by Irene and Alan Taylor
“There are few things quite as capable of inducing guilt as an empty diary.”
This dip-in doorstop sat tenaciously on my bedside table for many months waiting to catch me between much shorter and physically manageable books. I enjoyed reading a few entries each night before settling down to sleep, the only drawback being the sheer heavy weight of the damned thing – nodding off with it propped in front of my bespectacled face proved to be something of a hazard.
I’ve always taken pleasure in ‘eavesdropping’ on the private thoughts and opinions of creative people – not celebrity-types, I might add – but writers, artist and other engaging characters from the past. The Assassin’s Cloak, which is chock full of diary entries from the pens of esteemed and fascinating folk throughout history was, therefore, my ideal choice for bedtime reading.
As one would expect, the likes of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and Queen Victoria are included in this collection, but there are also figures such as Florence Farmborough, a young woman who went to Russia and became a Red Cross nurse at the Front for the duration of First World War; the Irish writer and film director, Neil Jordan; notorious ex-con Jimmy Boyle; and even Sam’s missus, Elizabeth Pepys.
There are entries for every day of the month and every month of the year, so if, for example, you turn to 2 April you will find extracts from the journals of Simone de Beauvoir (1947), Eleanor Coppola (1976), Andy Warhol (1980) and Alec Guinness (1996). To pick another random date, on 22 September you’ll discover Fanny Kemble (1832), Robert Louis Stevenson (1878), Harold Nicolson (1936) and so on.
In my copy, which was published in 2000 (and possibly in later editions, too), the diarist’s name is given at the end of each entry, making it something of a chore in a collection of this size (nearly 700 pages) to keep flipping ahead in order to establish the person’s identity. I found this mildly irritating as it was inclined to disrupt my concentration. Establishing authorship from the get-go would have been more practical.
If you are a keen reader of biographical works, there is every chance you will be familiar with the complete versions of some texts, but no matter, you can simply skip an entry and move on to the next. In any case, re-reading a few choice extracts from old favourites can be fun.
The Editors of this anthology, Irene and Alan Taylor, say that, “all human life is here, but not every diarist.” Apparently, some individuals were excluded for being “dull” (George Gissing, for example) and others because their diaries weren’t dated (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to name but one). Nevertheless, every extract has been thoughtfully selected for its wit or percipience.
I should re-emphasise that The Assassin’s Cloak is probably best consumed in bite-sized chunks, but you may well prefer to bolt it down in one. Either way, you’ll find it filled with risqué anecdotes, humorous stories, unintended hilarity and intriguing revelations.
“I saw the most extraordinary tricycle pass today. A bath chair made of wicker work in which reclined a smart lady, and behind, where one should push, a gentleman treadling, puffing and blowing and looking very sheepish. I wonder any one will make such an exhibition of themselves. How the bicycles swarm now, and yet a few years since, every one turned round to stare at a velocipede!”
— Beatrix Potter (21st February 1885)