The Samuel Pepys of ___?
July 28, 2019 9:05 PM   Subscribe

I've begun reading the Diary of Samuel Pepys, and was curious if similar sources exist for other historical periods?

I love Pepys mix of quotidian life, though in some ways it's a little tedious, and events which turn out to be quite historical, at least in retrospect. I'm relatively early in the diary, so his role in the restoration of Charles is fresh in my mind. I was just curious if anyone else is recognized as having had a similar place, in terms of chronicling a particular place in history and daily life as it happened to them?
posted by Alensin to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, as well as other menoirs of women of that era (give or take a hundred years). Also the Paston letters.
posted by Hypatia at 9:23 PM on July 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think you'd be interested in the memoirs of Chateaubriand or the duc de Saint-Simon - both are classics of French literature.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:25 PM on July 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you are interested in a much more recent period, you might enjoy the diaries of Nella Last, a northern England housewife writing from the outbreak of World War II through the 1950s.
posted by huimangm at 11:08 PM on July 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

James Lees-Milne was a prolific diarist and a pretty interesting fellow, circa 1930s-1990s.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 11:35 PM on July 28, 2019

The Kessler diaries. Kessler knew everyone in the early 20th century. I'd go with Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918

He was an art patron, an extremely intelligent man who spoke many languages and was socially liberal. He met Presidents, he saw the birth of Modern Art and 20th century science (friends with Einstein, etc) This article also provides a good overview: Count Harry Kessler: The original hipster.
posted by vacapinta at 1:14 AM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not exactly the same, but you might be interested in Mass Observation, which was a project which got ordinary people in the UK to write diaries and collated them all, originally from 1937-1950s and then again since the 80s. There seem to be various compilations available of the earlier material, personally I encountered it through Simon Garfield’s trilogy of books which follow five individuals through WW2 and into the post-war period. We are at War/Private Battles/Our Hidden Lives. (that’s historical order, Hidden Lives was actually published first)
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:02 AM on July 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

Letters of Pliny the Younger maybe?
posted by crocomancer at 3:10 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Le Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris is an anonymous diary written between 1405 and 1449, probably by a cleric. It's a chronicle of daily life and events in Paris at the time of the Hundred Years' War. It's not intimate, with little or no information about the author's activities but it still reads as a time capsule, with a mixture of mundane things (we learn a lot about food prices and price fluctuations) and historical events, many of them extremely violent, with famine, pillages, and mass executions going non-stop around him. Highlights: the author's perception of Joan of Arc (not favourable: he accuses her of murdering men and women by vengeance), and a vivid description of the arrival a group of 100 "Egyptians" (hence "Gypsies") on August 17, 1427 in Paris.

It was translated in English in 1968 by Janet Shirley under the (more accurate) title "A Parisian Journal, 1405-1449": here are some extracts from the translator's website and also here.
posted by elgilito at 3:46 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, as well as other menoirs of women of that era

See here for etexts of the diaries of Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu and Lady Sarashina (aka Takasue's Daughter).
The Gossamer Years by the Mother of Michitsuna(*) is another classic.

(*) Heian era court ladies were usually known not by their names but by allusions to some close male relative. For example, Murasaki Shikibu belonged to an unimportant branch of the Fujiwara family but we don't know her name, Murasaki was a character in the Tale of Genji. Shikibu just means that a relative of Izumi Shikibu and Murasaki Shikibu worked in the Bureau of Ceremonies, which is what the word means.
posted by sukeban at 4:30 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have the two volume edition of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark which has some of the same rhythm as Pepys* diary with sometimes repetitious details about location and conditions alternating with significant events. Many of these will be familiar from history but interesting because of the authentic viewpoint. I have several other journals from the westward expansion by men and women, a favorite genre when I lived out west.

*I read 6+ volumes of Pepys diary but at the end he stopped writing about his amusingly scandalous daily life and began writing boring essays apparently meant to show his worth as a government official.

And seconding the Paston letters, a revelation about the position of at least one woman in 15th century England.
posted by Botanizer at 5:29 AM on July 29, 2019

Liselotte von der Pfalz wrote frequent and elaborate letters to various German relatives about her life at the court of Louis XIV. She's known for her chatty, natural, straightforward style, took her husband's homosexuality with good humour, and bonded with Louis over their shared love for hunting (until she had beef with his latest mistress). The mean girls at court were all set to bully her for being German and unfashionable (she perceived herself as plain, but didn't let that dampen her spirits), but she won them over by being just generally a fun person to hang out with, I guess. The letters should deliver a good mix of quotidian court routines and events with historic significance.
posted by sohalt at 6:14 AM on July 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: or the duc de Saint-Simon

I came in to suggest this as well. Lucy Norton's 2007 English translation was well reviewed if you don't read French.

Similarly, there's also the The Private Mémoirs of Madame Du Hausset: Lady's Maid to Madame De Pompadour.

Very differently, I've been reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, which have a tremendous amount of domestic and business detail as she was a prolific correspondent, particularly with her mother.
posted by Jahaza at 7:20 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

From my part of the world, we have the Diary of a Country Parson by James Woodforde (1758-1802), and the Paston Letters, which are correspondence between members of a prominent Norfolk family dating to 1422-1509.
posted by sagwalla at 8:04 AM on July 29, 2019

Boswell in Holland, describing his years of study there in the 1760s. And of course the rest of Boswell's journals through 1795.
posted by beagle at 9:00 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you aren't already aware, you can get Pepy's diary entry emailed to you daily on the corresponding day of the year:

I've been getting it for about five years, and it's really interesting to follow the life of an historical figure in "real time" rather than condensed it from a history book.
posted by jetsetsc at 9:51 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not a different historical period, but in case it adds a different perspective to the same one, John Evelyn was keeping a diary at a similar time. His and Pepys’ paths crossed at times.

The other day someone mentioned the diaries of Anne Lister to me and I imagine they’re interesting. There was a recent BBC/HBO drama series about her.

George Orwell’s diaries are online. And there’s the fictional Diary of a Nobody.

( is mine - I hope it’s interesting/useful!)
posted by fabius at 11:37 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest John Evelyn, but general opinion is that much of it was compiled retroactively, which might take it out of the realm of what OP was looking for. Indeed any early modern "diary" should be scrutinized for whether it was actually recording contemporaneous events--especially if it did anything other than discuss spiritual motions. It's not that people were being fraudulent, it's that the expectation of recording events at or near the time they happened wasn't really there yet.

If you get into Saint-Simon, OP, be aware that the three volumes readily available in English are just a fraction of his memoir output (admittedly the likely most exciting years), which, IIRC, runs to like seventeen volumes in French. He's a big project. Most non-specialists (not implying anything about anyone answering this post!) who say they've read him mean they read some extracts once.
posted by praemunire at 11:51 AM on July 29, 2019

You may find this interesting, a history of the daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond, Aristocrats through their prolific letters .
Also this one
posted by Enid Lareg at 1:06 PM on July 29, 2019

Edmund Wilson, for New York in the 20s-50s.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:33 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the wonderful recommendations, everyone. I'm definitely going to look some of these up, though I've already been disappointed that the Diary of a Country Parson doesn't seem to be available in electronic form in my usual sources. I'll keep digging and check into some of the others :)
posted by Alensin at 7:09 PM on July 29, 2019

If you want to venture way out of England, maybe the Baburnama, the autobiography of Babur, the first Moghul emperor. Not many emperors have left first-person accounts!

Or, not too much later than Pepys, there's William Bradford's memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation.
posted by zompist at 11:44 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Fugger Newsletters are a source of news/gossip/rumor around Europe, as related to a prominent banking family by a network of correspondents. Mid-16th c. to the beginning of the 17th.

I like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters too. 18th c. English writer (I mean a literary person, not just a correspondent,) whose husband was the Ambassador for a while.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:00 PM on July 31, 2019

Domestic Manners of the Americans, an 1832 book by Frances (Fanny) Trollope, mother of novelist Anthony, is absolutely fascinating. The book is just packed with detailed and funny accounts of the American scene, and though I'd say she was impressed by grandeur of the landscape, she wasn't exactly taken with many of the people.

Among other things, I was startled to learn how long we've been practicing one of our more distinctive folk arts:
After breakfast, being much in want of amusement, I seated myself by her, and entered into conversation. I found her nothing loth, and in about a minute and a half she put a card into my hand, setting forth, that she taught the art of painting upon velvet in all its branches.

She stated to me, with great volubility, that no one but herself and her daughter knew any thing of this invaluable branch of art; but that for twenty-five dollars they were willing to communicate all they knew.
We've been doing this since at least 1832 — black velvet paintings, that is; we started conning the English centuries before that.
posted by jamjam at 8:37 PM on July 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

Further to jetsetsc, Pepys is on twitter as @samuelpepys, doing the daily. A while ago on a road trip, we listened to an audiobook version--abridged, I believe, but read by Kenneth Branagh, who has the right smugness.
posted by Mngo at 11:41 PM on July 31, 2019

Casanova- The Story of My Life.
posted by Coaticass at 12:50 AM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

More of a single-subject book and a naughty one at that, but My Secret Life is fascinating. The memoir of a Victorian gentleman's rather vigorous sexual life. But it's not really a pornographic book, despite a fair amount of erotic detail. It also reads like a personal diary. Probably at least partially embellished but I believe it's taken to be mostly factual.
posted by Nelson at 2:01 PM on August 3, 2019

Someone on this Wikipedia list may jump out at you as particularly interesting. It is "an international list of diarists who have Wikipedia pages and whose journals have been published."

During a quick browse, I found A Florentine diary from 1450 to 1516, by Luca Landucci (and an anonymous writer), as one example of a historical diary. It's available in digital formats courtesy of
posted by primal at 12:34 AM on August 5, 2019

A bit different but still potentially interesting are the H.R. Haldeman diaries during the Nixon administration. I read the edited versions that got made into a book but looks like you can browse the full version here.
posted by RyanAdams at 6:59 PM on August 5, 2019

William Shirer's Berlin Diary: ... 1934-1941, covering the years after Hitler's rise to power and before US entry into WWII, might make for interesting reading right about now.

The Wikipedia entry has links to a couple of free online sources, too.
posted by jamjam at 10:34 PM on August 5, 2019

Blundell's diary comprising selections from the diary of Nicholas Blundell, Esq. from 1702 to 1728
The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall.
Puritan judge Samuel Sewall witnessed or participated in many of the most important imperial episodes of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Massachusetts. These episodes punctuated his diary, which he kept daily for 55 years to record the issues that concerned him most — family, church, and town. Five representative years from his diary — 1685, 1696, 1706, 1717, 1726
posted by adamvasco at 5:14 PM on August 11, 2019

The Antiquities and Memoirs of the Parish of Myddle, County of Salop
posted by adamvasco at 8:12 PM on August 11, 2019

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, written in Yiddish in the early 18th century. The English aristocracy of the 19th century and early 20th were passionate diary keepers; Cynthia Asquith's Diaries from the First World War in particular are wonderful.
posted by jokeefe at 10:06 AM on August 22, 2019

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