Fantastic Thoresby – Part I: Dangerous Diaries

Laura Sangha

Ralph Thoresby, 1658-1724.

The time has come to introduce many-headed monster readers to my current historical obsession: Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725). Thoresby, the son of a wool merchant, was a well respected antiquarian and topographer, a dissenter who conformed to the Church of England later in life, a husband, a father, a historian, a fellow of the Royal Society, the owner of a museum, a prolific correspondent, and a diarist. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of delving into Thoresby’s diary, which was transcribed and published by the Reverend Joseph Hunter in 1830. Future posts will deal with the content of the diary, which reveal a likeable, pious, and reflective man, but reading it also got me thinking about the ‘diary’ as a historical document, and it is this that I will deal with in this initial post.

Now, we all know what a diary or journal looks like – it is rare to find an individual who hasn’t attempted to keep such a record at some point, whether as a teenager or adult, as a means to organise your social or working life, as a record of physical activity, expenditure or even the amount of calories that you have consumed. But when you think about it, doesn’t the term actually therefore cover a very wide range of varied documents?  What do I mean exactly? To my mind, there are two central assumptions about what a diary is:

1) A day-to-day record, as it happened. You write in your diary at the end of the day or week, or at a point close in time to the events that you are writing about.

2) A personal/ private record. Your diary is for yourself, it is secret, it may be hidden in your underwear drawer, tucked under your mattress, or locked in safe. It is for you, to reflect on yourself.

But are these assumptions accurate?

In my teaching, I often use Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year as a primary source, and am surprised by how often students fail to notice that they are dealing with a work of imaginative fiction (Defoe was of course only five years old when the 1665 plague decimated London). This is a typical ‘entry’ in the diary from August 1665:

Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ in a most inimitable tone, and which struck me with horror and a chillness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open, for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another, so I went on to pass into Bell Alley.[1]

You can see why my students are deceived by the feel and the layout of the work, which is in the first person, roughly chronological, and without chapters or section headings. The book was probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, and it was definitely supplemented by information that Defoe garnered from plague sheets and governmental orders published subsequently. It is a strange hybrid of fact, fiction, literary trope, and legal records, and it transforms a series of private jottings into a public and published account.

Pages from Pepys’ Diary written in shorthand.

Arguably, more conventional documents should be considered in a similar way. A quick glance at the diary of the most famous early modern diarist, Samuel Pepys, also seems to fit the ‘diary’ criteria. We get entries arranged by day, an astonishing level of candour, and a very complete insight into the charismatic man’s life. Yet we also know that Pepys’ entries were ‘written up’ every few days from a scribbled draft, and collated with other private papers or printed sources that he had to hand – this diary is crafted, and might be closer to the modern genre of ‘memoir’ rather than ‘diary’, despite first appearances. This is a reminder that Pepys’ approach to diary writing was somewhat of an exception in comparison with other contemporary accounts.

Early modern diaries are in fact enormously varied, and could be written for many purposes. One of the most common types of early modern diary is a spiritual diary,[2] an introspective record of a person’s religious life, a record of and personal response to their spiritual development. Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick, focused on her devotional life in her diary:

Oct. 23. [1666] In the morning, was diverted by some occasions from being long retired, and found my heart dead and dull in duty. In the afternoon, too, was distracted, and, like Martha, cumbered about worldly business; and found my heart backward to good, and had my heart very untoward all that day.[3]

The Protestant practice of rigorous self-examination no doubt inspired the genre. These diaries are a private document, but might tell the historian virtually nothing about other aspects of the author’s life. Diaries like Pepys’ are rarer, though there are a few examples.[4] Other diaries focus on a specific aspect of a person’s life: they may record a journey or keep track of the weather. Parliamentarian iconoclast William Dowsing keeps a diary where he simply notes what church furniture he destroyed and where over a series of months:

Allhallows [All Saints, 1643], Jan. 9. We brake about 20 superstitious pictures; and took up 30 brazen superstitious inscriptions, Ora pro nobis, and Pray for the soul etc. [5]

Sometimes household financial accounts are supplemented with information about important events or with incidental details about family life. The sixteenth-century priest of Morebath, Christopher Trychay, kept meticulous churchwarden accounts to which he added such a rich level of detail that Eamon Duffy was able to use them to reconstruct the function and fortunes of the parish through the turbulence of the Tudor Reformations.

Often a diary will contain a mix of religious, social, political and economic material, making them an indispensable source for a historian. Here I have merely touched on a few of the issues attached to them: we could also consider how our perception of the text changes once the diary enters the ‘public’ domain, or the extent to which a diary was ‘private’ in the first place. We might want to examine themes of the self: self-perception, self-fashioning, self-awareness, self-consciousness, individuality/ personality. Diaries could be used to think about time, familial relations, social networks and for myriad of other purposes. Next time I will be exploring Ralph Thoresby’s diary by engaging with these issues, but what I want to know now is, both historically and personally: how do you use yours?

[1] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of a Plague Year (London, 1722), pp. 95-6.

[2] Published examples include Michael Wigglesworth, Bulstrode Whitelocke, Lady Margaret Hoby, Elizabeth, Viscountess Mordaunt.

[3] Mary Rich, countess of Warwick (1624-78), Memoir of Lady Warwick: Also her Diary, from A.D. 1666-72 (London, 1847), p. 88.

[4] Published examples include John Evelyn, Ralph Josselin, Thomas Turner, Nehemiah Wallington, John Dee.

[5] The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War (ed.) T. Cooper (Woodbridge, 2001).

7 thoughts on “Fantastic Thoresby – Part I: Dangerous Diaries

  1. Great points, Laura. This is another reminder that the search for ‘authentic’ sources – in this case, ‘true’ diaries – can be something of a lost cause.

    I’ve occasionally found Thoresby’s diary to be useful for my current project. There are a few entries were he mentions French privateers in the Irish Sea in 1694, the great re-coinage of 1696-7, and the floods in Yorkshire in late 1697. It’s packed with what we would now call ‘anthropological’ observations of the world around him – great material for social and cultural historians. And I think the British Library holds many of his manuscripts too.

    For those interested in diaries, there are a couple of websites that might be helpful:
    ‘The Diary Junction’
    ‘The Diary Search’

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