neighbours.” This will appear a very coarse homespun happiness, and these must seem very gross virtues to our artificial feelings; yet this assuredly created a national character; made a patriot of every country gentleman; and, finally, produced in the civil wars some of the most sublime and original characters that ever acted a great part on the theatre of human life.

This was the age of DIARIES! The head of almost every family formed one. Ridiculous people may have written ridiculous diaries, as Elias Ashmole’s;2 but many of our greatest characters in public life have left such monuments of their diurnal labours.

These diaries were a substitute to every thinking man for our newspapers, magazines, and Annual Registers; but those who imagine that these are a substitute for the scenical and dramatic life of the diary of a man of genius, like Swift, who wrote one, or even of a lively observer, who lived amidst the scenes he describes, as Horace Walpole’s letters to Sir Horace Mann, which form a regular diary, only show that they are better acquainted with the more ephemeral and equivocal labours.

There is a curious passage in a letter of Sir Thomas Bodley, recommending to Sir Francis Bacon, then a young man on his travels, the mode by which he should make his life “profitable to his country and his friends.” His expressions are remarkable. “Let all these riches be treasured up, not only in your memory, where time may lessen your stock, but rather in good writings and books of account, which will keep them safe for your use hereafter.” By these good writings and books of account, he describes the diaries of a student and an observer; these “good writings” will preserve what wear out in the memory, and these “books of account” render to a man an account of himself to himself.

It was this solitary reflection and industry which assuredly contributed so largely to form the gigantic minds of the Seldens, the Camdens, the Cokes, and others of that vigorous age of genius. When Coke fell into disgrace, and retired into private life, the discarded statesman did not pule himself into a lethargy, but on the contrary seemed almost to rejoice that an opportunity was at length afforded him of indulging in studies more congenial to his feelings. Then he found leisure not only to revise his former writings, which were thirty volumes written with his own hand, but, what most pleased him, he was enabled to write a manual, which he called Vade Mecum, and which contained a retrospective view of his life, since he noted in that volume the most remarkable occurrences which happened to him. It is not probable that such a MS. could have been destroyed but by accident; and it might, perhaps, yet be recovered.

“The interest of the public was the business of Camden’s life,” observes Bishop Gibson; and, indeed, this was the character of the men of that age. Camden kept a diary of all occurrences in the reign of James the First; not that at his advanced age, and with his infirm health, he could ever imagine that he should make use of these materials; but he did this, inspired by the love of truth, and of that labour which delights in preparing its materials for posterity. Bishop Gibson has made an important observation on the nature of such a diary, which cannot be too often repeated to those who have the opportunities of forming one; and for them I transcribe it. “Were this practised by persons of learning and curiosity, who have opportunities of seeing into the public affairs of a kingdom, the short hints and strictures of this kind would often set things in a truer light than regular histories.”

A student of this class was Sir Symonds D’Ewes, an independent country gentleman, to whose zeal we owe the valuable journals of parliament in Elizabeth’s reign, and who has left in manuscript a voluminous diary, from which may be drawn some curious matters.3 In the preface to his journals, he has presented a noble picture of his literary reveries, and the intended productions of his pen. They will animate the youthful student, and show the active genius of the gentlemen of that day. The present diarist observes, “Having now finished these volumes, I have already entered upon other and greater labours, conceiving myself not to be born for myself alone,

“Qui vivat sibi solus, homo nequit esse beatus,

Malo mori, nam sic vivere nolo mihi.”

He then gives a list of his intended historical works, and adds, “These I have proposed to myself to labour in, besides divers others, smaller works: like him that shoots at the sun, not in hopes to reach it, but to shoot as high as possibly his strength, art, or skill will permit. So though I know it impossible to finish all these during my short and uncertain life, having already entered into the thirtieth year of my age, and having many unavoidable cares of an estate and family, yet, if I can finish a little in each kind, it may hereafter stir up some able judges to add an end to the whole:

“Sic mihi contingat vivere, sicque mori.”

Richard Baxter, whose facility and diligence, it is said, produced one hundred and forty-five distinct works, wrote, as he himself says, “in the crowd of all my other employments.” Assuredly the one which may excite astonishment is his voluminous autobiography, forming a folio of more than seven hundred closely-printed pages; a history which takes a considerable compass, from 1615 to 1684; whose writer pries into the very seed of events, and whose personal knowledge of the leading actors of his times throws a perpetual interest over his lengthened pages. Yet this was not written with a view of publication by himself; he still continued this work, till time and strength wore out the hand that could no longer hold the pen, and left it to the judgment of others whether it should be given to the world.

These were private persons. It may excite our surprise to discover that our statesmen, and others engaged in active public life, occupied themselves with the same habitual attention to what was passing around them in the form of diaries, or their own memoirs, or in forming collections for future times, with no possible view but for posthumous utility. They seem to have been inspired by the most genuine passion of patriotism, and an awful love of posterity. What motive less powerful could induce many noblemen and gentlemen to transcribe volumes; to transmit to posterity authentic narratives, which would not even admit of contemporary notice; either because the facts were then well known to all, or of so secret a nature as to render them dangerous to be communicated to their own times. They sought neither fame nor interest: for many collections of this nature have come down to us without even the names of the scribes, which have been usually discovered by accidental circumstances. It may be said that this toil was the pleasure of idle men:— the idlers then were of a distinct race from our own. There is scarcely a person of reputation among them, who has not left such laborious records of himself. I intend drawing up a list of such diaries and memoirs, which derive their importance from diarists themselves. Even the women of this time partook of the same thoughtful dispositions. It appears that the Duchess of York, wife to James the Second, and the daughter of Clarendon, drew up a narrative of his life; the celebrated Duchess of Newcastle has formed a dignified biography of her husband; Lady Fanshaw’s Memoirs have been recently published; and Mrs. Hutchinson’s Memoirs of her Colonel have delighted every curious reader.

Whitelocke’s “Memorials” is a diary full of important public matters; and the noble editor, the Earl of Anglesea, observes, that “our author not only served the state, in several stations, both at home and in foreign countries, but likewise conversed with books, and made himself a large provision from his studies and contemplation, like that noble Roman Portius Cato, as described by Nepos. He was all along so much in business, one would not imagine he ever had leisure for books; yet, who considers his studies might believe he had been always shut up with his friend Selden, and the dust of action never fallen on his gown.” When Whitelocke was sent on an embassy to Sweden, he journalised it; it amounts to two bulky quartos, extremely curious. He has even left us a History of England.

Yet all is not told of Whitelocke; and we have deeply to regret the loss, or at least the concealment, of a work addressed to his family, which apparently would be still more interesting, as exhibiting his domestic habits and feelings, and affording a model for those in public life who had the spirit to imitate such greatness of mind, of which we have not many examples. — Whitelocke had drawn up a great work, which he entitled, ”Remembrances of the Labours of Whitelocke in the Annales of his Life, for the instruction of his Children.“ To Dr. Morton, the editor of Whitelocke’s “Journal of the Swedish Ambassy,” we owe the notice of this work; and I shall transcribe his dignified feelings in regretting the want of these MSS. “Such a work, and by such a father, is become the inheritance of every child, whose abilities and station in life may at any time hereafter call upon him to deliberate for his country — and for his family and person, as parts of the great whole; and I confess myself to be one of those who lament the suppression of that branch of the Annales which relates to the author himself in his private capacity; they would have afforded great pleasure as well as instruction to the world in their entire form. The first volume, containing the first twenty years of his life, may one day see the light; but the greatest part has hitherto escaped my inquiries.” This is all we know of a work of equal moral and philosophical curiosity. The preface, however, to these “Remembrances,” has been fortunately preserved, and it is an extraordinary production. In this it appears that Whitelocke himself owed the first idea of his own work to one left by his father, which existed in the family, and to which he repeatedly refers his children. He says, “The memory and worth of your deceased grandfather deserves all honour and imitation, both from you and me; his ‘Liber Famelicus,’ his own story, written by himself, will be left to you, and was an encouragement and precedent to this larger work.” Here is a family picture quite new to us; the heads of the house are its historians, and these records of the heart were animated by examples and precepts, drawn from their own bosoms; and, as Whitelocke feelingly expresses it, “all is recommended to the perusal and intended for the instruction of my own house; and almost in every page you will find a dedication to you, my dear children.”

The habit of laborious studies, and a zealous attention to the history of his own times, produced the Register and Chronicle of Bishop Kennett. “Containing matters of fact, delivered in the words of the most authentic papers and records, all daily entered and commented on:” it includes an account of all pamphlets as they appeared. This history, more valuable to us than to his own contemporaries, occupied two large folios, of which only one has been printed: a zealous labour, which could only have been carried on from a motive of pure patriotism. It is, however, but a small part of the diligence of the bishop, since his own manuscripts form a small library of themselves.

The malignant vengeance of Prynne in exposing the diary of Laud to the public eye, lost all its purpose, for nothing appeared more favourable to Laud than this exposition of his private diary. We forget the harshness in the personal manners of Laud himself, and sympathise even with his errors, when we turn over the simple leaves of this diary, which obviously was not intended for any purpose but for his own private eye and collected meditations.4 There his whole heart is laid open: his errors are not concealed, and the purity of his intentions is established. Laud, who too haughtily blended the prime minister with the archbishop, still, from conscientious motives, in the hurry of public duties, and in the pomp of public honours, could steal aside into solitude, to account to God and himself for every day, and “the evil thereof.”

The diary of Henry Earl of Clarendon, who inherited the industry of his father, has partly escaped destruction; it presents us with a picture of the manners of the age, from whence, says Bishop Douglas, we may learn that at the close of the last century, a man of the first quality made it his constant practice to pass his time without shaking his arm at a gaming-table, associating with jockeys at Newmarket, or murdering time by a constant round of giddy dissipation, if not of criminal indulgence. Diaries were not uncommon in the last age: Lord Anglesea, who made so great a figure in the reign of Charles the Second, left one behind him; and one said to have been written by the Duke of Shrewsbury still exists.

But the most admirable example is Lord Clarendon’s History of his own “Life,” or rather of the court, and every event and person passing before him. In this moving scene he copies nature with freedom, and has exquisitely touched the individual character. There that great statesman opens the most concealed transactions, and traces the views of the most opposite dispositions; and, though engaged, when in exile, in furthering the royal intercourse with the loyalists, and when, on the Restoration, conducting the difficult affairs of a great nation, a careless monarch, and a dissipated court, yet besides his immortal history of the civil wars, “the chancellor of human nature” passed his life in habitual reflection, and his pen in daily employment. Such was the admirable industry of our later ancestors: their diaries and their memoirs are its monuments!

James the Second is an illustrious instance of the admirable industry of our ancestors. With his own hand this prince wrote down the chief occurrences of his times, and often his instant reflections and conjectures. Perhaps no sovereign prince, said Macpherson, has been known to have left behind him better materials for history. We at length possess a considerable portion of his diary, which is that of a man of business and of honest intentions, containing many remarkable facts which had otherwise escaped from our historians.

The literary man has formed diaries purely of his studies, and the practice may he called journalising the mind, in a summary of studies, and a register of loose hints and sbozzos, that sometimes happily occur; and like Ringelbergius, that enthusiast for study, whose animated exhortations to young students have been aptly compared to the sound of a trumpet in the field of battle, marked down every night, before going to sleep, what had been done during the studious day. Of this class of diaries, Gibbon has given us an illustrious model: and there is an unpublished quarto of the late Barré Roberts, a young student of genius, devoted to curious researches, which deserves to meet the public eye.5 I should like to see a little book published with this title, ”Otium delitiosum in quo objecta vel in actione, vel in lectione, vel in visione ad singulos dies Anni 1629 observata representantur.“ This writer was a German, who boldly published for the course of one year, whatever he read or had seen every day in that year. As an experiment, if honestly performed, this might be curious to the philosophical observer; but to write down everything, may end in something like nothing.

A great poetical contemporary of our own country does not think that even Dreams should pass away unnoticed; and he calls this register his Nocturnals. His dreams are assuredly poetical; as Laud’s, who journalised his, seem to have been made up of the affairs of state and religion; — the personages are his patrons, his enemies, and others; his dreams are scenical and dramatic. Works of this nature are not designed for the public eye; they are domestic annals, to be guarded in the little archives of a family; they are offerings cast before our Lares.

Pleasing, when youth is long expired, to trace

The forms our pencil or our pen design’d;

Such was our youthful air, and shape, and face,

Such the soft image of our youthful mind.


1 The Diary of William Raikes, Esq., has only recently been published: it relates to the first half of the present century, and proves that the race of diarists are not extinct among ourselves.

2 Ashmole noted every trifle, even to the paring of his nails; and being as believer in astrology, and a student in the occult sciences, occasionally mentions his own superstitious observances. Thus, April 11, 1681, he notes —“I took, early in the morning, a good dose of elixir, and hung three spiders about my neck, and they drove my ague away. Deo Gratias!”

3 This diary has been published since the above was written.

4 It is a thin book, simply lapped in parchment, and filled with brief memorandums written in a remarkably neat and minute hand.

5 This has also been published in a handsome quarto volume since the above was written. Roberta’s collection of Anglo-Gallic coins are now in the British Museum.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53