Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research

The Public Life of the Private Diary: Alexander Masters and Sally Bayley

22 February 2017
Jubilee Building, Room G22
University of Sussex

In this seminar on ‘The Public Life of the Private Diary’Sally Bayley and Alexander Masters will reflect on two very different diary-related projects. 

In The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets  (Unbound, 2016), Bayley tells her own coming of age story through diary writing, and mixes memoir with reflections on the diaries of famous literary figures such as Woolf, Plath and Orwell. She also discusses political diarists: Pepys himself, John Adams and the more recent musings of Alan Clark and Tony Benn. 

In A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip (Harper Collins, 2016), Alexander Masters is seduced by the unique project of writing the biography of a person he encounters only through reading a random selection of her diaries, found by a close friend, in a skip. With some reluctance he eventually uncovers the identity of the diary-writer - but what are the ethics of playing detective with a real person's life and writing?  

Both projects explore the gendered boundaries between public and private lives, our fascination with diaries and our relationship with their writers, who in some sense become intimate friends. They are both experimental in form, weaving the author’s own stories through that of their subjects.  

 Sally Bayley book cover          Alexander Mastes A Life Discarded cover

Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall. She directs the Oxford Relit Summer School: http://www.relitsummer.org.uk/. She has published two books on Sylvia Plath, Eye Rhymes: The Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007), and Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011). She has also published a book on domesticity in American literature and culture, focusing on Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan: Home on the Horizon, America’s Search for Space (Peter Lang, 2010). Sally Bayley has produced and contributed to several film projects on Plath and Dickinson with film maker Suzie Hanna. She is now completing a literary memoir for Harper Collins which tells the story of her young life, growing up in an all female, charismatic household, through reading.

Alexander Masters is the writer and illustrator of Stuart: A Life Backwards (Harper Collins, 2005), the biography of Stuart Shorter, a young homeless man. As well as tracing Stuart’s route through a troubled childhood to homelessness and addiction, the book tracks the friendship and dialogue between its author and its subject. It won the Guardian First Book award and the Hawthenden Prize. Masters also wrote a screenplay adaptation for the BBC, broadcast in September 2007. It won the Royal Television Society Award in the Single Drama category and the Reims International Television award for the Best TV Screenplay. In 2007, Masters collaborated with photographer Adrian Clarke on the book Gary's Friends (West Pier Press), chronicling the lives of drug and alcohol abusers in North-East England. Masters is also the author of The Genius In My Basement, a biography of mathematician Simon P. Norton. 

This seminar is presented in collaboration with the English Colloquium seminar series and the Mass Observation Archive.