Thursday, March 9, 2023

Sedaris gets the call

‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’ This is from the diaries of the American humorist, David Sedaris, who, exactly 30 years ago today, discovered he would finally be a published author.

Sedaris was born in Johnson City, New York, in 1956 to an IBM engineer of Greek heritage and his Anglo-American wife. He grew up in a suburban area of Raleigh, North Carolina with five siblings. He attended Western Carolina University and Kent State University before dropping out in 1977. After dabbling in visual and performance art, he moved to Chicago in 1983 and graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1987. While scraping a living from odd jobs (not least dressing up as a Christmas elf) he was invited by a local radio host, Ira Glass, to appear on a weekly programme, The Wild Room. This led on to a regular slot, edit by Glass, with National Public Radio. 

Sedaris moved to New York in 1991, and in 1993, he signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company. Many of his essays began appearing in main stream magazines, such Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Esquire. His first book - Barrel Fever - came out in 1994, and Naked followed in 1997. In 2001 he was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim came out in 2004. His recording of pieces from the book was nominated for a Grammy Award for best spoken-word album; and his Live at Carnegie Hall received a Grammy nomination for best comedy album. Further successful books followed, including a collection of entries from his diaries. His most recent publication was Happy-Go-Lucky in 2022. Since 2019, he has lived in Rackham, West Sussex, England, with his longtime partner, painter and set designer Hugh Hamrick. For further information see Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or his own website

Sedaris has been a committed diarist for most of his life, indeed his very first broadcasts were based on extracts from the diaries. In 2017, Little, Brown published a collection of edited extracts from the diaries: Theft by Finding Diaries: Volume One. The book can be sampled at Googlebooks and the full work can be digitally borrowed online at Internet Archive.

Here is part of Sedaris’s introduction explaining how and why he keeps a diary.

‘Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries. I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it. Given the exchange rate, the bill amounted to around $8.15, which, as my mother would have said, “Ain't nothing”. A few days later I met with my friend Pam in London. The subject of windfalls came up. and when I mentioned the money she asked if I’d spent it.

“Well, of course.” I said. 

“In the U.K. if you discover something of value and keep it. that’s theft by finding,’ she told me. “You’re supposed to investigate whether it was lost or stolen, though in this case - five pounds - of course you’re fine.’

Theft by Finding. It was, I thought, the perfect title for this book. When it comes to subject matter, all diarists are different I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change Other people’s feelings, though, that was a different story. Got a bone to pick with your stepmother or the manager of the place where you worked until yesterday? Please, let's talk! If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking. If only I was as civic minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward

After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case - knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. The me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated

What I prefer recording at the end - or, more recently, at the start - of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbor of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone - all jokes are - but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling. 

Another thing I noticed while going through my forty years of diaries is that many of the dates are wrong. For instance, there might be three October 1, 1982s This was most likely because I didn’t know what day it was. Time tends to melt and run together when you don’t have a job. In that prelaptop era, you had to consult a newspaper or calendar to find out if it was Wednesday the eighth or Thursday the ninth. This involved getting up, so more often than not, I’d just stay put and guess. Quite often I’d even get the month wrong.

It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day - around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I'll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull. I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.’

And here are several extracts from the diaries including those in which he writes about his first book deal, some three decades ago.

7 June 1987, Chicago
‘I dared myself to lean too hard against one of the living-room windows yesterday, and it broke and cut my elbow up. Later in the afternoon I took the empty frame to the hardware store, where they said it would cost $30 for new glass. That seemed exorbitant to me, so I was walking back home by way of the empty lot when an American Indian woman grabbed on to it, saying she’d been looking for a window frame just like this. “I need it,” she said. “Hand it over.” Her face was strikingly flat, and for a second all I could do was stare at it.

The woman was holding a beer bottle and put it down so she could grab my window frame with both hands. “Turn it loose,” she said, and the several drunk people behind her cheered her on. Then a man who was slightly less drunk told her to let it go. “Leave him alone, Cochise,” he said. “This here’s a working man.”

I haven’t worked in more than three weeks, but it was nice to be mistaken for someone with a job. Today I took the frame down a different street to the L, where I thought I’d try another hardware store. Right near the station a man asked me for money, and when I walked by he shouted, “Watch where you’re going with that thing, asshole! You almost killed that girl. You almost hit her with that window, you fucker.”

I said, “What?”

“You just about hit that baby, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget, you little fuck. You can’t get away from me.”

The guy was really beside himself, and I’m lucky I was so close to the ticket window. I worried he’d panhandle enough money to reach the platform before the train arrived, but luckily he didn’t. And what baby? I didn’t see any baby.

Why did I have to break that window, and on a dare, for God’s sake?’

13 February 1989, Chicago
‘Tonight at Barbara’s Bookstore, Tobias Wolff read from his new memoir, This Boy’s Life. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the floor in the front and tried to act normal. I was too shy to say anything when I got my book signed, afraid that if I started talking, everything inside me would just spill out.

He seemed like a kind person and wore a turtleneck, a plaid shirt, a tweed jacket, and jeans with black socks and running shoes. I have to be his biggest fan.’

12 July 1990, Chicago
‘For the third time this week, a man approached me and asked if he could have $1. He pointed to a van and said that it was his. “It broke down and if I don’t get to work, I’m in big trouble.”

Each time it’s a different guy, but it’s always the same van. A scam, obviously, but even if the story was true, who goes to work with no money in his pockets? What if you ran out of gas?

When I taught my night class in the Fine Arts Building, I was often asked for money by a woman who said she’d been robbed and needed to take a commuter train to one of the northern suburbs. Even the first time I saw her I thought, Really? You can’t call a friend or a family member? You’re honestly going to hit up total strangers for your fare? Like the men with the van, she was always well dressed and acting frantic.’

16 October 1991, New York
‘Amy and I walked up 8th Avenue to Intermezzo, where Hugh and his friend Sue were having lunch. “Here you are!” Amy shouted. “Just what do you think you’re doing? You can’t afford to be eating here, not when I’ve got a five-month-old baby waiting in the car. And wine too! You’re drinking wine! I hate being your sponsor, I really do.” Everyone stared and Hugh turned bright red.

Afterward I went to Macy’s, where I filled out umpteen forms, peed into a jar, and had my eyes tested. This year, as a returning elf. I’ll make $9 an hour. Regular Christmas help gets only $6.’

16 January 1993, New York
‘Helen’s forty-two-year-old nephew was a public-school teacher and today he died of AIDS. I said I was sorry to hear it and Helen said, “The bastard. Thought he was Mr. Big because he had an education, but where’s him and his college degree now? In the ground, that’s where. The last time I saw him, I called out, ‘Tommy!’ but he kept on walking. I say, ‘Fuck you, Mr. Smart.’ Yeah, we all know how smart he was now.” ’

24 February 1993, New York
‘This was an amazing New York day. In the morning I met with Geoff Kloske, the editorial assistant from Little, Brown who called a few weeks back to ask if he could read my manuscript. He’s only twenty-three, a kid, and has a grandmother in Jacksonville, North Carolina. We had coffee and afterward he took me to meet his boss, Roger, a big, good-looking chain-smoker who said that he, too, liked my manuscript and hopes to get back to me within a week or two.

Afterward I went to our play rehearsal (for Stump the Host). We open a week from tomorrow.’

8 March 1993, New York
‘The night before the play opened (at La MaMa), William dropped out, saying he wasn’t having much fun. “And if it’s no fun, why bother?”

I spent some time panicking and then decided to take the part myself, seeing as I know the lines. So I performed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Opening night we had fourteen people in the audience. On Friday, there were forty, and on Saturday we were sold out. Meryl has extended our run, and thankfully Paul Dinello has agreed to take over my part. Hugh and Amy say, “Oh, you know you love being onstage.” But they’re wrong. I don’t. Not like that, anyway.’

9 March 1993, New York
‘Roger Donald called from Little, Brown to say that he would like to negotiate a two-book deal. To celebrate, I bought a denim shirt, and thought it amazing how quickly one’s life can change. I never thought I’d want a denim shirt.’

13 March 1993, New York
‘I met on Thursday afternoon with Don Congdon, the agent Roger Donald recommended. He proposed lunch and took me to Le Madri, an Italian place near his office and the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in New York. Don is in his late seventies and was very elegantly dressed. A fine suit, a Pucci tie, a topcoat, even a black beret. The maître d’ knew him. “Right this way, Mr. Congdon.”

Our waiter poured olive oil onto a plate and then gave us bread, which I guessed we were supposed to dip into it. I had thinly carved steak arranged into a turban with grilled radicchio and endive. Don had pasta that he didn’t finish.

While eating, I learned that he represents William Styron, Russell Baker, Ellen Gilchrist, and Thomas Berger. He represented Lillian Hellman for a production of The Little Foxes in, I think, Russia, and Frank O’Connor. He told stories about wandering through the Village with J. D. Salinger, whom he called Jerry, and recounted the night the two of them went to hear Billie Holiday. I heard of the time Don was arrested by the vice squad during Prohibition, and then something about Dashiell Hammett. The problem was that it was all about the past. That said, I liked his language, especially his old-fashioned slang.’

30 April 1993, New York
‘Between cleaning jobs, I bought a coffee and sat in Union Square Park to read for a while. The benches there are sectioned off with armrests - this to prevent people from stretching out and sleeping, I imagine. I’d just lit a cigarette when a guy approached - wiry, around my age, wearing soiled white jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. His hair fell to his shoulders, he had a sketchy mustache, and he was carrying a paper bag. Ex-convict, I thought. It was a snap assessment, but I’m sticking by it.

The guy asked for a cigarette, and when I handed him one, he took it without thanking me. Then he pointed to my bag of cleaning supplies, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and said, “I’m going to sit down there.”

There were plenty of other benches, so I said no.

“Goddamn it,” he said. “I told you to move your fucking shit.”

I got up and left, knowing that if I hadn’t moved my bag, he would have thrown it. If, on the other hand, I had moved it, he would have sat beside me and continued asking for things. All afternoon I thought about it and wished that I knew how to fight.’

8 January 1994, New York
Stitches (our play) opened Thursday night to an audience of fifty. La MaMa can squeeze in 120, so this wasn’t so bad. Friday was sold out, as was tonight. The Times came last night; tonight it was Newsday and the Voice. I want to tell them we were just joking. It’s not a real play, it’s what comes from doodling while you’re holding a bong. Whatever they have to say, it’s out of my control now and in the hands of the actors. My job is to play the host and greet people at the door as they enter.’

27 December 1994, New York
‘Christmas afternoon. Dad pulled out his film projector and a half dozen Super 8 movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s. I recall him standing in front of us with the camera back then, but, like the photos he takes of us on the stairs every year, I never knew what became of them. Two friends of Lisa’s had dropped by, and though nothing could be duller than watching someone else’s home movies, none of us cared. The moment we saw Mom, we forgot about our guests. They mumbled something on their way out - “Merry Christmas,” or maybe “Your kitchen is on fire,” whatever.

I never knew my mother had been captured on film moving. The first reel was from St. John in 1972. Mom Dad, Aunt Joyce, and Uncle Dick. We see the island. Boats. More island. More boats, and then there’s Mom, who waves good-bye before ducking into a thatched hut. Then the camera is handed to someone else, and we see Dad pull her out. He is young and handsome - he is always handsome. When he points at the camera. Mom buries her head in his chest. Then he lifts her chin and they kiss.

Watching this, Dad stomped his foot on the floor, the way you might if you just missed the bus and knew that another wasn’t coming for a long while. He rewound the film and replayed it a second time, then a third.

“Again,” we called. “Play it again.” To see them both on an island, so young and happy. I couldn’t believe our luck: to have this on film!’

28 August 2002, Paris
‘Shannon called to tell me I’m at number nine. This makes fifty-two weeks - a year on the Times paperback list. While she was very excited and congratulatory, the news left me slightly embarrassed, the way you feel when you’ve stayed too long at the party and notice your hosts looking at their watches. The hosts, in this case, are all the superior writers whose books haven’t sold more than a few thousand copies. On the bright side, I think I can write something much better than Me Talk Pretty. And if it fails and no one buys it, I can really feel good about myself.’

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

A dignified Speaker

John Evelyn Denison, Viscount Ossington, died a century and a half ago today. He was an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he held the office of Speaker in the House of Commons and kept a diary record of his 14 years in the post. Often dry and procedural, the diary comes alive when Denison writes about his own decisions being praised by others, not least the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Denison also hands down occasional pearls of wisdom such as when the House was unexpectedly in a ‘a touchy, irritable state’ - ‘such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

Denison was born in 1800 at Ossington, Nottinghamshire, the eldest son of a wool merchant. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1820 on the death of his father inherited the Ossington estates with much land. He was said to be a progressive landlord, interested in agricultural improvements; and, later, he was president of the Royal Agricultural Society. In 1823, he became a Whig MP, and in 1827, he married Charlotte, daughter of William, Duke of Portland, but they had no children.

Throughout his life, Denison sat in Parliament for various constituencies, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hastings, South and North Nottinghamshire, and Malton. In 1857, he was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he retained until 1872, when he resigned and was created Viscount Ossington. He died a few months later, on 7 March 1873. A little further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Nottingham University’s website for manuscripts and special collections.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (log-in required) on Denison says he was fairly well regarded as speaker: ‘A consolidator rather than an innovator (he prevented, for example, the introduction of printed notice of questions to ministers), he none the less defended the financial rights of the Commons against the Lords, deploring the latter’s action in rejecting the bill of 1860 repealing the paper duty, and opposing the Lords’ introduction of a financial provision into a divorce bill. The tories in 1862 hoped he might be encouraged to retire and be replaced by Spencer Walpole. Denison was the last speaker to speak and vote in committee, and he voted against the government on the budget on 9 June 1870. He was a dignified speaker but was thought by contemporaries sometimes lacking in firmness.’

For the 14 years that he held the post of Speaker, Denison kept a diary record of his duties and decisions. This journal was found in a box many years later. Considered initially too technical for public interest, it was only printed for private circulation. However, in 1900, John Murray decided it might sell to a wider audience and so published it as Notes from My Journal when Speaker of the House of Commons. This edition is freely available at Internet Archive.

The published diary is often dense with the detail of Parliamentary procedure, nevertheless Denison did a fair job of keeping it interesting with lucid explanations of issues that were, perhaps, out of the ordinary or worth setting down. And though he must have meant it to be a dry and official record, Denison does sometimes write about his personal feelings, especially when others have praised him for decisions! Here are several extracts.

30 April 1862
‘I have been named by the Queen as one of the Commissioners to represent Her Majesty on the occasion of opening the International Exhibition. I wrote to Lord Eversley to ask him how I should go dressed on such an occasion. He answered, in plain black gown and wig. I forwarded this opinion to the Lord Chancellor, who repelled the idea in a very amusing letter, and said he had settled to go in his gold gown; he saw no necessary connection between the gold gown and the gold coach. I have decided against the lumbering gold coach for many reasons: 1) I should probably stick fast in the new granite; 2) I should have to go at a foot’s pace while in company with others who could and would trot; 3) I could not bear to drag all the officers of the House and my servants on foot such a long distance. I am not going to Court to pay my respects to the Queen; I am not going with the House of Commons as a body, and at their head.’

1 May 1862
‘The opening of the International Exhibition took place this day at one o’clock. The House of Commons adjourned from Wednesday to six o’clock on Thursday to allow the attendance of the Ministers, of myself, and of the members generally at the ceremony. I had decided to go in my gold gown, but not in the lumbering gold coach. I borrowed a good London coach of Lord Chesham. I put my coachman and two footmen in their State liveries. I added good cloths, and bows of ribbon to my horses’ furniture.

At twelve, I set off to Buckingham Palace, taking Lord Charles Russell and the mace and my trainbearer in the coach. Arrived at Buckingham Palace they desired me to drive forward near the gate, as I was to lead the procession. Royal processions move in the inverse order of precedency, the lowest in rank going first. So my carriage was first, then Lord Palmerston, then Lord Derby, I think, Lord Sydney, the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince Oscar of Sweden, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Duke of Cambridge.

We were not ready till a quarter to one. We were to be at the Exhibition Buildings at one. I led the way at a fair trot. (Where should I have been in my gold coach - leading the way at a foot’s pace?)

We arrived at the building at one. The rest of the procession was arranged in the building, waiting for the Royal Commissioners to complete the line. I was to walk first (as I had led the way in my carriage). Lord Palmerston was desired to walk by my side. He said: “No, the Speaker should walk alone; I will follow”. I said: “Of course, as you please, but I should think it a great honour if we might proceed together”. Lord Palmerston said: “Oh, if you wish it, certainly”. [. . .]

As we walked along I could gauge the popularity of Lord Palmerston. The moment he came in sight, throughout the whole building, men and women, young and old, at once were struck as by an electric shock. “Lord Palmerston! Here is Lord Palmerston! Bravo! Hurrah! Lord Palmerston for ever!” And so it went on through the whole building. One voice: “I wish you may be Minister for the next twenty years”. “ Well, not unlikely,” said Lord Taunton, “he would only be a little more than a hundred.” ’

10 March 1863
‘We went in a special train from Paddington to Windsor, leaving 10:30, and being an hour on the road. Carriages were ready to take us to the chapel. Lady C posted down in her own carriage, leaving 8:30, reaching St. George’s Chapel at a quarter past eleven; she escaped much cold and draughts by this, and greatly preferred it. I went in my black velvet suit. The Lord Chamberlain said that was the proper dress. He told this to the Lord Chancellor, who, however, would go in his gold gown and his wig. The Lord Chamberlain said: We had no function to perform; we had no part to play in the ceremony, we were invited guests like others. I followed the advice of the Lord Chamberlain; the Lord Chancellor went in his gold gown. The seat allotted to me was the dean’s seat, close by the door. It was a very magnificent sight - rich, gorgeous and imposing. I don’t know how I could say enough about the magnificence of the spectacle. The pageant was admirably got up, and was well performed throughout. Beautiful women were arrayed in the richest attire, in bright colours, blue, purple, red, and covered with diamonds and jewels. Grandmothers looked beautiful: Lady Abercom, Lady Westminster, Lady Shaftesbury. Among the young, Lady Spencer, Lady Castlereagh, Lady Carmarthen, were most bright and brilliant. The Knights of the Garter in their robes looked each of them a fine picture - Lord Russell looked like a hero who could have walked into the castle court and have slain a giant. The Queen sat in her closet on the left hand side of the altar, looking up the chapel and high above it. But she did not affect any concealment. She looked constantly out of the window of her closet and sometimes leaned over, with her body half out of the window, to take a survey down the church. She was dressed in plain black up to the throat, with the blue ribbon over her shoulder, and a sort of plain mob cap.

As each of the royal persons with their attendants walked up the chapel, at a certain point each stopped and made an obeisance to the Queen: the Princess Mary, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess of Prussia, the Princess Alice of Hesse, the Princess Helena, the Princess Christian, etc.: each in turn formed a complete scene. The Princess Alexandra with her bridesmaids made the last and the most beautiful scene. The Princess looked beautiful, and very graceful in her manner and demeanour. When her eyes are cast down she has a wonderful power of flashing a kind of sidelong look.’

4 June 1863
‘Mr. Tollemache wishing to make a personal explanation as to some observations of Mr. Gladstone’s about the Committee on the Holyhead packet - Then rose Colonel Douglas Pennant - Mr. Gladstone explained - Then rose Mr. H. Herbert - I had to interfere. Mr. Herbert moved that the House do adjourn. Then Mr. Hennessey spoke, all attacking Mr. Gladstone - I had again to interfere. Then Lord Robert Cecil tried to get a stronger expression from me about Mr. Gladstone’s words, but without success. The whole thing was verging on great irregularity, reference to past debates, etc. Still a personal explanation could hardly be permitted, and so the thing grew in dimensions, always growing more irregular as it went on.

The House was in a touchy, irritable state; the slightest step on my part might have raised a storm. It was a flare up all in a moment. But such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

26 July 1866 [The Reform League had been established a year earlier to press for manhood suffrage and the ballot in Great Britain. It campaigned unsuccessfully for the Reform Bill in 1866, and successfully for the Rerform Act in 1867. This diary entry is dated three days after the so-called ‘Hyde Park Railings Affair’.]
‘Great anxiety prevailed about the condition of things between the Secretary of State, Mr. Walpole, and the Reform League. The parks had been invaded, the iron railings torn down. There had been an interview between Mr. Beales, the Chairman of the League, and Mr. Walpole, and Mr. Beales had posted placards to say that Mr. Walpole had given way, and that a meeting would be held in the park on Monday. There was a feeling that Mr. Walpole had displayed great weakness.

At the morning sitting of Thursday, 26th July, Mr. Disraeli came to me and spoke of the state of affairs, and asked me what I thought of an Address to the Crown, asking the Crown to grant the use of the park for the purposes of general recreation, but not for meetings on political or religious subjects. I said that on the first blush such a course seemed to me to be open to the greatest objection. Mr. Walpole had spoken positively as to the law of the case, without doubt or reservation. Sir George Grey had concurred with him, and had supported him. The House accepted the statement without question. They had therefore already all they could obtain by a fresh answer from the Crown to an Address. To show hesitation or doubt at such a moment would be ruinous. It would justify doubt on the other side, and so give colour to the pretensions of the League. To open the question by an Address to the Crown would bring forth stormy remonstrances from the Radicals, and counter propositions.

I urged the Government to stand firmly on the ground that had been taken. All that the public required was a show of firmness on the part of the Government; at present an impression prevailed that great weakness had been exhibited.

The Government stood to their declarations, and there was a satisfactory debate in the House of Commons in the evening. I congratulated Mr. Disraeli on the result. He said to me: “It has turned out very well. I followed your advice exactly.” ’

This article is a slight revised version of one first published on 7 March 1873.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Acted Macbeth very unequally

‘I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us.’ This is the great British actor, William Macready, born 230 years ago today, writing in his diary about a performance of Macbeth in New York. During the show more than 20 people died in a riot caused by the rivalry between Macready and another Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest.

Macready was born on 3 March 1793 into a theatrical family, and educated at Rugby. Although he intended to go to Oxford, he joined his father’s ailing company, appearing as Romeo when only 17. Soon, though, he fell out with his father, went to Bath for two years, and then, in 1816, made his debut on the London stage as Orestes in Racine’s The Distressed Mother. His stature as an actor developed with leading roles such as Rob Roy, Richard III and William Tell. In 1826, he married Catherine Atkins, and they had two children who survived into adulthood.

Subsequently, in the late 1830s, Macready became manager of Covent Garden, and, in the 1840s, of Drury Lane. He was an important person in the development of the theatre, insisting on rehearsals, accurate costumes and appropriate sets. He also sought to employ original texts in his revivals of Shakespeare’s plays. Macready made several trips to the US. During the final one of these, in 1849, a longstanding dispute with the US actor Edwin Forrest erupted and caused a riot - in which at least 25 were killed - at the Astor Place Theatre.

Macready retired after a performance of Macbeth at Drury Lane in February 1851. His wife died the following year, and he remarried in 1860. His second wife, Cecile Louise Frederica Spencer, gave him one more son, Nevil. Macready himself died in 1873. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (with login), or many out-of-copyright biographies available at Internet Archive: Macready’s Reminiscences and Selections from His Diaries and Letters edited by Sir Frederick Pollock; A life of William Charles Macready by W. T. Price; Macready as I Knew Him by Lady Pollock; and William Charles Macready by William Archer.

Macready was a meticulous and interesting diarist, and kept a journal for much of his working life. Carefully selected parts of this were published soon after his death, in the volumes edited by Sir Frederick Pollock, as mentioned above. A fuller edition of Macready’s diaries was edited by William Toynbee and published in 1912 by Chapman and Hall in two volumes - these too are available at Internet Archive, and are the source of the extracts below. A further edition of the diaries came out in 1967, edited by J. C. Trewin - The Journal of William Charles Macready, 1832-1851- and published by Longmans. Much of this book can be read at Googlebooks.

However, this most recent edition was based almost entirely on the earlier published diaries, since the original manuscripts were destroyed by Nevil Macready. His daughter, Mrs Lisa Puckle, is quoted in the Trewin edition as saying ‘I can speak definitively on this, as . . . my father destroyed the diaries, and I helped him in case they should fall into the wrong hands. My grandfather wrote very freely at times.’ Trewin’s edition does, though, benefit from the addition of 64 manuscript diary pages, written during Macready’s second tour to the US, that were discovered in 1960. ‘Despite its incompleteness,’ the ODNB concludes, ‘Macready’s diary constitutes a major resource, not only for the author’s life and career, but also for the theatrical and cultural world of his day’.

Macready’s diaries have already featured in The Diary Review, in an article to celebrate Dickens’ bicentenary. Here are several more extracts. The penultimate and very long one below was written following Macready’s performance of Macbeth at the Astor Palace in New York on 10 May 1849. Wikipedia says this about the so-called Astor Place Riot. ‘The riot - which left at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured - marked the first time a state militia had been called out and had shot into a crowd of citizens, and it led to the creation of the first police force armed with deadly weapons, yet its genesis was a dispute between Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known American actors of that time, and William Charles Macready, a similarly notable English actor, which largely revolved around which of them was better than the other at acting the major roles of Shakespeare.’ For more on this see a New York Times review of the 1912 edition of Macready’s diaries.

2 January 1833
‘My performance this evening of Macbeth afforded me a striking evidence of the necessity there is for thinking over my characters previous to playing, and establishing, by practice if necessary, the particular modes of each scene and important passage. I acted with much energy, but could not (as I sometimes can, when holding the audience in wrapt attention) listen to my own voice, and feel the truth of its tones. It was crude, and uncertain, though spirited and earnest; but much thought is yet required to give an even energy and finished style to all the great scenes of the play, except perhaps the last, which is among the best things I am capable of. Knowles is ravished with his own acting, and the supposed support it has met with. I wish I was with mine.’

3 January 1833
‘Went home to breakfast. Spent an idle, but in all other respects a happy day. A well-spent day is pleasing while it lasts, and pleasant to remember when for ever gone; a day of mere pleasure is agreeable in its passage, but regret attends its close in the reflection that time which God has given for employment has been squandered, or lost in idleness. Compunction is injurious if unproductive of improvement; let my revision of this day enable me to be more resolute in my resistance of future temptations, and teach me for my own and my children’s good the necessity of blending activity with enjoyment. In my absence from home I am sometimes inclined to question the prudence of living so far from town; but when, on reaching home, I taste the fresh air of the country, look over its extent of prospect, feel in a manner the free range of thought and sense through the expanse of earth and sky surrounding me, I confess to myself, in the delightful sensations I experience, that such enjoyment is worth some sacrifice.

3 March 1833
‘I am forty years of age! Need I add one word to the solemn reproof conveyed in these, when I reflect on what I am, and what I have done? What has my life been? a betrayal of a great trust, an abuse of great abilities! This morning, as I began to dress, I almost started when it occurred to me that it was my birthday.

Last night I began reading parts of Faublas [by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai], and, as is my custom with novels, sat up late and continued it in bed until half-past five this morning. I rose late, and was shocked and ashamed to think that I had wasted, or rather misused, so much precious time over such immoral, irrational and debasing stuff.’

18 January 1836
‘Went to rehearsal at eleven o’clock; was kept waiting for some time; found things in a decent state, but the Lady Macbeth bad beyond all former out-doings - detestable! Heard of Mr Woulds’ ill success, and his reflections upon the public from the stage in consequence! Mr Denvil, who was my Macduff with a pair of well-grown moustaches, told me of his having pitched Mr Elliot, a pantomimist, from a height of eighteen feet, in which the pitched Elliot gloried to that degree that he even suffered pain from the surmise that some of the audience might suppose it was a dummy that was thrown. Now, what is ambition in the pleasure its success conveys? Was the Duke of Wellington more inwardly gratified after a victory than this man would be if three or four rounds of applause were to follow him into the black hole into which Mr Denvil or any other person might pitch him? Gloria mundi! Proceeded to the theatre. The house was very fair, and I tried to act with the millstone of Lady Macbeth round my neck. Oh! - Muses! I acted Macbeth very unequally - some parts I thought I did very well; the scene before the banquet and the melancholy of the fifth act particularly. I should, however, say that it was not sustained.’

19 January 1836
‘Acted Hamlet. Oh, how unlike my London performances! The best thing in the play was the grave scene; I played it well, the rest was effort and not good. Still worse, I was morose and ill-tempered. Fie! fie! shall I never outlive my folly and my vice? I fear not.’

2 December 1836
‘Acted Othello with earnestness and spirit, but occasionally weak as to physical power; very much applauded, and in possession of the audience; heard that Mrs Butler was in the theatre before the fifth act, and from a feeling of pique which I cannot altogether account for, except that I thought her an impostor in the art, took particular pains with the last scene, and played it very powerfully; was much applauded, and heard a call begun for me as I left the stage. The prompter came to my room for me, but when I reached the stage I heard that Mr Kemble (!) had gone on; this was too good, so I observed that they would no doubt be quiet, and returned. This was either a most extraordinary freak in the audience, or a most consummate piece of Jesuitical impertinence in him - to make something of himself before his daughter. I was not very pleased, but showed no feeling about it.’

11 July 1842
‘Went in a gig to Brighton; the morning made the drive over the downs, through Seaford and Newhaven, very pleasant. Where is beauty wanting in this world, if we do but choose to see it? Waited an hour and a quarter for the railway train at Brighton, reading Philip Van Artevelde, the first part of which I finished before I reached London. Went over to the Bank and received my dividends, from which the Income Tax was deducted. Bear on, ye free people, enslaved to the worst cant that ever stultified mankind.’

24 July 1845
‘Went to Brighton by railroad; saw that disgusting person, Mr ___, a disgusting member of a disgusting family - one who belongs to “the order” of “noble by convention”; pah! Read on my whole journey to Eastbourne Carlyle’s Life of Schiller - some contrast both in the character of the biographer and of the subject of his description to these elegant specimens of the man-made aristocracy. Delighted with the book - excited by the author and deeply interested in the character and fate of Schiller. Came on in a fly to Eastbourne.’

10 May 1849
‘I went, gaily, I may say, to the theatre, and on my way, looking down Astor Place, saw one of the Harlem cars on the railroad stop and discharge a full load of policemen; there seemed to be others at the door of the theatre. I observed to myself, “This is good precaution.” I went to my dressing-room, and proceeded with the evening’s business. The hairdresser was very late and my equanimity was disturbed. I was ruffled and nervous from fear of being late, but soon composed myself. The managers were delaying the beginning, and I was unwilling to be behind the exact hour.

The play began; there was some applause to Mr Clarke (I write of what I could hear in my room below). I was called, and at my cue went on with full assurance, confidence, and cheerfulness. My reception was very enthusiastic, but I soon discovered that there was opposition, though less numerously manned than on Monday. I went right on when I found that it would not instantly be quelled, looking at the wretched creatures in the parquette, who shook their fists violently at me, and called out to me in savage fury. I laughed at them, pointing them out with my truncheon to the police, who, I feared, were about to repeat the inertness of the previous evening. A black board with white letters was leaned against the side of the proscenium: “The friends of order will remain silent.” This had some effect in making the rioters more conspicuous.

My first, second, third scenes passed over rapidly and unheard; at the end of the fourth one of the officers gave a signal, the police rushed in at the two sides of the parquette, closed in upon the scoundrels occupying the centre seats and furiously vociferating and gesticulating, and seemed to lift them or bundle them in a body out of the centre of the house, amid the cheers of the audience. I was in the act of making my exit with Lady Macbeth, and stopped to witness this clever manoeuvre, which, like a coup de main, swept the place clear at once. As well as I can remember the bombardment outside now began. Stones were hurled against the windows in Eighth Street, smashing many; the work of destruction became then more systematic; the volleys of stones flew without intermission, battering and smashing all before them; the Gallery and Upper Gallery still kept up the din within, aided by the crashing of glass and boarding without.

The second act passed, the noise and violence without increasing, the contest within becoming feebler. Mr Povey, as I was going to my raised seat in the banquet scene, came up to me and, in an undertone and much frightened, urged me to cut out some part of the play and bring it to a close. I turned round upon him very sharply, and said that “I had consented to do this thing - to place myself here, and whatever the consequence I must go through with it - it must be done; that I could not cut out. The audience had paid for so much, and the law compelled me to give it; they would have cause for riot if all were not properly done.” I was angry, and spoke very sharply to the above effect. The banquet scene was partially heard and applauded. I went down to change my dress, the battering at the building, doors, and windows growing, like the fiends at the Old Woman of Berkely’s burial, louder and louder. Water was running down fast from the ceiling to the floor of my room and making a pool there. I inquired; the stones hurled in had broken some of the pipes.

The fourth act passed; louder and more fierce waxed the furious noises against the building and from without; for whenever a missile did effectual mischief in its discharge it was hailed with shouts outside; stones came in through the windows, and one struck the chandelier; the audience removed for protection behind the walls; the house was considerably thinned, gaps of unoccupied seats appearing in the audience part. The fifth act was heard, and in the very spirit of resistance I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us. The death of Macbeth was loudly cheered, and on being lifted up and told that I was called, I went on, and, with action earnestly and most emphatically expressive of my sympathy with them and my feelings of gratefulness to them, I quitted the New York stage amid the acclamations of those before me.

Going to my room I began without loss of time to undress, but with no feeling of fear or apprehension. When washed and half dressed, persons came into my room - consternation on the faces of some; fear, anxiety, and distress on those of others. “The mob were getting stronger; why were not the military sent for?” “They were here.” “Where? Why did they not act?” “They were not here; they were drawn up in the Bowery.” “Of what use were they there?” Other arrivals. “The military had come upon the ground.” “Why did they not disperse the mob then?” These questions and answers, with many others, were passed to and fro among the persons round me whilst I was finishing my hasty toilet, I occasionally putting in a question or remark.

Suddenly we heard a volley of musketry: “Hark! what’s that?” I asked. “The soldiers have fired.” “My God!” I exclaimed. Another volley, and another! The question among those surrounding me [. . .] was, which way was I to go out? News came that several were killed; I was really insensible to the degree of danger in which I stood, and saw at once - there being no avoidance - there was nothing for it but to meet the worst with dignity, and so I stood prepared. They sent some one to reconnoitre, and urged the necessity of a change in my appearance. I was confident that people did not know my person, and repeated this belief. They overbore all objections, and took the drab surtout of the performer of Malcolm, he taking my black one; they insisted, too, that I must not wear my hat; I said, “Very well; lend me a cap.” Mr Sefton gave me his, which was cut all up the back to go upon my head. Thus equipped I went out, following Robert Emmett to the stage door; here we were stopped, not being allowed to pass.

The “friend” was to follow us as a sort of aide, but we soon lost him. We crossed the stage, descended into the orchestra, got over into the parquette, and passing into the centre passage went along with the thin stream of the audience moving out. We went right on, down the flight of stairs and out of the door into Eighth Street. All was clear in front - kept so by two cordons or lines of police at either end of the building stretched right across. We passed the line near Broadway, and went on threading the excited crowd, twice or three times muttering in Emmett’s ear, “You are walking too fast.” We crossed Broadway, still through a scattered crowd, and walked on along Clinton Place till we passed the street leading down to the New York Hotel. I then said, “Are you going to your own house?” “Yes.” We reached it, and having opened the door with a latch-key, closing it after us, he said, “You are safe here; no one will know anything about you; you shall have a bed in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and you may depend upon all in this house.”

I sat down in the drawing-room, talking of the facts about us, and wondering at myself and my condition, secretly preparing myself for the worst result, viz., falling into the hands of those sanguinary ruffians. A son of Emmett’s was there, Robert; in about a quarter of an hour Colden came in. Several men had been killed, how many not certainly known yet. “You must leave the city at once; you must not stay here!” It was then a consultation between these excellent friends, I putting in an occasional opinion objecting or suggesting upon the safest course to pursue. At length it was decided, and Robert was sent out to find Richard, another son, probably at the Racket Club, to put the plan in execution. He was met by Robert in the street, and both returned with additional reports; the crowd was still there, the excitement still active. Richard was sent to the livery stable to order a carriage and good pair of horses to be at Emmett’s door at four o’clock in the morning, “to take a doctor to some gentleman’s house near New Rochelle.” This was done and well done by him; Colden and Emmett went out to reconnoitre, and they had, as I learned from Emmett, gone to the New York hotel, at the door of which was still a knot of watchers, and to Emmett’s inquiries told him, if any threats were made, to allow a committee of the crowd to enter and search the house for me. Emmett returned with my own hat, one from the hotel, and I had got Colden’s coat. An omnibus drove furiously down the street, followed by a shouting crowd. We asked Richard, when he came in, what it was; he said, “Merely an omnibus,” but next morning he told me that he asked the men pursuing, “What was the matter?” and one answered, “Macready’s in that omnibus; they’ve killed twenty of us, and by G we’ll kill him!”

Well, all was settled; it was believed that twenty had perished. Robert went to bed to his wife. Emmett went upstairs to lie down, which I declined to do, and with Richard went down into the comfortable office below before a good fire and, by the help of a cigar, to count the slow hours till four o’clock. We talked and he dozed, and I listened to the sounds of the night, and thought of home, and what would be the anguish of hearts there if I fell in this brutal outbreak; but I resolved to do what was right and becoming. The clock struck four; we were on the move; Emmett came down; sent Richard to look after the carriage. All was still in the dawn of morning, but we waited some ten minutes - an age of suspense - the carriage arrived. I shook the hand of my preserver and friend - my heart responded to my parting prayer of “God bless him” - and stepping into the carriage, a covered phaeton, we turned up Fifth Avenue, and were on our way to safety. Thank God. During some of the time of waiting I had felt depressed and rather low, but I believe I showed no fear, and felt determined to do my duty, whatever it might be, acting or suffering. We met only market carts, butchers’ or gardeners’, and labourers going to their early work; the morning was clear and fresh, and the air was cooling to my forehead, hot and aching with want of sleep. The scenery through which we passed, crossing the Manhattan, giving views of the various inlets of the sound, diversified with gentlemen’s seats, at any other time would have excited an interest in me, now one’s thought or series of thoughts, with wanderings to home and my beloved ones, gave me no time for passing objects. I thought as we passed Harlem Station, it would never have done to have ventured there. Some of the places on the road were familiar to my recollection, having been known under happier circumstances.’

15 May 1849
‘Read the telegraphic verdict on the killed: “That the deceased persons came to their deaths by gun-shot wounds, the guns being fired by the military, by order of the civil authorities of New York and that the authorities were justified, under the existing circumstances, in ordering the military to fire upon the mob; and we further believe that if a larger number of policemen had been ordered out, the necessity of a resort to the use of the military might have been avoided.” ’

This article is a slight revised version of one first published on 3 March 2013.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

In celebration of Pepys

It’s Samuel Pepys’s birthday, his 390th. For a decade or so in the early part of his career - which would see him become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty - he kept a diary so brilliant that it would become one of the most important and famous of all diaries. With meticulous detail and literary skill, he recorded everything in his life, from the tragic to the comic, from grand affairs of state to the frailties of his own character. Moreover, in the diary, he left behind an immensely important account of the Restoration period in English history, as well as first-hand accounts of many major events, not least the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London,and the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Pepys is to diaries what Shakespeare is to plays.

Pepys was born in London on 23 February 1633 above a shop, near Fleet Street, where his father provided a tailoring service for lawyers. He was schooled in Huntingdon at first, and at St Paul’s, London, and then was able to study at Cambridge University thanks to various scholarships and grants. In 1655, he entered the household of a relation, Sir Edward Montagu, and the same year married Elisabeth de St Michel, a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants, who was only 14 at the time. She would die young, in 1669, without having had children.

In 1658, Pepys moved to live in Axe Yard, near where the modern Downing Street is located, and underwent a painful and difficult operation to remove a large bladder stone.  Two years later, Montagu, by then an admiral, promoted him to secretary. In May the same year, he sailed with Montagu’s fleet to the Netherlands to bring Charles II back from exile. Pepys continued to rise in importance with Montagu’s success. When the Second Anglo-Dutch War dominated foreign affairs in the mid-1660s, Pepys proved himself an indefatigable and skilled administrator. However, in the years after the war, Navy Board practices, and Pepys himself, came under considerable and critical scrutiny. A virtuoso performance by Pepys in Parliament in March 1668 helped his cause, and, ultimately, the support of Charles II helped him keep his job.

In 1673, Pepys first became a Member of Parliament. He fell out of a favour for a few years in the late 1670s for allegedly betraying naval secrets, but the charges proved to have been fabricated, and by 1684 had been appointed King’s Secretary for the affairs of the Admiralty, a post he retained after the accession of James II. He was again an MP in the latter half of 1680s. For two years, starting in 1684, he was president of the Royal Society, a period in which Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. With the deposing of James II and the subsequent succession of Mary II and her husband William of Orange, Pepys was again accused of political plots and imprisoned briefly. He never returned to public life, and died at his house in Clapham in 1703. Further information is available at Wikipedia, a virtual exhibition at the Magdalene College website, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Pepys left his vast library to Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where the 3,000 tomes are shelved in his own bookcases in a building named after him. Though containing many important volumes, the most important by far are the six of Pepys diary. He started writing on New Year’s Day 1660, when still poor, without apparent prospects, and without having anything significant to write about. One of his modern biographers, Claire Tomalin (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Viking), looks carefully at why he did this, suggesting possible reasons: his employers kept journals, he wished to give himself a serious task, he was a passionate reader and cared for good writing, he was aware of the high political and religious drama going on around him, and he was unrepentantly curious about himself. He stopped writing his diary in May 1669, fearing the activity was having a negative impact on his deteriorating eyesight.

Written in a shorthand code, with a meticulous hand (as beautiful as pieces of embroidery, for Tomalin) Pepys’s diaries were not deciphered or published until the 1820s. A second transcription of the original diaries was completed in 1875 by Mynors Bright and various published editions followed, some more complete than others. Even the most complete, though, omitted some passages which the editors thought ‘cannot possibly be printed’. The same editors do not explain but simply ask the reader to have faith in them. Some of these editions are freely available today on the internet - such as The Diary of Samuel Pepys website run by Phil Gyford, which also has a Pepys encyclopaedia, in-depth essays, and a lively forum for debate on all things Pepys. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that Robert Latham and William Matthews transcribed and edited the complete diary for publication in nine volumes published by Bell & Hyman, London, and the University of California Press, Berkeley.

At least seven Diary Review articles have been based on Pepys’s diary:
Pepys on Sir Edward Hyde (historian, statesman and grandfather to two queens)
Mistress of the bedchamber (Barbara Palmer, the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses)
1st Duke of Albemarle (a soldier and a key player in the restoration of Charles II)
John Blow’s bad singing (an English organist and composer)
Speaker without his mace (about the disbanding of the Long Parliament)
Height and raptures  (Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, soldier, statesman and playwright)
Pepys, fire and Parmesan cheese

Here, to celebrate with Pepys, are several short extracts from his great diary, including one sometimes cited as the first reference to Punch and Judy in English literature, several about Bartholomew Fair, and two about the plague.

9 May 1662
‘Thence with Mr Salisbury, who I met there, into Covent Garden to an alehouse, to see a picture that hangs there, which is offered for 20s., and I offered fourteen - but it is worth much more money - but did not buy it, I having no mind to break my oath. Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants. So to the Temple and by water home, and so walk upon the leads, and in the dark there played upon my flageolette [a woodwind musical instrument], it being a fine still evening, and so to supper and to bed.’

25 August 1663
‘It seems this Lord Mayor begins again an old custome, that upon the three first days of Bartholomew Fayre, the first, there is a match of wrestling, which was done, and the Lord Mayor there and Aldermen in Moorefields yesterday: to-day, shooting: and to-morrow, hunting. And this officer of course is to perform this ceremony of riding through the city, I think to proclaim or challenge any to shoot. It seems that the people of the fayre cry out upon it as a great hindrance to them.’

4 September 1663
‘Thence Creed and I away, and by his importunity away by coach to Bartholomew Fayre, where I have no mind to go without my wife, and therefore rode through the fayre without ’lighting, and away home, leaving him there; and at home made my wife get herself presently ready, and so carried her by coach to the fayre, and showed her the monkeys dancing on the ropes, which was strange, but such dirty sport that I was not pleased with it. There was also a horse with hoofs like rams hornes, a goose with four feet, and a cock with three. Thence to another place, and saw some German Clocke works, the Salutation of the Virgin Mary, and several Scriptural stories; but above all there was at last represented the sea, with Neptune, Venus, mermaids, and Ayrid on a dolphin, the sea rocking, so well done, that had it been in a gaudy manner and place, and at a little distance, it had been admirable. Thence home by coach with my wife, and I awhile to the office, and so to supper and to bed.’

7 June 1665
‘Thence, it being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June, we to the New Exchange, and there drunk whey, with much entreaty getting it for our money, and [they] would not be entreated to let us have one glasse more. So took water and to Fox-Hall, to the Spring garden [later known as Vauxhall Gardens, opened a few years earlier and would stay open for around 200 years], and there walked an houre or two with great pleasure, saving our minds ill at ease concerning the fleete and my Lord Sandwich, that we have no newes of them, and ill reports run up and down of his being killed, but without ground. Here staid pleasantly walking and spending but 6d. till nine at night, and then by water to White Hall, and there I stopped to hear news of the fleete, but none come, which is strange, and so by water home, where, weary with walking and with the mighty heat of the weather, and for my wife’s not coming home, I staying walking in the garden till twelve at night, when it begun to lighten exceedingly, through the greatness of the heat. Then despairing of her coming home, I to bed.

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.’

12 August 1665
‘The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.’

6 September 1667
‘At Aldgate I took my wife into our coach, and so to Bartholomew fair, and there, it being very dirty, and now night, we saw a poor fellow, whose legs were tied behind his back, dance upon his hands with his arse above his head, and also dance upon his crutches, without any legs upon the ground to help him, which he did with that pain that I was sorry to see it, and did pity him and give him money after he had done. Then we to see a piece of clocke-work made by an Englishman - indeed, very good, wherein all the several states of man’s age, to 100 years old, is shewn very pretty and solemne; and several other things more cheerful.’

This article is a slight revised version of one first published on 23 February 2013.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Only you, my diary

‘Only you, my diary, know that it is here I show my fears, weaknesses, my complaints, my disillusions. I feel I cannot be weak outside because others depend on me. I rest my head here and weep. Henry asked me to help him with his work. Gonzalo asks me to join political revolutions. I live in a period of dissolution and disentegration. Even art today is not considered a vocation, a profession, a religion, but a neurosis, a disease, an “escape”. I titled this diary “drifting”. I thought I too would dissolve for a little while, but ultimately I become whole again.’

This is Anaїs Nin writing in August 1936. The same year she would begin to edit her earlier diaries with a view to publishing them. However, it would be another three decades before a first volume reached print, and when it did, Karl Shapiro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, would write: ‘For a generation the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic has lived with the rumour of an extraordinary diary. Earlier readers of the manuscript dicussed it with breathtaking superlatives as a work that would take its place with the great revelations of literature. A significant section of this diary is at last in print and it appears that the great claims made for it are justified.’

Today - the 120th anniversary of her birth - seems a good day to remember Nin, one of the great literary diarists.

Anaїs Nin was born in France on 21 February 1903. Her parents, of mixed and partly Cuban heritage, were both music professionals. When they separated, their mother took Anaїs and her two brothers to New York City. At 20, she married a banker, Hugh Guiler, who later illustrated some of her books and went on to become a film maker. The couple moved to Paris in 1924, where Nin began writing fiction and where she fell in with the Villa Seurat group, which included the writers Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell (‘Larry’ in the diary). She had many love affairs, often with well known literary figures, but her relationship with Miller was more constant than most.

In 1932, Nin’s D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study was published with a limited print run. Also, in the mid-1930s, she began therapy with Otto Rank, a one-time pupil of Sigmund Freud. Despite Rank being 20 years older, she had an affair with him lasting several years (for more see The Diary Review article Nothing but the eyes). Thereafter, Nin published several novellas and collections of short stories, such as House of Incest (1936), Winter of Artifice (1939) and Under a Glass Bell (1944). Also in the 1940s, she began to write short erotic stories, though these were not published until the 1970s (Delta of Venus and Little Birds).

In 1939, Nin and Guiler relocated to New York. In 1946, Nin met the actor Rupert Pole, 16 years her junior; and in 1955 she married him in Arizona. The couple went to live in California, though Pole was unaware that Nin was already married; and Guiler, to whom Nin returned to in New York often, remained ignorant of the marriage to Pole. Nin, eventually, had her marriage to Pole annulled because of the legal complications of both husbands claiming her as a dependent on their tax returns. Nin continued to live with Pole, though, until her death in 1977, and Pole became her literary executor.

Throughout her life, starting aged 14, Nin was a committed, almost obsessed, diary writer. According to Wikipedia’s entry on The Diary of Anaïs Nin, the diary became ‘her best friend and confidante’. And, ‘despite the attempts of her mother, therapists Rene Allendy and Otto Rank, and writer Henry Miller, to break [her] of her dependence on the diary, she would continue to keep a diary up until her death in 1977’.

Already in the early 1930s, encouraged by her friends, especially Lawrence Durrell (see, also, A book out of these scraps), Nin began editing her diaries with a view to publication. However, it was not until 1966 that a first volume (covering the years 1931-1934) appeared, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Over the next decade or so, six more volumes in the same series would be published, each one edited by Nin herself; and these would later be referred to as the ‘expurgated’ version of Nin’s diary. (In the UK, they were published by Peter Owen and titled The Journals of Anaïs Nin.)

After her death, several volumes of Nin’s earlier diaries, i.e. from 1914 to 1931, were published, and then after Guiler’s death, in 1985, Pole commissioned unexpurgated versions of the journals. There have been several of these: Henry and June, Incest, Fire, and Nearer The Moon, all subtitled From a Journal of Love.

Further information on Nin is readily available across the web, at Wikipedia, The Official Anaïs Nin Blog, and Sky Blue Press. Excerpts from her diaries are also readily available, at Googlebooks for example, and on the fan sites.

The following extracts about diary writing itself are taken from The Journals of Anaïs Nin - Volume Two, i.e. the second published edition of the expurgated diaries.

August 1936
‘Conflict with diary-writing. While I write in the diary I cannot write a book. I try to flow in a dual manner, to keep recording and to invent at the same time, to transform. The two activities are antithetical. If I were a real diarist, like Pepys or Amiel, I would be satisfied to record, but I am not, I want to fill in, transform, project, expand, deepen, I want this ultimate flowering that comes of creation. As I read the diary I was aware of all that I have left unsaid which can only be said with creative work, by lingering, expanding, developing. [. . .]

After I wrote here the other day on art versus diary, I felt the danger of putting art into the diary. It might kill its greatest quality, its naturalness. I must split up and do something apart - it is a need. No consciousness of perfection must enter the diary. Good-bye completeness. My plan of writing up a Day and a Night until I reach perfection.’

Fall 1937
‘Larry began to look over the volumes I took out of the tin box. But I began to feel uneasy, agitated, and we talked first. His first remark was: “Why, that is as terrifying as Nijinsky.” We had all been reading Nijinsky’s diary. Larry went away with an armful of volumes after saying: “You are a strange person, sitting there, surrounded by your black notebooks.”

I feel right about the diary. I will not stop. It is a necessity. But why does Henry attack it? He says I give good justifications for it each time but that he does not believe them.

Nijinsky, writing just before all connections broke with human beings. . .

Larry with his keen eyes, saying: “I have only smelled the diary writing, just read a page here and there. You have done it, the real female writing. It is a tragic work. You restore tragedy which the world has lost. Go on. Don’t stop. I’m sick of hearing about art. What you have done nobody has done. It is amazing. It is new.” ’  (See The Diary Review for more on Nijinsky’s diary.)

November 1937
‘Because of Henry’s description of the whalelike diary, Larry calls me “the Whale”. And signs himself: “your ever-admiring limpet.” [. . .]

Have gone to work on abridged edition of the diary. [. . .]

Henry has been collecting subscriptions to publish the first volume of the diary, and the first one he received was from André Maurois, who added that, however, he did not want all of the fifty-four volumes, his house was too full of books. In between these visits I arranged all the diaries I want to edit in one box so I can plunge into them easily.’

This article is a slight revised version of one first published on 21 February 2013.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Diary insights into the Shimazu

Shimazu Yoshihisa, one of the ten most famous Samurai warriors in history, was born 490 years ago today. He went far towards uniting all the clans on the island of Kyūshū but was eventually defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who, later, succeeded in unifying Japan. A key source of information about Yoshihisa and the workings of the Shimazu clan is the diary of one of Yoshihisa’s close advisers, Uwai Kakuken.

Yoshihisa was born on 9 February 1533, the eldest son of the chief of the Shimazu clan of Satsuma province. According to Wikipedia, he took the name of Tadayoshi but after receiving a kanji from the shōgun he changed it to Yoshitatsu, and later Yoshihisa. He married his own aunt and after her death, married his relative, a daughter of Tanegashima Tokitaka. In 1566, he succeeded his father as the head of Shimazu clan, becoming the clan’s sixteenth leader. 

Working together with his brothers, Yoshihisa launched a campaign to unify Kyūshū (the third-largest island of Japan’s five main islands). Starting in 1572 with a victory against Itō clan at the battle of Kizaki and the Siege of Takabaru in 1576, Yoshihisa continued to win a series of battles. By the mid-1580s, he had amassed, it is said, an army of over 100,000, and had conquered almost all of the island.

However, the Ōtomo clan, controlling the last unconquered area, sought and eventually won help from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, now called the second ‘great unifier’ of Japan. By mid-1587, Yoshihisa’s forces were overwhelmed. Towards the end of the year, he called for a truce, which Hideyoshi eventually agreed to.  Most of lands conquered by the Shimazu clan went to followers of Hideyoshi, but the Shimazu held on to the Satsuma and Ōsumi rovinces, as well as half of Hyuga. Yoshihisa shaved his head to show he would become a Buddhist monk if his life was spared, but, it is believed, he continued to wield power through his younger brother Yoshihiro. Yoshihisa died in 1611. According to TopList, he is one of the ten most famous Samurai warriors in history.

There is no evidence that Yoshihisa kept a diary, but a contemporary of his, Uwai Kakuken, also a Samurai in the Shimazu clan, and an adviser to Yoshihisa, did keep a diary. Uwai was born in 1545, had his first military engagement in 1561, and was named Chief Retainer (i.e. a trusted individual who defended the leader’s castle while he was away at battle) in 1576. He suffered a serious injury in 1586, and subsequently submitted to Hideyoshi’s authority, relinquishing the castle to him, and taking up retirement at Ijūin in Satsuma province. He died in 1589. However, parts of a diary he kept survived and are an important first hand source of information about the Shimazu.

Indeed, a student at the University of Michigan, Vincent Chan has used the diary extensively for his Doctor of Philosophy dissertation entitled Running the Domain: Truth, Rumours, and the Decision-Making of the Shimazu Warrior Family in 16th Century Japan. The abstract begins: ‘Using the Uwai Kakuken nikki, a diary kept by the middle-ranking warrior Uwai Kakuken from 1574 to 1586, this dissertation examines some fundamental factors that contributed to the political decision-making process of the Shimazu family in late sixteenth century Japan.’

Throughout the dissertation, Chan provides quotes (translated into English) from the Uwai Kakuken nikki. Evidently, though, this is an academic thesis and quite arcane in parts. Here is a sample of Chan’s analysis (one which refers directly to Yoshihisa).

‘In examining the effects that rumours had on the political decisions of the Shimazu, the case of the Iriki-in and the rumours surrounding their ambitious plan to betray Yoshihisa illustrates for us how rumours can be used by the daimyo for his personal gains. Specifically, Yoshihisa used the Iriki-in rumours to reinforce his own authority within the Shimazu family and protect his image as a filial son. This case also highlights the fact that there were no attempts to investigate the validity of the rumours, nor were there any attempts to find their origins. This was consistent with the way rumours were treated throughout the medieval era. Instead, the burden of proof to show the innocence of the Iriki-in fell on the shoulders of Iriki-in Shigetoyo (d. 1583), the leader of the Iriki-in family at the time of the incident. Yoshihisa’s decision to force Shigetoyo to do everything he can to disprove the rumours, allowed Yoshihisa to achieve two primary objectives. First, Yoshihisa was able to seize control of some of the key Iriki-in landholdings on legitimate grounds, thus reinforcing his political legitimacy as the ruler of the Shimazu. Second, Yoshihisa managed to reinforce his reputation as a daimyo who exercised his power in a measured manner by allowing Shigetoyo to take the initiative in proving his innocence. Let us begin by looking at the circumstances that these rumours appeared in the historical records.

We get a sense of the tension between Iriki-in Shigetoyo and Shimazu Yoshihisa from the opening passages of Kakuken’s diary. On the first day of the eighth month of Tenshō 2 (1574), Kakuken wrote,

Item. This morning it was stated that the sword from Iriki-in (Shigetoyo) should be given to our lord as a gift after the presentation of the gift from Tōgō (Shigehisa). The senior retainers stated in response, “Since Tōgō, Kedō-in, and Iriki all stemmed from the same family, it should be Nejime (Nejime Shigenaga) who presents his sword as a gift next.”

The mediator from Iriki (Satsuma district, Iriki-in Shigetoyo), Murao Kurando said, “As I am still inexperience in such matters, I must first return to Danjō-no-chū (Shigetoyo) and ask him for his orders. A decision should be made soon.”

The senior retainers reconsidered this and replied, “If one person from that family was prioritized before others, it should not matter when the other branch families present their gifts.” Despite this, the mediator retired from court without understanding the senior retainers’ position nor providing a response. The go-between for this situation was Honda (Chikaharu) Inaba-no-kami and myself.

As this was the first entry of Kakuken’s diary, we were given no context of the underlying tension between the Shimazu and the Iriki-in present at this time.

A brief outline of what was supposed to happen on this specific day can be seen through Kakuken’s actions during this event. The first of the eighth month was hassaku, a day for lord and vassal to exchange gifts to reaffirm their bonds. On this particular day, the many other retainers of the Shimazu were set to present their daimyo with gifts as part of a ritualistic gift exchange. For example, Kakuken presented Yoshihisa with a single sword and a hundred copper coins. In return for these gifts, Yoshihisa awarded Kakuken with a sword and a bow. There was an underlying political purpose here. With the exchange of gifts, the relationship between a lord and his retainers was supposedly reaffirmed. As this relationship formed the basis of political power and authority during the Sengoku period, we can easily see why participation in this act of gift exchange might be important for retainers and daimyo alike.’

Monday, February 6, 2023

Piero Manzoni’s torment

Piero Manzoni, an Italian avant-garde artist famous for canning his own excrement, died 60 years ago today, still only 30 years old. Though not a diarist by nature, he left behind one year-long diary, published in 2013 which reveals what he called his ‘torment, i.e. waverings, changes of mind and doubts about art, religion and politics. Unfortunately, copies of the book are difficult to find; and, across the internet, I can find no extracts from the book, in Italian or translated into English.

Count Meroni Manzoni di Chiosca e Poggiolo was born in 1933 in Soncino, northern Italy, the eldest of five children in a family with aristocratic roots. However, he grew up in Milan. He studied at the Jesuit Liceo Leone XIII, and then at the law faculty of the Catholic University of Sacred Heart. During the summer holidays, he stayed in Albisola where he came into contact with avant-garde artists such as Lucio Fontana. 

Self-taught as a painter, Manzoni first exhibited in Soncino in 1956, with his early works showing the influence of Enrico Baj. But in early 1957, he visited an exhibition of Yves Klein’s blue paintings at Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, and thereafter his own art changed dramatically. In 1958, for example, he created a series of plain white, ‘achrome’ pictures, and the following year he drew lines on sheets and sealed them in boxes. 

Manzoni eschewed normal artist’s materials, instead using everything from rabbit fur to human excrement. His work is widely seen as a critique of the mass production and consumerism that was changing Italian society after the war. According to Phaidon, ‘Manzoni’s great legacy seems to lie in his prescient satire of a kind of art where the artist’s name is crucial, while his or her direct involvement or talents seem to be immaterial, and where a global market can buoy even the most lowly objects.’ Famously or infamously, he produced, in 1961, his work Artist’s Shit - 90 cans, each numerically labelled with title labels in German, French or English. He died tragically of a heart attack on 6 February 1963. His work is said to have directly influenced a younger Italian artists brought together by the critic Germano Celant in the first Arte Povera exhibition held in Genoa in 1967. Further information on Manzoni is also available at Wikipedia, Tate, Guggenheim and Artland Magazine.

In early 1954, Manzoni began to keep a diary and, apart from odd gaps, managed to maintain it for about 16 months, producing almost 300 hand-written pages. The text was ‘curated’ by Gaspare Luigi Marcone and published in its original unedited format by Electa as Diario. Electa says the book reveals ‘precious information about what Manzoni read (Ariosto, Hemingway, Proust and so on), the art exhibitions he visited, his first encounters in the art world, the many films he saw at the cinema and his numerous travels in Italy and Europe.

Electa adds: ‘One of the most interesting things to emerge from the manuscript is what [Manzoni] calls his ‘torment’: waverings, changes of mind and doubts about art, religion and politics. He also pondered about his future, oscillating constantly between optimism and pessimism, seriousness and irony. In fact, at that time, Manzoni was still undecided whether to devote himself entirely to painting or to become a writer. His first attempts at writing about themes connected with philosophy, existentialism and esthetics, some of which he was to refer to again later in his artistic career, are especially important. In fact, it was probably his interest in these subjects which, between the end of 1954 and January 1955, eventually persuaded him to abandon his law studies at the Sacro Cuore University in Milan to devote himself to the study of philosophy at Rome University. A remarkable but ‘complex’ read, both because of the subjects tackled and due to the author’s handwriting, which verges on the illegible at times. It’s probably the first true ‘Manzoni workshop’.’

I can find no extracts online from Manzoni’s diary in English or Italian, and there is only one second hand copy currently available for sale - at Abebooks, costing over £50.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

A stir in consequence

‘John Morgan with a large body of cavalry said to be at Glasgow & marching on Lex[ington] expected tonight. The whole town is in a stir in consequence.’ This is from the Civil War diary kept by Frances Dallam Peter, born 180 years ago today. She died when only 21, from an epileptic seizure, but her diary - published recently with a scholarly introduction and many annotations - is considered to provide ‘valuable insights’ and ‘a unique feminine perspective’ on the war.

Frances Dallam Peter was born into a large family in Lexington, Kentucky, on 28 January 1843. Her mother was related to William Paca, the Governor Maryland who signed the US Declaration of Independence. Her father was a medical scientist born in England; he served during the Civil War as a senior surgeon and administrator of the military hospitals in the area. Frances (or Frank as her family called her) was considered a talented, charming girl, interested in reading, drawing and writing. She went to school at the Sayre Female Institute. However, she suffered epileptic seizures which restricted her ability to develop any significant life beyond the family home. She died of a seizure in 1864 when only 21 years old. 

Peter is remembered today wholly because of a diary - scrap paper composed of military hospital supply sheets stitched together with thread - that she kept from the age 10 until her death. The diary is notable for containing no self-pity regarding her medical condition but rather is preoccupied with events beyond her domestic affairs (family members, for example, remain relatively minor players in the diary). She expresses many and forthright opinions on the politics and military matters of the day. Indeed, it seems that her diary served as a means for her to respond to and interact with the outside world. Although parts of the diary appeared in 1976, a much fuller and annotated version was published in 2021 by The University Press of Kentucky as A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter (edited by John David Smith and William Cooper Jr.). Much of it can be previewed at Googlebooks

Kentucky Press provides this description of the work: ‘[Peter’s] candid diary chronicles Kentucky’s invasion by Confederates under General Braxton Bragg in 1862, Lexington’s monthlong occupation by General Edmund Kirby Smith, and changes in attitude among the enslaved population following the Emancipation Proclamation. As troops from both North and South took turns holding the city, she repeatedly emphasized the rightness of the Union cause and minced no words in expressing her disdain for “the secesh” [i.e. supporters of the Confederacy].

Peter articulates many concerns common to Kentucky Unionists. Though she was an ardent supporter of the war against the Confederacy, Peter also worried that Lincoln’s use of authority exceeded his constitutional rights. Her own attitudes toward Black people were ambiguous, as was the case with many people in that time. Peter’s descriptions of daily events in an occupied city provide valuable insights and a unique feminine perspective on an underappreciated aspect of the war. Until her death in 1864, Peter conscientiously recorded the position and deportment of both Union and Confederate soldiers, incidents at the military hospitals, and stories from the countryside. Her account of a torn and divided region is a window to the war through the gaze of a young woman of intelligence and substance.’

Reviews of the published diary can be read at Emerging Civil War and Civil War Books and Authors.

Here are several extracts from the published diary of Frances Peter.

19 February 1862
‘Last evening a short time after the salute was fired a large crowd was seen to assemble at Mrs Morgans . . . & several soldiers were seen to search the house. We learnt to day that the occasion was this. While the guns were firing Frank Key or as he is called Key Morgan with two or three other boys went to the janitor of the college [Transylvania] and got the key to the door leading on the roof on pretext that a ball had been thrown up there, & hoisted a secession flag on the college. The janitor saw it and cut it down & by order of the teacher Mr. Patterson put it in a cellar till it could be delivered to the authorities, but a Mrs John Dudley who lives near the college told Morgan who got the flag & took it home & having secreted it made the best of his way off. Some soldiers however had seen the flag on the college and came to inquire the cause of its being there, which having learnt they searched Mrs Morgans house found the flag which they tore up and divided among themselves. They got the names of the boys concerned & will probably arrest them. Mr. Patterson this morning suspended them until a faculty meeting could be held when they (the boys) will probably be expelled.’

22 February 1862
‘Washington’s birthday has dawned dark & cloudy as if the elements sympathized with the loss that Dr. Dudley’s death will be to Lexington. His body is expected here Monday. Coburn’s regiment has received marching orders.’

25 February 1862
‘Col. E. Dudley’s body arrived here Sunday and was attended from the cars to the Oddfellows Hall by the Mayor, Councilmen and crowd of citizens. The funeral oration was pronounced by Mr. Brank today at the Oddfellows Hall where the body lay in state. The 33rd Indiana, Col Coburn, the Lex Blues, Cap Wilgris, Odd fellows & masons, with some of the old Infantry Chasseurs, formed part of the procession with some of Dr. Dudleys men who came with him & a great many carriages. It was the largest funeral ever seen here (except Henry Clay’s).’

16 April 1862
‘They have taken the house near the college that was used for a hospital by De Courcy for a hospital for some of the soldiers here & Mr. John Dudley who occupied one half of the place received orders to move & left this morning, a good riddance. The 42 Ohio Col Shelton & the 18th Ky. Col Warner are here at the fairground. It was discovered the other day that one of Lindsay’s [22nd Ky.] men who was left at the hospital had the smallpox & there has been no end to the trouble that was had getting a place to put him.’

12 July 1862
‘John Morgan with a large body of cavalry said to be at Glasgow & marching on Lex[ington] expected tonight. The whole town is in a stir in consequence. Gen Boyle sent a dispatch that men should be sent out to meet Morgan. The Home Guards, Provost Guard & volunteers from the hospital with a battery that arrived the other day went out on duty. A company came to night from Cynthiana. A dispatch was sent this evening to Cincinatti for troops. For several days the atmosphere has presented a very hazy, smoky appearance & at times a slight smell as of burning was perceptible. We heard this evening that Lebanon had been burnt by Morgan.’