The Great Diarists

A look at some of the greatest diarists of the English language. From the Restoration minutiae of Samuel Pepys to the outrageous personal confessions of Anais Nin, we delve into how diarists have preserved a slice of history and also maintained an ancient literary form. Truth, genius and the infinite complexities of personal relationship are all the constant subjects of diary writing, and we also examine how illusion and obfuscation are critical elements in how a diarist chooses to describe themselves and why the urge to record one’s life in detail has been a constant calling.


  • Face-to-Face


  • Pepys Selected Diaries (any edition)
  • Anais Nin’s diaries (any volume)
  • A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf
  • The Orton Diaries edited by John Lahr
  • The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies


  • Samuel Pepys and the accidents of history: The diary as a literary form. Publication and popular consumption of diaries. Historical incidents as recorded in the diaries. Sexuality and secrets. Illness and discomfort. Capturing a social history through diary writing.
  • Virginia Woolf and the writer’s diary: The role of the editor. Forbidden love. Professional records and creative journeys in the diary. States of mind the unreliable narrator.
  • Anais Nin and the diary as friend: The diary as inspirational text. Expurgation and double lives. Ideas, anecdotes and intended readers.
  • Joe Orton and the confessional: Sex and homosexuality. The diary as betrayer. The vexed question of confidentiality. The place of celebrity. Shaping new generations of thinkers.
  • Kenneth Williams and the unexpected ending: There’s always a joker. The two faces of every celebrity. Showbiz and life-biz. Charting a decline. The diary when there is nobody else.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Recognise the history of the diary as an important literary device.
  2. Describe some of the great diarists and what made them stand out.
  3. See how new social movements are foreshadowed in diaries, and how those diaries later become artefacts of liberationist narratives.
  4. Discuss the psychological importance of the diary and how it is used as a confessional device.

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