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A Real Companion and Friend:
The diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King

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Behind the Diary

Introduction: Life Writing

"Dear Diary": Diary Writing as a Genre

"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." - Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

Title Page of Histoire de ma vie by George Sand, 1854-1855

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Title Page of Histoire de ma vie by George Sand, 1854-1855

Title page from the first edition of the biographical work, Histoire de ma vie (1854-1855), by French writer Armandine Lucie Aurore Dupin, baronne Dudevant (1804-1876), who is better known by her pseudonym George Sand. Sand's book is a highly stylized work, based on her own diaries.

Mackenzie King's diary writing belongs to a long and established literary tradition. In fact, the diary is one of the most readily recognizable literary forms. A type of autobiographical writing, it is essentially a regularly kept record of the diarist's activities and reflections, ostensibly for the author's use alone, although some diaries are eventually published. Its name is derived from the Latin word dies, meaning "days," which suggests the "day-to-day" nature of the writing. Perhaps because it is viewed as non-fiction, the diary has largely been excluded from serious literary discussion. In fact, it has only recently begun to be recognized as a form of "life writing"or "self-writing," a literary genre that also encompasses autobiography, biography, memoir, correspondence and travel literature. But unlike these other forms, the diary is considered more intimate and immediate, often serving as the basis for more polished works. For instance, George Sand's memoirs, Histoire de ma vie (1855), and Bruce Chatwin's travel narrative, In Patagonia (1977), are highly crafted texts that draw heavily from the authors' diaries. Similarly, the diaries of Christopher Isherwood inspired his work The Berlin Stories (1939), which was adapted as Cabaret, the award-winning Broadway musical and the critically acclaimed film.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)

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Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)

The diary that British civil servant and diarist Samuel Pepys kept from 1659 to 1669 is a detailed account of events during the first decade of the Restoration. It has been considered a literary masterpiece since 1825, when a selection from the diary was first published. This portrait of Pepys is taken from the frontispiece of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, published in 1904.

The appeal of the diary form has even led some writers to produce fictional journals or narratives written in a diary style. Among the chief examples are Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Georges Bernanos's Journal d'un curé de campagne (1936). More recent works in this vein include Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987), Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (1997) and Olivier Larizza's Les Nénuphars de Belgrade (1999).

The diary form began to flourish in the late Renaissance, with the rise of humanism. In addition to providing a textual record of the diarist's personality, the diary also tends to chronicle social and political history. As such, the diary can significantly complement the "official" public record, by providing a personal perspective on socio-political events. For instance, the first diary of Samuel Pepys, the most celebrated diary of the English language, describes the Coronation of Charles II (1661), the Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666).

In times of acute social upheaval, where the public record may have been suppressed, altered or even destroyed, the diary can in fact provide a more reliable and powerful record of events. A striking example is the diary of Anne Frank, which chronicles the daily existence of a Jewish family in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland.

Anne Frank, 1939

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Anne Frank, 1939

Anne Frank (1929-1945), is best remembered as the author of a diary that she kept while in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland from 1942 to 1945. Her diary was first published in the Netherlands in 1947 as Het Achterhuis. An English translation, The Diary of a Young Girl, appeared in 1952. This portrait is taken from Anne Frank in the World, published in 1985.

Photograph attributed to her father, Otto Frank

Although the diary form has attracted people from all walks of life, many of the most revered diaries remain those of writers. These include the diaries of Jonathan Swift, Sir Walter Scott, Stendhal, Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, André Gide, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and Katherine Mansfield. Diary writing today remains vastly popular, with the most exhibitionistic diarists choosing to post virtual diaries on the World Wide Web.

While Mackenzie King's massive narrative of his life could be regarded as the single greatest Canadian diary, many other noteworthy diarists have produced works that are nationally significant. These include the diaries of John Winslow, a Massachusetts colonel involved in the deportation of the Acadians; Simeon Perkins, a Nova Scotia Planter who became a prominent merchant and shipbuilder; Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe née Gwillim, the wife of the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada; François-Maurice Lepailleur, a Patriote who was exiled to Australia following the Rebellions of 1837-1838; Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald née Bernard, the wife of the first Canadian Prime Minister; Louis Riel, a Métis leader and founder of the Province of Manitoba; Henriette Dessaules (pseudonym "Fadette"), a Quebec journalist; Joséphine Marchand, a Quebec journalist and feminist; Emily Carr, a British Columbia artist and author; Lucy Maud Montgomery, a novelist from Prince Edward Island; Lionel Groulx, a Quebec historian and nationalist; and Charles Ritchie, a diplomat and author.

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