• Carolyn Steele Agosta

Letters and Diaries - Real and Fiction

Letters and Diaries – Real and Fictional

After we moved to North Carolina in 1975, my grandma and I began a several-year-long exchange of letters. I still have all of hers, and I delight in them, because they’re so expressive of her personality. Margaret Baker Drouillard Simon lived from 1903 to 1989, and her life covered such a period of change in American society, that we kids used to marvel about it. She saw the advent of airplanes and automobiles, radio and TV, two World Wars, a whole lotta fashion changes, and meanwhile, she married, had five kids, was widowed, remarried and had 21 grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. And my gosh, we all loved her. She was a lively lady, with a love of music, baseball, card games and a creative knack for making something out of almost nothing. She found a way to enjoy every single day. She also had lots of trouble with insomnia, which she used as a time for writing those letters, and which – dang! – she passed on to all the females in her line. I personally have been awake since 4:17 am.


Thanks, Grandma.


(Actually, I DO mean THANKS. My best writing is done in the wee small hours.)


Letters between famous people have long been a source of published works, especially letters by well-known authors (or politicians such as Churchill). Some of the more famous are letters by such writers as PG Wodehouse, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll. Recently I became aware of the letters of Julia Child, both to her husband, and to her long-time friend Avis DeVoto, through the movie Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. There are at least two books which include the letters, An Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch, and Julia Child’s own As Always, Julia.


My husband, Matt, and I have boxes full of letters we’ve written to each other, from back when we were actively involved in Marriage Encounter, a marriage-strengthening organization which promotes communication between spouses. They are definitely not for publication, and I’ve left instructions that they’re to be destroyed if my kids come across them after we’re gone. But in the meanwhile, we still have them.


There are all kinds of fictional letters that form the basis of novels. My favorites include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, Possession, and a real door-stopper of a book, Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, written in 1748.


Now, diaries, on the other hand…


Over the history of literature, there have been many diarists whose private thoughts and comments have been exposed to public view – sometimes on purpose, other times not. Probably the single most famous diary is Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. This book created such impact, and it was never originally intended for publication. You have to wonder, with anyone who writes a diary, who are they writing it for? Themselves? Posterity? A sense of history?


Queen Victoria very famously kept a diary from the time she was 13 years old, at her governess’ instruction – and her mother read the entries every single day, until Victoria put a stop to this when she became Queen. However, by then the practice had become second nature, and she kept them up until just ten days before her death, 69 years later. She filled 121 volumes, as well as many letters, and later it was estimated that she had written about 60 million words during her lifetime. After her death, her daughter Princess Beatrice edited the journals, cutting many details, but still almost 111 volumes remain – and are currently available in full online.


Other famous diarists include Samuel Boswell, who made his name by writing a biography on the great author Samuel Johnson. His diary only turned up much later in the 1920’s and 30’s, and became quite as popular as his previous work. Another Samuel, Samuel Pepys, wrote a famous diary from 1660-1669, and it became quite famous for its first-hand accounts of the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London. Also for his many entries about his sexual escapades and the resultant syphilis that plagued him for years.


During the American Civil War, a woman named Mary Chesnut wrote a diary about her experiences, mostly trying to avoid the war. I found this quite interesting, as she spent much of the war in North Carolina, and even in Lincolnton, a town very near where I live. Ken Burns used extensive readings from Chesnut’s diary in his documentary TV series, The Civil War.


Another famous diary is that of Anne Lister, who kept a journal for around 34 years, part of it written in code. She was an English landowner and business-owner whose diary became famous mostly due to its description of her life as a lesbian and a search for a way to publicly live a life with a companion-wife. The diaries have recently been turned into an HBO series, Gentleman Jack, which is quite fascinating.


Some fictional diaries are the basis of novels, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, The Color Purple, Dracula, Flowers for Algernon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I Capture the Castle, and of course, The Vampire Diaries.


My personal favorite is Bab: A Sub Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart, written in 1916. It’s the hilarious account of a seventeen-year-old girl who wants her family to recognize that although she is a ‘sub-deb’, having not had her debut yet, she’s no longer a baby. Each entry begins Dear Dairy. It was reprinted in 2005, so it’s very possible to find a copy available online and I highly recommend it.




My copy is from 1917 and has had a hard life. It’s illustrated by May Wilson Preston who also illustrated Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Tish series, many other books, magazines and postcards, and she was also an Impressionist painter.




I also recently read Maud; the Illlustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman which is just wonderful as it includes not only her lively diary entries, but lots of sketches illustrating the events. Another loan from my sister, Jacki. I’m becoming aware of how much I owe to her.


(I do not keep a diary. I’ve tried, many times, but OMG, it was so boring.)


What about you? Do you keep a diary or journal? Do you own collections of letters? Hey – did you know, there are people who buy up old diaries and letter collections on E-Bay? Some of them create rather bizarrely fascinating videos about their finds. Sometimes I just think, life is so weird. In researching for this blog post, I came across a list of longest-running diaries. One ran for over 40 years and detailed the diarist’s bowel movements. Seriously??!


PS – As you may know, I’m working on my newest book, a series of short stories all set at camp meeting, which is a combination of religious renewal, family reunion and small town fair. I’ve got all the stories done except the last one, and it’s been eluding me for weeks. The hardest part of writing a story is getting the initial inspiration. If the ember is a dud, no amount of my breathing on it will set the thing alight, and sometimes I have to wait for the right idea. Well, it’s come at last and I made a start this morning, but now I have to work on it in earnest so probably no blog posts for the next couple of days. Unless genius strikes before then. Wish me luck!

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