Book recs - Diaries and letters written by people in late middle age
August 19, 2016 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I want to read journals and letters by people in their fifties and sixties. It could be anyone, anywhere, any century. I prefer good writing, and some levity. Most of all I'm looking for a sense of personality, text that brings the writer to life. The writer in his/her late middle age has lived several decades. They are settled in themselves, yet they still struggle. They look forward to years ahead, and they ponder mortality. What do they have to say?

What I've read so far, in order of enjoyment:

* I'm thoroughly enjoying the mid-life Journals of Thomas Merton.

* Diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf. Of what she wrote during her middle age, I like the diaries much more than the letters.

* "The Secret Eye - The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889". This is slow reading, and often boring. But what a document! Four decades journal of a Georgia plantation owner's wife.

Looking forward to reading George Eliot's letters. I love her novels.
posted by valannc to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The letters of Philip Larkin? I seem to remember that most of them were written in his forties and fifties and, Larkin being Larkin, he gets to the middle-aged tone pretty early. There are also the three volumes of the letters of C S Lewis, volume 3 of which contains the letters he wrote as an well-established writer and a middle-aged man.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:27 PM on August 19, 2016

As Always, Julia, the letters of Julia Child and her editor/champion Avis DeVoto, start when the women are around 40, I think, but certainly continue into their 50s, maybe 60s. Very process-y about cooking and publishing, but loads of personality from both of them.
posted by mskyle at 5:39 PM on August 19, 2016

Best answer: May Sarton's memoir/journal Plant Dreaming Deep which begins when she is 46 and continues for about 10 years. Then the follow on books if you're still interested.
posted by Jahaza at 5:43 PM on August 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals for this although they are memoirs based on journals.
posted by aetg at 5:49 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Evelyn Waugh kept a diary almost continuously from the age of seven until a year before his death in 1966, and extracts from the diaries caused sensation when they were published by in The Observer. Providing the background to the novels which made Waugh famous, these diaries are a sharp and baleful view of the social history of our times."
posted by BWA at 6:22 PM on August 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: James Boswell is best known for his youthful London Journal, but he kept a journal until the end of his life. The man definitely looks forward and backward, pondering mortality. Ditto the late letters of Samuel Johnson.

Not really a journal, but the later essays of Montaigne also sounds like a good fit for what you're looking for.

The diaries of the Ladies of Llangollen.
posted by sy at 6:51 PM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Margaret Laurence's letters to Al Purdy and Adele Wiseman.
posted by brujita at 7:00 PM on August 19, 2016

I just love Janet Frame's multi-volume autobiography. She went through some pretty awful stuff but her voice is captivating.
posted by BibiRose at 8:08 PM on August 19, 2016

Cecil Beaton.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:51 PM on August 19, 2016

+1 Montaigne.
posted by the marble index at 9:36 PM on August 19, 2016

Along the same lines as Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, other members of that "set" that have published journals and/or letters are the Mitford sisters (a book of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, and a volume of letters between all of the sisters, I recall off the top of my head). Also, Diana Cooper has 3 volumes of autobiographical memoir drawn on her letters, there is volume of letters between Diana and her husband, Duff Cooper, and another volume of letters between Diana and her son, who was sent to Canada during WW2. All these letters flying back and forth make me wish we still wrote daily letters (not email). I believe there is also a book of letters between Debo Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, and her lifelong friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was a British travel writer apparently. (Can you tell I'm sort of obsessed with Britain's interwar years?)
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 9:38 PM on August 19, 2016

Best answer: Alan Bennett has a couple of books of collected prose that include diaries. I haven’t read them, but there’s a twitter account that posts selected diary entries which is terrific. The second book, Untold Stories, would definitely fall into your age range. And there’s a third volume due out this autumn apparently.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:24 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

A couple of British political diarists, which might be a bit niche for you: Alan Clark and Chris Mullin.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:31 AM on August 20, 2016

Best answer: Frances Partridge's diaries - also part of the Bloomsbury set. You might also like Diana Athill's memoirs, though they are not strictly speaking diaries. And, slightly further off again, E M Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady. It is fiction and I don't think the protagonist is quite in the age range you want, but it does have levity. I have had good luck in finding diaries I want to read through anthologies like The Assassin's Cloak.
posted by paduasoy at 1:00 AM on August 20, 2016

And Tony Benn.
posted by paduasoy at 1:27 AM on August 20, 2016

I loved Emily Carr's Hundreds and Thousands. It is her diary from her early sixties, and in it she struggles with some profound artistic questions during the height of her painting career. She also details her place in society as a bit of an eccentric, with lots of salty observations of people in her community. There's levity as well, I mean, the woman had a pet monkey, and she writes about its shenanigans. It's a great read.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 6:14 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Book of Margery Kempe is interesting.

From the description on Amazon:
"The story of the eventful and controversial life of Margery Kempe - wife, mother, businesswoman, pilgrim and visionary - is the earliest surviving autobiography in English. Here Kemp recounts in vivid, unembarrassed detail the madness that followed the birth of the first of her fourteen children, the failure of her brewery business, her dramatic call to the spiritual life, her visions and uncontrollable tears, the struggle to convert her husband to a vow of chastity and her pilgrimages to Europe and the Holy Land. Margery Kempe could not read or write, and dictated her remarkable story late in life. It remains an extraordinary record of human faith and a portrait of a medieval woman of unforgettable character and courage."
posted by belladonna at 9:26 AM on August 20, 2016

+1 Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, a lovely book all around, written when he thought he was going to die of cancer. The diaries are the highlight, but his prose reminisces are are well worth reading also. One of the very best books I read last year.
posted by LingeringMoon at 2:05 AM on August 21, 2016

Response by poster: Dear Mefites, thank you for these wonderful suggestions. I marked as "Best Answer" the items that appealed to me most. But this entire list is well worth exploring. Many of these authors are new to me.
posted by valannc at 10:09 AM on August 21, 2016

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