By beginning a diary, I was already conceding that life would be more bearable if I looked at it as an adventure and a tale. I was telling myself the story of a life, and this transmutes into an adventure the things which can shatter you.
~ Anaïs Nin, Philadelphia College of Art Commencement Address (1973)
I have always been bad at filling up diaries. I write until my life returns to its boring default, and months pass before I remember the empty notebook at the back of my bookshelf. Since I was a kid, I have tended to use my journals as an uncritical vacuum for bottled teenage angst in moments in which it feels like the world is ending: Dear diary, life sucks. As it turns out, people write in the face of crisis. “The life of a diary is often born of a tension, a disequilibrium in the life of its author, which needs to be solved or held in check,” asserts Steven E. Kagle in Early Nineteenth-Century American Diary Literature. The current moment has adopted the diary metaphor as a way to cope collectively with the coronavirus pandemic, and the internet is seeing surges of pages and articles with headings like “the isolation journals,” “the quarantine diaries,” and “coronavirus diaries.” Some historians are calling for archives of daily experiences, urging us to document these unprecedented times. However, I offer this basic advice: do not keep a diary for history. Do it instead for yourself.
In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion describes the heart of private writing as “[h]ow it felt to me,” since “the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” The journal of import is not “the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées.” Rather it is “something private, […] bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” The journal is thus a vessel invested with meaning by the writer within a social and historical context. It’s personal and cathartic.
“I’m just going to write because I cannot help it,” Charlotte Brontë once wrote—it is one of those Famous Author’s quotes that is so regularly recited that its source and significance have dissolved from public consciousness, and instead it is plastered over museum walls and notebook covers and article epigraphs as a sort of writer’s motto. The quote has come to represent Brontë’s genius, her Romantic proclivities for trance-writing, and the seemingly divine arrival of words to her pen. In truth, it reveals her instinctive compulsion to write, or what she once called “scriblomania,” as a means of warding off depression. The quote, in fact, comes from Brontë’s own series of semi-autobiographical entries in what is now known as her “Roe Head Journal.”
At nineteen, Brontë began teaching at Margaret Wooler’s school in Roe Head, Mirfield (not to be confused with her previous school Cowan Bridge, or its fictional equivalent, Lowood, of Jane Eyre). Between 1836 and 1837, Brontë kept a journal—or loose manuscripts, a total of six different entries—in which she recorded both imaginary happenings and the mundanities of her everyday life. At Roe Head, about twenty miles away from her home in Haworth, she was separated from her family, constrained by Victorian conventions of womanhood and her stultifying life as a teacher.
In these adolescent accounts, Brontë’s writing is spurred by “the still small voice alone that comes to me at eventide […] that which takes my spirit & engrosses all my living feelings, all my energies which are not merely mechanical & […] wakes sensations which lie dormant elsewhere.” I first read these words, encapsulating Brontë’s onset of scribbling after a long day of work, in the first diary entry of the journal, at the Morgan Library in the fall of 2019. There, I sat more than six feet apart from the other researchers before such an act was a commonplace courtesy. Equipped with a magnifying glass that the reading-room supervisor handed to me after whisper-exclaiming so tiny!, I inspected the minuscule script on the tightly folded, delicate paper, transcribing sections that stood out to me as if they were scripture that I was the first to discover.
Reading these fragments now during the coronavirus outbreak takes on a new significance as I now better understand Brontë’s impulse to write as a technique of staving off despondency. Although Brontë did not write during a pandemic, she had lost her two older sisters to a tuberculosis outbreak and her mother likely to cancer; her town of Haworth had a high mortality rate and a low life expectancy of about 25 years, as estimated by an 1850 report. The Brontë family parsonage is adjacent to a graveyard, and with funerals being such a regular occurrence, Brontë was familiar with sickness and death.
After one monotonous day, and a grammar lesson, Brontë wearily ponders her current state of misery:
am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical & most asinine stupidity of those fatheaded oafs […] ? Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair, prisoned with in these four bare walls, while these glorious summer suns are burning in heaven & the year is revolving in its richest glow & declaring at the close of every summer day [that] the time I am losing will never come again?
Brontë’s restlessness in this passage evokes the claustrophobia of quarantine in the time of COVID-19 as summer comes to a close. At twenty-two, I am only slightly older than Brontë was at the time of writing this, and I, too, at times fear the best part of my life is being wasted away within unchanging walls, watching my post-grad months pass me by. Brontë’s nerves were quelled only with a “mighty phantasm” that rushed onto her, compelling her to write in her journal at any opportunity she got as a means of warding off a feeling of impotence.
Each entry opens with Brontë’s real world at school before surrendering to visions of the “infernal world” of Angria, the African kingdom dreamed up by Brontë and her siblings. Her journal chronicles voyeuristic evocations of violent, dramatic, and at times erotic happenings of the dreamworld and the vivid images of their made-up characters, like the Duke of Zamorna, Jane Moore, and her beloved heroine Mary Henrietta Percy. These imaginative fragments, prompted by that “still small voice,” afforded Brontë escape and diversion from loathsome company, tiring lessons, and interminable boredom. Dustin Illingworth explicates the pleasure of reading author’s journals like Brontë’s: “That juxtaposition, in which the profound and the prosaic rub elbows, creates the space for something like a revelation of character, one that finds the writer enmeshed in the sordidness of life….” The journal papers exhibit a tug-of-war between real and fictional, between being and thought, and between what Brontë had to do and what she wanted to do: write freely. Ultimately at the diary’s core is Brontë herself, buried emotional rage and all.
In her Roe Head Journals, Brontë did not write for an audience, despite her desire for literary prestige. Instead, she wrote for herself because she could not help it—as a way to reconcile her inner and outer worlds, to vent and to cope with her feelings and the reality of her circumstances. Brontë scrawls, “It is strange. I cannot get used to the ongoings that surround me,” in language that might aptly be used to describe the alienating precariousness of our own current moment nearly two centuries later. What we get from Brontë’s teenaged scribbles is the distinct immediacy of real-time accounts, her authentic self, and ultimately her sincere desire to write over all else as a means to hedge against low spirits. Today, we look to journals as a way to occupy ourselves, keep the days from blurring together, and see how this all will play out—the diarist, like Brontë wading through her dreamworlds and dull schooldays, does not know what will happen in the end and writes instead to find out, knowing at heart “[t]hat feeling will not last. It will die away into oblivion as the echoes of those chords die away into silence.”
Brontë’s quotidian world of school-teaching, told with a conversational intimacy to no reader, depicts her outer world—like an agenda of the banal projects one takes on while working from home. At the same time, her imaginative inner world reveals her basest emotions: grief, shame, anger, ambition, pride, desire. As contemporary readers, we get a sense of who Brontë was and how she felt through these urgent, ephemeral writing sessions since she is present even in the hallucinatory Angrian scenes. Brontë is foregrounded in the diary, taking part in a conversation with herself. Whereas Brontë famously addresses her reader in her novels, the construction of a journal, as an assessment of oneself in time, relies on the belief of its privacy, evidenced by her secretive, microscopic handwriting.
A journal is a container of “some feelings that [others] can have no participation in—that few, very few people in the world can at all understand,” as Brontë wrote in an 1836 letter to her best friend Ellen Nussey, whom she met as a student at Roe Head. Brontë’s suffering was deeply individual, whereas ours today is shared. Nevertheless, we can take a page from Brontë’s book and keep a journal to comprehend our intimate emotions, to put into words those feelings that are entirely mine or yours, even if they stem from a collective calamity. Though I write from the comfort and safety of my home, in a far different era than Brontë’s, I am able to express without rebuke my egocentric thoughts—the selfish desire to be gathered with friends at graduation parties, the inapt pleasure of idleness, the shame of being entirely unproductive during long stretches of time—by writing it all down in a notebook.
The diary is a space for psychological resistance; it is a bulwark against dejection and the discomfort and the constraints of quarantine, a practice that is as useful today as it was in the nineteenth century. Fundamentally, journal-writing is also an act of persistence. It distinguishes living from merely existing, emanating from a dread of life growing more fleeting and unforeseeable each passing day. If a life is measured in days, and the diary (derived from the root meaning “day”) is a measure of those days, then what a diary is primarily concerned with is life itself, in all its real-time authenticity, free from the hindrance of a critical audience or the pressure of artistic craft.
Even if our pandemic diaries are pieced-together fantasy scenes and incoherent rage-monologues, they are still archives of our memory, a principal component of our enduring selfhood. “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point,” adds Didion. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” As we live through this historical event, our life seems impossible to forget. But just as our days blur together, so too will our recollections of life in quarantine. A notebook is written to be read by the author at a later point in history to be reacquainted with the person they once were in a bygone time.
Today more than ever the diary is a tool of self-continuity that allows us to move forward in a period during which time seems to be halted by the end of the world as we know it. Even in moments when the world feels like we’ll never return to normal, disquieted by cancelled events and increasing death tolls, we are able to turn to journal-writing to organize our days and emotions and thoughts. Many of us are lucky, as Brontë reminds us, to have this self-kindled exercise of keeping a diary: “What a treasure is thought! What a privilege is reverie.”
A crisis, etymologically, is a turning point when the future is unforeseeable. Brontë closed her brief journal and resigned from Roe Head when it was relocated in 1838 to move back home to Haworth. At the end of 1839, she said goodbye to her fantasy world in order to bridge the gap between her ability to express herself and her real-life agency. Her “Farewell to Angria” marks the critical moment that charted her shift toward more realistic, public-facing writing: “Still, I long to quit for a while that burning clime where we have sojourned too long. […] The mind would cease from excitement & turn now to a cooler region, where the dawn breaks grey and sober & the coming day for a time at least is subdued in clouds.”
Nearly a decade after closing her Roe Head Journal, Brontë was quarantined with her father in a Manchester inn during his cataracts operation in 1846 as a measure to protect him from infection. It was there where she allegedly began writing the renowned Jane Eyre, moving toward her attainment of more vocational agency. The journal she kept as a young woman helped hone her imaginative writing in addition to expressing emotion, actualizing herself, and resisting despair.
In her early journal, Brontë could not “enter into any continued narrative”; her mind, she writes, was “not settled enough for that.” Yet she could “call up some slight & pleasant sketch” and “amuse” herself “by jotting it down.” Likewise, our minds at present might not be settled enough to afford us the ability to write something like the next Jane Eyre, but we may benefit from keeping a journal for no one’s eyes but our own. In channeling our own “scriblomania,” we can remind ourselves of the blood that flows in our veins and the thoughts and feelings that float in our minds. Write not just about what you did but how you feel. Let your imagination splice your day-to-day reality. As Brontë did, write every day, at any chance you get. Dear diary, life goes on.
Kendall Geisel is the Production Assistant at the nonprofit and environmental publisher Island Press, as well as a recent graduate from The George Washington University with a BA in English. Her literary interests include Victorian women writers, and when she’s not reading or writing, you can find her at an art museum, concert, or farmers’ market (but always with a book—and lately a mask).