Books that have a profound effect on your life are usually books that you read young, but I only recently discovered The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. Nevertheless its impact has been startling. It caught me at that moment in middle age when you realize that the only thing ahead is death, but there it sits on my bedside table to provide comfort, exhilaration and much amusement.
It is, I admit, an odd source of comfort. It is very long, 688 pages, and certainly does not deal in mortality. In fact quite the opposite: it is intensely about the present. The book is divided up into the days of the year. Each day includes several extracts from among the 170 contributors. There are 1,800 or so entries, and they span the seventeenth century to almost the present day. Many of the diarists are well known. Many are not. They range from Queen Victoria to Andy Warhol, Byron to Noël Coward, from the Reverend Francis Kilvert, a nineteenth-century country parson, to Goebbels.
Some entries are complete in themselves. Others contribute to stories that unfold as the year progresses. The editors, Irene and Alan Taylor, achieve a rhythm and balance to the entries that together are a delight. Take, for example, 26 January. Charles Greville describes ‘licentious’ dancers at a Paris ball in 1837; ten years later, Eugène Delacroix leaves his Paris dinner party early, disgusted by the ‘fragile glasses – an idiotic refinement!’; 26 January 1930 finds Virginia Woolf gleefully totting up her income for the year; and on the same day in 1977, James Lees-Milne appals an old lady on a London bus when he applies lip salve. Two years later, Stephen Spender startles a group of young people by farting loudly in Covent Garden, while in 1938 Dawn Powell writes, ‘For no reason at all I hated this day as if it was a person – its wind, its insecurity, its flabbiness, its hint of an insane universe.’
All this makes com
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