This is such a treat of a book, it feels like a real indulgence to pick it up and look through it! It is an anthology of diary entries from over 170 diarists, and is absolutely fascinating. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed this book, it is one of the most amazing and interesting books I have ever read; to have the chance to read other people’s private thoughts and impressions feels almost naughty, and is very addictive! There is a huge variety of authors here; some I knew and some I didn’t, some humorous and sarcastic, some quite dark and melancholy, and others providing a glimpse into worlds it was fascinating to find out more about such as Prisoner of War Camps, and Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It was very interesting to read entries from many different people and from different times; from Samuel Pepys writing in the 1600s to Andy Warhol, Tony Benn, and Alan Bennett writing modern-day entries, and there are several entries for each day of the year.

There is a wonderful mix of different people, from different times. And, although many entries are of dramatic events, (and I found it fascinating to read ones from the day Princess Diana died, and the day the end of the 2nd World War was declared), there are lots that tell of just ordinary days where nothing momentous happened at all and I found these just as interesting as it reinforced the ordinariness of people’s lives.

Some of my favourite diarists were; Queen Victoria (I can’t help feeling what a privilege it is to be allowed to read the mind of a royal person, and she was really brought alive to me as a real person with her entries of how affected she was by the injured soldiers she met); Captain John Mansel with his entries from a Prisoner of War Camp in Germany; Abel J Herzberg who wrote his diary while in a Concentration Camp with his fellow Jews; Jimmy Boyle, in prison for murder; Beatrix Potter and Virginia Woolf, I adore both these authors and to read their diary entries makes me feel I know and understand them a little more; Samuel Pepys, as to read diary entries from the 1600s is absolutely fascinating (I loved his entry about his wife and he having an argument about his decision to put the dogs in the cellar due to them fouling his house, it sounded just like my household with my dogs!); Joyce Grenfell, such an amusing lady; Kenneth Williams, so sarcastic about his fellow human beings and I loved his entry about his disgust of Blackpool; William Soutar, whom I had never heard of before but who seems a fascinating person, an invalid and basically a prisoner in his room, yet full of interesting thoughts which he records in his diary; Captain Scott, and his fellow explorer Edward Wilson, I found their entries written during their expedition to the South Pole fascinating and also very humbling when I bore in mind the extreme difficulties and challenges they faced and the fact they died on their return journey and these diaries were actually found with their bodies.

The introduction, by Alan Taylor, is also very interesting with his analysis of the roles that diaries play in our lives; sometimes the role of an intimate friend who alone is the only one privy to our most private thoughts, and sometimes making us feel reproachful for several blank days without entries. He also identifies how easy it is to keep a diary as it doesn’t carry the pressure of the enormity of writing a novel that must appeal to others or be grammatically correct; you can just write whatever is in your mind. A diary also allows the writer to be very scathing and even downright nasty about their friends and associates (and I found Virginia Woolf and Kenneth Williams particularly amusing in their thoughts of others, and appreciated William Soutar’s recognition that diaries tempt us to reveal and betray ourselves and our friends). I also liked the brief biography at the back of the book as there were many diarists who I hadn’t heard of before and it was interesting to learn more about them.

The whole book is absolutely fascinating and must have been such a labour of love for the editors. I can only imagine the huge undertaking it was was to collect so many entries from such a range of people, and am full of admiration (and gratitude!) that it was completed successfully. The book is perfect for just dipping into and jumping from day to day or month to month, and I found it was a book that was extremely difficult to put down; I’d tell myself I’d read just one more day’s entries, and then one more then one more! I feel very privileged to own this book and find myself keep recalling entries I have read, and relating ones to my family. Very highly recommended.




"I always say, keep a diary and someday it'll keep you", quipped Mae West, an insight that is wonderfully borne out in Irene and Alan Taylor's The Assassin's Cloak, an anthology of the world's greatest diarists. All of life can be found in this extraordinary compilation of diary entries by 170 of history's most famous (and infamous) diarists, beginning with "the Shakespeare of diarists", Samuel Pepys, and ending with the likes of the more notorious recent diarists, Roy Strong and Alan Clarke. The editors have cleverly arranged the book like a diary--there are entries for every day of the year, leading to fascinating juxtapositions, such as the thoughts of Leo Tolstoy, Queen Victoria and Josef Goebbels on three very different days in April. The selections are wonderfully judged, as they move from the momentous and the revealing--Noel Coward admitting "Gandhi has been assassinated. In my humble opinion, a bloody good thing but far too late"--to the banal and the downright bizarre--Wilhelm Reich claiming "I yearn for a beautiful woman with no sexual anxieties who will just take me! Have inhaled too much orgone radiation". Prepare to be shocked by the comments of those famous diarists you know, and intrigued by those you have never heard of (helpfully covered by short biographies at the end of the book), but more than anything be captivated by the sheer lust for life in all its detail reflected in a book that is clearly a long and arduous labour of love on the part of its authors. The sheer wealth of fascinating material in The Assassin's Cloak is overwhelming, and should be sampled day by day--rather like a diary. --Jerry Brotton
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