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Diary of a taciturn novelist

I LOVE reading other people's diaries. Those of Mr Pooter, Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones are famously fun and fictional although, curiously, less fictive than those of Virginia Woolf, which record, with both eyes fixed on posterity, the shimmering world of Bloomsbury. The much-maligned, much-maligning diaries of Woodrow Wyatt - written with one eye unashamedly on royalty, the other on royalties - are a racy read, but probably less successful in their waspishness than the elegantly crafted diaries of James Lees-Milne.

George Eliot's diaries, however, offer the literary voyeur an altogether more subtle and intimate pleasure. Without the posturings of a cleverly projected persona or any cunning artifice, these are probably as close as you can get to the real thing. Reading them is like dipping into the woman's handbag and finding all kinds of curious cyphers and bits of fluff. Often there is nothing sensational but - given that this is George Eliot's handbag - the contents are all the more interesting for that:

"19. Left East Sheen and came to Worthing. Took lodgings at 21 Steyne. The weather bright and warm.

20. Both miserably bilious and headachy.

21. Only a little better.

Sat.22. Well this morning and bathed. The day divine.

Sun 23. Long walk on the beach but not a mollusc to be seen!"

Sometimes the reader is treated to more instant gratification. The few entries written while Eliot was working on Middlemarch are almost flamboyant in their understatement. Here is the last day of 1870: "I have written only 100 pages - good printed pages - of a story which I began about the opening of November, and at present mean to call "Miss Brooke". Poetry halts just now.

In my private lot I am unspeakably happy, loving and beloved. But I am doing little for others."

George Eliot's journals fall into two categories. She customarily kept a notebook for recording daily entries, and then sometimes used a different book to keep more expansive accounts of journeys, such as a trip to Germany in 1858, and another to Italy in 1864. She would then write formal essays in these notebooks, most of them entitled "Recollections of" places such as Ilfracombe and Berlin.

Both these forms of journal are collected here, but it is the unworked daily diaries that are most startling in their quiet revelation. Complete with asterisks marking her menstrual cycle, these were clearly kept as a private account of her work, reading and social encounters, and the state of her health and finances. The entries are often tantalisingly cryptic because they were intended only as a personal aide-memoire. The larger events in her life are often passed over completely, or alluded to scantily, because these were things she needed no help in remembering.

The editors describe her entry on 9 April 1880 - "Sir James Paget came to see me. My marriage decided" - as "the most notorious example of her withholding major personal events from even this private record". There are notable reticences in the journals - about such mundane matters as food and dress, on the whole, and more generally about relationships. This disappointment is entirely modern, based on false expectations of what a diary (especially a novelist's) should deliver.

On 31 December 1877, Eliot decided to stop using the notebook she had been writing in since 1861. Her remarks are revealing about the function of her journal: "I have often been helped by looking back in it to compare former and actual states of despondency from bad health or other apparent causes. In this way a past despondency has turned to present hopefulness... I shall record no more in this book, because I am going to keep a more business-like diary."

The diary that follows is indeed altogether different, but not for reasons Eliot could have anticipated. In 1878 her beloved partner GH Lewes died, and her joie de vivre died with him. The stuttering entries in this final diary are heartrending and graphic in their demonstration of the overwhelming grief she felt. Her enigmatic short marriage to John Cross is enigmatically recorded and the final entry, several weeks before she died, breaks off abruptly and intriguingly with a sentence beginning "After...".

Given the level of interest in George Eliot's work, and the number of biographies, it seems extraordinary that this is the first time her journals have been published in their entirety. More than a quarter of this material has never been printed before, and many of the versions that have appeared (notably that of Cross, who eliminated all reference to the beloved Lewes) are largely distorted.

Unshrouded by prejudices and the various agendas of biographers, these abridged texts provide fascinating direct access to the author. The unobtrusive editing is sufficiently informative without being overwhelming, although it seems a shame that this is an expensive academic tome. With a more expansive introduction and notes for the general reader, this volume could well be of interest to a wider audience of literary voyeurs.

Charlotte Cory