Diary-writing is a complex sort of occupation. Historically it has its origins in the spiritual self-reflection which developed with Protestantism, the idea being either to chart one’s journey towards enlightenment or, at least, to spot those ‘must do better’ moments. Historians have always used them for straightforward evidential data, but they are increasingly subjected to more ‘close reading’ by researchers from other disciplines, on the understanding that everything has a psychology, including the decision to keep a diary. How frequently the entries are made, the subjects dealt with, the subjects avoided, the kind of language used, even the choice of volume type – all of these things are now considered to be at least as revelatory, as that which the diarist chose to record.
There are many different types of diaries in the M&ARL collections. They range from those consisting entirely of the less-than-useful ‘Rained all day. Ate cabbage again’ type of entry to the psychologically much more intriguing. On display in the Long Room at the moment is a mid-19thcentury diary of a man called Kenney. He himself is of no historical interest, but as a personality type, the petty, vain, and very controlling young man would be a therapist’s delight. His need to control his young lady friend, Mary Louisa MacMahon (who spotted his bullying streak eventually, and ran for the hills) is expressed in his habit of drawing minutely detailed maps of where they met, inserting alphabetical indicators of places where they sat, where they parted, where they argued. He also transcribed into the diary over 80 of her letters to him, itself an odd undertaking, three self-portraits and, creepily, two very poor drawings of Miss MacMahon before and after she altered the way she did her hair, to suit him.