Is it a diary?

Is it a diary?

If one person writes a diary entry, but in doing so almost exclusively uses information sent to them by someone else, is this still a diary? And if not, what is it? This interesting question has arisen in connection with recent work on the Forbes diary, kept over a more than 60 year period in the south eastern Transvaal. The short answer is, it all depends on what kind of a diary about what kind of entity it is.

Not all diaries are an account of the daily life of the person of the diary-writer, but can take a variety of different forms. In this particular case, the diary is not a personal record, although it has  particular writers whose names are known, but is the account of an entity which was the Forbes family as seen and interpreted by the diary-writer, and the Forbes family as located in a particular landscape, that of the Athole Estate. This was in part a Home Farm, in part a set of interconnected large additional farms, in part a series of varied business ventures including breeding thoroughbred horses and floating a mining company on the international stock exchange, among others. The diary is focused on activities concerning the Home Farm and those associated with it, but taking into account aspects of all these other activities as they were embedded in the actions and movements of wider family members and business associates.

The Forbes diary, then, is related to a semi/formal organisational entity, which can be thought of as a figuration in the terms theorised by Norbert Elias, and it is this that is the focus of the year on year diary-entries. These are akin to the captain’s log of a ship (or the star-ship Enterprise, for Star Trek fans), written by the person in charge, comprising a daily record of the organisational entity concerned and providing an impersonal account of the activities of the people and the material objects involved. As background information, the farm diary as a sub-genre in the post-1902 Transvaal context could be called upon in formal circumstances such as legal cases, and also various of information it contained, regarding rainfall, temperature ranges, farm fires, stock diseases and movements, had to be returned to the local Department of Agriculture. This is not to say that the Forbes diary is an entirely formal set of documents, but that it is a mixed genre phenomenon which combines an account of specific people and many evaluations of character and behaviour with always doing this in association with the economic life that was its prime concern.

In the case of the Forbes diary, when the ‘captain’, the prime diary-writer, was absent, another senior family member took over the task, for this entity continued needing to be recorded. The diary-writer was the person seen as in overall charge; and until his 1905 death this was David Forbes snr. For a number of periods of his absence, this activity was done by Kate Forbes, another power in the land. However, in later years, the person in charge in some circumstances did not recognise that there was another fully competent person who could appropriately do this task. This occurred when the widowed Kate Forbes, very much the authority figure in the Forbes figuration for the period after David’s death until her own in the early 1920s, was recuperating from pneumonia in Durban. The Home Farm manager of the day, a young relative called Robin Forbes, sent her an account of each daily round, and she then paraphrased this and added to it using other sources of information provided probably by one of daughters to produce her ‘official’ diary-entries. And on an earlier occasion when she was absent due to illness, her eldest son Dave had compiled a diary, but Kate in parallel wrote one too: she used notes provided either by him or someone else and still completed ‘the’ diary for the period in question. Clearly, she clearly did not see Dave as being in charge in the formal sense of this word any more than she had Robin.

It’s a diary, then; but a diary of a  distinctive kind.

Last updated:  1 Aug 2019


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