I recently attended a seminar on the child’s voice at Magdalen College, Oxford, one of a series of seminars in the history of childhood that I’ve been going to intermittently for the past few years. (Historians of childhood and youth should note the upcoming colloquium on July 4th – the details are in the link above). At this seminar, alongside an interesting mini-presentation on the global distribution of Sesame Street, some of us brought in old childhood diaries to share with the group. I haven’t yet used this type of source in my own research – the closest I’ve come is handling autobiographies that describe a remembered childhood – so my thoughts are really more about my own childhood then serious historical reflection. Still, the seminar raised some interesting questions for me.
I kept some sort of diary as a child on and off from the age of five, but the formats varied a lot. The diary I’m going to discuss in this post had short slots for each day, so the amount I could write was limited, and I remember being annoyed by that at the time. I was ten years old when I wrote this diary, and in Year Five at junior school. While a lot of it is very boring, some of the entries made me think about how many of the gaps I fill in when I re-read my old diaries, and how much harder this would be for an historian who hadn’t written the texts themselves.
First, I definitely wrote in what I thought was an appropriate ‘diary style’, drawing on two major influences: Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson. I can hear Blyton’s school stories in entries such as ‘I had a row with C— today. She is definitely jealous of me. I did not like it much but it was very exciting.’ The girls at Malory Towers were always having ‘rows’ with each other, and I remember feeling pleased that something really worthy of record had happened in my life. The same voice pops up in complaints about teachers as well: ‘I HATE MRS —. She is an old meanie.’ Jacqueline Wilson’s writing style is probably more influential on the diary as a whole, which is full of emotion, loves and hates, echoing the narrative voices of some of her earlier books such as Double Act, The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Bed and Breakfast Star. Some of my illustration attempts also copy the style of Nick Sharratt, especially the way he draws in Wilson’s novel Cliffhanger. You can see this in the picture above, which I drew in response to some exciting events in games at school: ‘We played kicking rounders in games and J— kicked the ball so hard it stuck in the rafters!’
Second, I often dutifully recorded events that I thought were important and hence ‘diary-worthy’, even if I wasn’t really interested in them myself. This diary was written in 1997, so there were a lot of these about. In May, ‘Tony Blair is the new prime minister. He got 4 hundred and something MPs. The Liberal Democrats got forty something.’ (Followed by much more important news the next day: ‘I GOT A GUINEA PIG!’) Princess Diana, however, only got a mention when events actually impinged on my life: ‘PRINCESS DIANA’S FUNERAL ON TV. No post today.’ Occasionally, I would write down observations that were slightly more off the beaten track: ‘We went to see 101 Dalmatians today… On the way home, Daddy said where the cinema was was fields a while ago and by 2015 road traffic would double.’ (Fortunately, he was wrong!)
Thirdly, the format of the diary itself encouraged me to write in a more ‘childlike’ style, because I thought it suited the diary and because there was very little space to fill in for each day. (In my next diary, kept when I was 11/12, I wrote only intermittently but often filled several pages for every day, which was possible because it was only a notebook). The diary I had also occasionally included little questions to fill in. I usually gave these short shrift because I suspected that ‘good’, ‘nice’ answers were expected. For example, I impatiently wrote ‘I will not grow up to be just like my mother because… we want to be different things and are different from each other.’
I suppose the upshot of all this is: how can an historian read a child’s diary when he/she doesn’t have access to all this information that fills in the background of the entries? Obviously, this is a problem for adult diaries as well, but I suppose I find it particularly troublesome for children because I know how simple my thoughts look in my diary compared to how complex my inner life actually was at that age, which feeds into existing stereotypes about how deeply children can feel, or how much they understand. This, of course, is not to say that such diaries shouldn’t be used as sources; indeed, I think they can be incredibly valuable. But using them thoughtfully requires some intense consideration of one’s own beliefs about the ‘child’s voice’ and about ‘childhood’, if those assumptions are not to get in the way.
I have removed the names of classmates and teachers from the diary entries quoted here. I’ve also corrected spellings.