Is there anything more transgressive than reading someone else’s diary? If there is, I’m not sure what it could be. Cannibalism? Toe sucking? Enjoying Marmite? Whatever, we all know that it’s not the Done Thing to venture into someone’s deepest, innermost thoughts. Diary: even the word itself conjures up the image of crackly, browning pages bound up in ribbons and locks, bursting with juicy, life-wrecking, relationship-destroying secrets.
Perhaps that’s why the trope of the diary in literature remains ever-popular. From Dracula and Frankenstein, to Bridget Jones and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the epistemological form remains constantly in favour, regardless of the novel’s genre.
Why should the diary be so prevalent? There’s an undeniable ‘guilty secret’ self-gratification inherent, even when the diary in question has been published in 40 countries and sold more than 15 million copies (Bridget Jones's Diary, 1996, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, 1999, if you’re interested). Also, it makes for a good story. A script writer friend once confided that, whenever stumped for inspiration to open a scene, he posed someone staring off pensively into middle distance, so another character could ask ‘penny for them?’ With the diary form, there’s no need to part with cold hard cash to understand an internal motivation – it’s all there laid out on the page.
I first found the pleasure of reading someone else’s diary at the age of 13, when I discovered Sue Townsend’s 1982 bestseller The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. For those not in the know, this is an account of a UK teenager, from a working class Birmingham background, grappling with the arrows of outrageous fortune flung at him in the form of the break-up of his parents’ marriage, his tempestuous relationship with middle-class girlfriend Pandora, his torment at the hands of school bullies and his ongoing battle with acne. It’s outrageously funny and unbelievably poignant by turn, and resonant for all teenagers of all ages, whether from the Badlands of the UK Midlands or the crumbling middle classes of Detroit, Michigan (I speak with authority. My friend from the US read it and loved it). After all, who hasn’t stayed awake all night worrying about the unduly close relationship between the object of their desire and their best friend? And who hasn’t spent days of self-loathing convinced that all the ills of the world would be set right if only their skin was spot-free?
The modern day counterpart to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole is of course Jeff Kinney’s 2007 hit, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the window into the soul of middle schooler Greg Heffley. The stage may have been shifted to the US and the time moved on by 30 years but the issues are all too familiar. Through his diary we understand his character, warts-and-all. Greg is self-obsessed, lazy, supercilious, and duplicitous. Oh yes. It’s not pretty. There’s no hiding from yourself in a diary. A character’s faults are exposed for all to see. It’s as if Dorian Gray, instead of squirreling away his incriminating portrait in the attic, had left it on show on
the mantelpiece. Consider Wilde’s description of the portrait when corruption and cruelty has overtaken Gray:
“(He would examine) the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.”
This is what we see when we read a diary. The pages hold up a mirror to our psychology. There’s no Vaseline on the camera lens or Dynasty-style soft focus. There’s no filter. This is humanity at its worst. It’s the Dark Side in hard copy. Read it and weep.
And yet. It’s not ALL BAD. Yes, Greg and Adrian are arrogant and self-centred. We see for ourselves how they would sell their grannies if it meant they could make a quick buck. But they are also kind and loving, caring and selfless. Who can forget Adrian blinking back tears as he attends the funeral of his octogenarian friend’s wife? And Greg saving Rowley’s reputation by insisting to his classmates that he threw away the cheese contaminated with the dreaded ‘Cheese Touch’, rather than revealing it had actually been consumed by Rowley, therefore condemning him to social pariahdom forever.
This could account for the perennial appeal of the diary. The protagonists we read of are deeply flawed: cowardly, envious, spiteful, greedy – they share with us the traits we are taught to abhor, yet fester within us, emerging when we least expect it. Yet they are also selfless, loving, kind, affectionate - endowed with the qualities which make the world, and our lives, a happier place to be. Just like us, there’s two sides to their character. Just like us, they live in hope the Better Side will prevail.