April 15. England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.
The ordinary people began to write and publish accounts of their daily lives at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The innovation was not universally welcomed. The editor of the Tory Quarterly Review denounced the new voice: “The classics of the papier mâché age of our drama have taken up the salutary belief that England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia. Modern primer-makers must needs leave confessions behind them, as if they were so many Rousseaus. Our weakest mob-orators think it a hard case if they cannot spout to posterity. Cabin-boys and drummers are busy with their commentaries de bello Gallico; the John Gilpins of ‘the nineteenth century’ are historians of their own anabaseis; and, thanks to ‘the march of intellect’, we are already rich in the autobiography of pickpockets ([Lockhart] 1827, 149).”
Since then the literary marketplace has become accustomed to the diaries and memoirs of the common people. Their popularity has surged at moments of public crisis. Lockhart was protesting at accounts that were appearing of the Napoleonic Wars, the first conflict to foreground the role of ordinary soldiers and sailors. Subsequently the First and Second World Wars, and the Slump of the 1930s, stimulated the keeping of private accounts and the publication of more structured literary narratives.
There is ample evidence that the Coronavirus crisis is another such moment. The Covid2020 project is only one amongst a multitude of personal or collective ventures. It differs from others in its immensely valuable international perspective. Diary-keeping is driven by three obvious conditions. Firstly, it is evident that we are living through a global crisis on a scale that historians will be writing about for the rest of the twenty-first century. Secondly everyone has a role in the drama. Whilst scientists, medical professionals and politicians have their particular responsibilities, the behavior and experience of every citizen of almost every country will be critical to the outcome. Thirdly, those with something to say, now have the time to say it, in the old way in private diaries, or in the new media of semi-public blogs, which surely would have horrified Lockhart.
The problem for historians will be that of engaging with this mass of material in any kind of systematic form. In the Second World War, the pioneering social research body, Mass Observation, which had been founded in 1936, was used by the government to investigate the morale of the Home Front. It both undertook its own surveys and commissioned the keeping of 480 diaries. Its material, which has been digitised and archived by the University of Sussex, is an immensely useful resource for historians, including myself. In 2020 there are a host of opinion-poll organizations, campaigning organisations for at-risk groups, hurriedly commissioned academic inquiries, such as the project at Oxford looking at children’s mental health in the crisis, together with all the memoirs which are more or less available.
I am tempted to see whether I can write a rapid sequel to my History of Solitude to which Brenda kindly drew attention yesterday. A project which began as something of a niche subject three years ago is by complete accident appearing at a moment of maximum relevance. The advantage is that many of the categories of inquiry in my book could be taken forward into the present crisis. I would have both the historical context necessary to measure change, and an outline structure of analysis. Isolation. A Social History might well find a market. The challenge, which I am still contemplating, is whether, even as an interim report, it would be possible to marshal the cornucopia of evidence into a coherent and representative narrative.