Having briefly gone down that particular Google rabbit hole, I can safely say – I don’t know. Plenty of others purport to know, however, if you need to fill a vacant hour or three.

I think diaries are to a finished text the way preliminary sketches are to a finished oil painting. Beautiful, sure, and interesting, definitely, but a not necessarily a work of art in their own right.

But all that probably doesn’t matter.

The diaries that get published are polished, are shaped and – in a sense – created to become a satisfactory narrative. Unlike the diaries you might find in an archive, or in a bedside drawer, published diaries often include biographical context, explanations, footnotes. They’ve been published precisely because they are interesting, rather than your Uncle Bob’s pocket diary with its endless lists of meals eaten and trains spotted. Such information might be useful for the specialist researcher, but is less interesting for the general reader.

It’s also crucial to point out that published diaries have, almost always, been edited. Which means some entries have been left out. But which? And why? What decisions have made been that the reader doesn’t necessarily know about?

Similarly, reading cursive writing can be tricky (depending on idiosyncrasies the writer, of course). So, for researchers, having a published “transcript” is often a blessed relief. Yet even where entries are included in the published document, it’s possible that words and even whole sentences have been mis-transcribed. In the past I’ve certainly found this to be the case with published letters.

The wise researcher, therefore, always attempts to return to the source, to the original documents.

Even then, though, understanding what the diarist is referring to, out of context, can also be hard.

Book cover: A Colonial Woman The Life and Times of Mary Braidwood MowlePatricia Clarke, in her A Colonial Woman: The life and times of Mary Braidwood Mowle 1827-1857 (Allen & Unwin, 1987) points out that Mowle’s daily diary entries usually include the single word ‘worked’, by which Mowle means that she spent at least part of the day working – sewing, and making clothes for her family. Knowing this, it becomes confronting to see how much of Mowle’s time this takes up.

First Fleet colonist Lieutenant Watkin Tench, in his much-lauded 1793 publication A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson off-handedly describes one of the Second Fleet vessels, arriving in New South Wales after traversing the Southern Ocean in winter, as ‘jury-rigged’. He then never mentions it again. Because he didn’t have to. He knew, and he knew that all his contemporary readers would know, what it meant for a vessel to be jury-rigged.

As it happens, I know too, but only because I’ve read all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Master and Commander novels, which are mainly set on British naval vessels during the Napoleonic wars.

A jury-rigged vessel is one using temporary, makeshift rigging in order to bring a disabled vessel into harbour. Tench’s short phrase ‘jury-rigged’ actually evokes a life-and-death scene of rigging failing during a storm, and crew members risking their lives to repair it as best they could, with whatever they had to hand, until their ship could limp to safety. It is a phrase easily missed by any modern reader not conversant with sailing ships (and if that’s you, do try those Patrick O’Brian novels. You won’t be sorry).

Many published diaries also include a contextual narrative provided by the editor. I often find these historical and biographical insights incredibly helpful and interesting. They place the diarist in her own time and space, and fill us in on the bigger picture.  As readers, we receive the advantage of the editor/researcher’s insights and expertise as well as being granted easy access to the primary source. Having that context also makes reading the actual diary entries much easier.

Melbourne-based Bev Roberts, a self-described writer, poet, historian, gardener, cook and proud virago, did something similar, and similarly helpful, in Miss D and Miss N: an extraordinary partnership, the diary of Anne Drysdale (published in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing in association with State Library of Victoria).

Anne Drysdale (1792-1853), a Scottish farmer, emigrated to Australia in 1840. Within months of her arrival, she met Caroline Newcombe, another émigré who was 20 years Drysdale’s junior. The two women formed a passionate friendship and began a shared life as pastoralists and farmers near Geelong, in Victoria.

Drysdale’s diaries begin in 1839, as she boards the ship that will take her to the other side of the world, and follow through to her death, at which point a grieving Newcombe took up the pen for another year or so.

The entries provide useful, fascinating and often detailed insights into the women’s daily farming life. Editor Bev Roberts offers a solid introduction, and then at the beginning of each chapter provides more useful context.

The following entry, which I’ve chosen more or less at random, is typical:

Thursday 7th March 1844

Fine. Armstrong lounged horses, etc. Robert threshed, Hyland jobbed about, put the bees into another scape. Caroline, Miss Clow, Mr Jeffreys & I breakfasted early & went to call upon Mrs Latrobe and Miss Fenwick. Caroline & I in the new chaise, the others on horseback. We returned at sunset. Mr & Miss Roadknight called.

It’s not fine literature, it’s a farmer’s diary and at that level it provides fascinating insights for historians and general readers alike.

‘Lounging’ a horse, by the way, would today be described as ‘lungeing’ it – exercising and training a horse that moves in a circle around the handler, who holds a long line about 8 metres long, attached to the horse’s bridle. The diary is full of these little horsey moments, which as a horsey person myself, I found delightful. Drysdale’s horses play up, run off, they buck, they rear, they die and they only occasionally seem to do some of the work for which they were purchased.

Equally interesting, to me at least, were Drysdale’s detailed descriptions of washing the sheep prior to shearing, which I drew on for my biography of Elizabeth Macarthur (another woman colonist who had a bit to do with sheep).

I imagine that writers of historical fiction also draw on diaries like these, to capture the telling details that lend authenticity to a work.

The diary also serves as an important reminder – if such is necessary – of the ongoing British project of invasion and colonisation. Melbourne was formally established in 1835, and the colony of Port Phillip was still in its infancy when Drysdale arrived.

Drysdale describes mounted police setting out to “find some of the blacks who committed [a] murder” of a white shepherd and goes on to note that the “government certainly ought to do something for the protection of the white population.” The protection of the Black population does not seem to occur to her.

A few months later, this entry sums up Drysdale’s paternalistic approach.

December 9th, 1840

Yesterday a tribe of natives, all men, came marching past the house about 60 in number, they walked in regular order each carrying his spear & a cockatoo’s feather in his head. The women & children followed & made their miam miams close to the house. They are quite tame & seldom do any mischief here.

Those cockatoo feathers – what a telling detail. I can see them in my mind’s eye. It is sadly true, however, that sometimes the only records available to First Nations communities about their forebears are diaries like these, magnifying their documentary importance and value.

The relationship between Drysdale and Newcomb is, in a low key way, occasionally celebrated by the queer community. But the diary provides few insights into the women’s emotional lives and anyone looking for details of a sexual relationship between the pair won’t find it. They loved each other, though, that’s clear.

In her will, Drysdale left everything to Newcomb, much to the horror of her brothers back in Scotland, and Newcomb continued running their property ‘Coriyule’ after Drysdale’s death. In 1861 Newcomb married the local reverend, a man twelve years her junior. I know, right? People are endlessly fascinating. Perhaps tellingly, when Newcomb died in 1874 she was buried beside Drysdale at Coriyule.

So – what do you think? Are diaries literature? Let me know in the comments!

For further information about Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb:

  • The four volumes that comprise Drysdale’s diary (a fifth volume, the second to last, is missing) are held at the State Library of Victoria. Click through to see Drysdale’s beautiful cursive script
  • Historical Ragbag – a long, useful and highly recommended blog post about Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb, including lots of relevant photos and images.
  • The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Anne Drysdale
  • The township of Drysdale, then near Geelong and now a suburb, was named in honour of Anne Drysdale. The Geelong suburb of Newcomb, originally known as West Maloop, had its name was changed at the request of the West Maloop Progress Association in 1956.

For further information about Watkin Tench (and an absolute cracker of a read) I can recommend 1788, by Watkin Tench. Edited and introduced by Tim Flannery. Text Publishing, 2009.

This post is an extended version of a guest post I provided to the Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog.