#9: READING OTHER PEOPLE’S DIARIES / THE BEST BATHROOM BOOKS
EVER. Not long ago a friend of mine asked me to find her a nice copy of the CANTERBURY TALES; not a very odd request, it seems, but it did mark an occasion. Many years before, in the midst of raising a family and holding down a job, she’d gotten a copy of the Divine Comedy and left it on the tank of the toilet, to read during trips to the loo. And now, eighteen years later, she had finished reading Dante and was now going to start the trek to Canterbury. The woman is in her early seventies; I love to imagine her, hale, ninety and in exceptional digestive health, closing the book on the Parson’s Tale and Chaucer’s farewell to his readers.
These are laudable adventures, but I am not myself much of a one for poetry in the
bathroom: it takes too much concentration. But even the briefest sit-down is not too short for a paragraph or two of Samuel Pepys. His voluminous diary—or any selection thereof—is as good company as Charles Lamb or Sydney Smith ever dreamt of being. Every day is its own little self-contained drama—from eyeing a pretty woman at church to riding in state down the Thames. One could mine the diary endlessly—and people have—for history of the period: not only was Pepys a man of real importance in British naval history, but his eyewitness accounts of the restoration of Charles II and the Great Fire of London remain the most vivid. But of all the diarists Pepys had the greatest ability to be pleased with himself, and so is the best company. And of all the diarists and self-examiners Pepys is the one to whom the reader’s presence goes most thoroughly unnoticed. To read Pepys is to peek in on him unawares, and it’s part of the pleasure he especially and most wonderfully gives.
The various early editions of Pepys’s Journal are all to some degree cut, edited, rewritten and expurgated; it was not until 1970, in the eleven-volume edition transcribed, edited and annotated by Robert Latham and William Matthews that Pepys appeared in print without the pestering of Mr. Bowdler or Mrs. Grundy. There are innumerable single-volume abridgements: Everybody's Pepys has some charming illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Richard Wheatley’s 1893 edition—the fullest previous to Latham and Matthews—can be viewed in full at www.pepysdiary.com. Of the many biographies, Richard Ollard’s Pepys: A Biography (Atheneum, 1974) is lively, intelligent, terrifically well-written and casts an appropriately witty eye on Pepys and his doings.
Pepys’s innocent self-regard is in contrast to Thoreau’s journals. Thoreau wrote always to engage, to convince, to take you up in argument and win; there are beautiful, self-forgetting passages of natural description, but he was the essential contrarian, at his best when he was having at you. Like Gautama Siddhartha, he wanted to awaken people; his method was just more by way of a slap upside the head. This gave Thoreau his limits, but it also gave him his (sometimes unintentional) comedy and his electrical current. (Read his description of being visited by three itinerant preachers—June 17, 1853—and you will see, pinned on the page forever, the efforts of the human race to escape being slimed by grinning fatuity.) Any gentleman will prefer to say yes to saying no, Stevenson wrote regretfully of Thoreau’s arguments; but no writer ever kept saying no for better reasons. The preacher incident is in Odell Shepard’s selection, The Heart of Thoreau's Journal, published by Dover, but there are several good paperback selections available. For the best short appreciation of Thoreau, read E. B. White’s essay “A Slight Sound at Evening” (in Essays of E.B. White, McGraw Hill, 1977), which hits just the right note of amusement and affection.
In the Journals Dorothy Wordsworth kept at Grasmere the questions we ask of so many diaries—why and for whom they were written—are answered simply: “To please
William.” Then without loud announcement, they transcend, page after page, their modest aim. Her journals, like Keats’s letters, were the result of a separation-- but this time a separation ended. Dorothy and William had lived apart as young orphans, but a sum left to William by a friend enabled them to live together in a frugal but complete independence. In this reunion, and in finding a home, Dorothy seems to have entered into all she wanted; her content at being able to walk with William and their friend Coleridge and to see the variety of the seasons is the source of the calm daylit radiance that suffuses even the simplest sentences of the Journal. She records ungrudgingly the hardships of a northern life—headaches and icy waters—and of course all earthly Edens come to an end: she suffered late in life from both physical and mental illness. But the two years of the Grasmere journals especially are the record of a Franciscan joy in the life daily around us. “Wordsworth’s exquisite sister,” Coleridge called her, and she earned the epithet.
There have been several good editions of the Grasmere and Alfoxden journals: the current paperback from Oxford is good. If you want to go whole hog for Dorothy, search out Ernest de Selincourt’s two-volume complete edition (Macmillan, 1941)—not in print but not that hard to find. There’s a good selection of her letters, edited by Alan G. Hill, from Oxford. The biography by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (Dorothy Wordsworth, Oxford) is out of print but available cheaply secondhand. Still the wisest and most readable selection of Wordsworth’s poems is the Selected Poetry edited by Mark Van Doren for Modern Library in 1950.