Is it right to publish the private diaries of the deceased?

27 May

In line with my recent Victoria Day post, I subsequently stumbled upon a story at the Daily Mail, that Queen Victoria’s private diaries have been shared online by the current Queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

While they are no doubt interesting, I have mixed feelings about that, though; generally, I really don’t like the idea of someone’s private diary being published, released for general consumption, without their express permission granted (if deceased, then mentioned in their will).  If they had wanted it published, they’d have done so, or written their memoirs – unless they died suddenly, without having the chance to put it in their will, in which case I’d rather err on the side of caution.  I know, the world of literature would be the poorer, without Samuel Pepys’s diary, Anne Frank’s diary, and so on.  But still; it strikes me as the most massive invasion of privacy, ever; and I’m not sure the fact that the persons are deceased and so incapable of being embarrassed about it is a good enough excuse for doing so…  Certainly, if the person is relatively recently deceased, their family members might be embarrassed on their behalf.  But even if it’s someone who died a very long time ago, with no relatives still alive who knew them personally, I still don’t like the idea, somehow; it just doesn’t seem right to me.

What do y’all think?

*Update: It appears, on closer reading of the story, that on some level Queen Victoria predicted people might be interested in their content, and in fact, had her youngest daughter transcribe some of them after her death.

Nevertheless, IMO my general point, esp. in the case of those who didn’t assent, still stands.  Let’s discuss.


Posted by on May 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


21 responses to “Is it right to publish the private diaries of the deceased?

  1. infantrymedic

    May 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    The Whitest Kids You Know feel the same way.

  2. Will S.

    May 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Ha! That’s great! Thanks infantrymedic.

  3. Jennifer

    May 27, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    You know, I’ve wondered that too. I’m very much AGAINST the fact that someone published Anne Frank’s diary against her uncle’s wishes. He removed some things he thought too personal, but some jerk(s) put it right back in after his death. Both articles I read which mentioned this said it was “lucky” they did so; creeps.

  4. Will S.

    May 27, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Hey Jennifer: I hadn’t realized the original publishing was done against her uncle’s wishes, but I did hear about the ‘new details’ that have been ‘added back’, mostly concerning her budding adolescent sexual fantasies or something such. Honestly, when I heard about the new content only released in more recent years, it made me question the whole value of publishing any of it. It seems to me, that if you’re going to violate someone’s privacy, you should give the entire, unairbrushed picture – and if you can’t actually bring yourself to do that, maybe it’s good to question if you should bother publishing it in the first place.

    BTW, can you imagine if someone were to publish the diary of a dead teenage Afghani girl’s diary today (killed in the conflicts of recent years), complete with sexual thoughts included? I think an American embassy might be bombed in the Middle East if anyone was stupid enough to do that, not to mention the publishing company’s headquarters…

  5. Jennifer

    May 27, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Of course, we can’t get the entire picture of the Holocaust through a teen’s eyes if we miss out on her sexual fantasies, can we? Ugh, how could anyone claiming to support a classic of true literature fight to insert such stuff as a real little girl’s private development?? I think leaving such things out would be very reasonable; her uncle had the right idea, and it was HIS right anyway to insist that such things be removed. As for an Afghan girl, indeed, and for once I’d understand the Muslims’ anger.

  6. Will S.

    May 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    I think it’s even more reasonable to take as one’s standard, that publishing any bit of a diary, without the express consent of the writer having been given, is not right, and instead of deciding what bits to publish, to not publish at all.

    Most people who keep diaries, intend them to be private journals of their own thoughts, just for their own consumption, and we should honour that, IMO, by not publishing their works. They’re not like blog postings, on the kinds of blogs that are less issue-oriented, and more “here’s my life” kinds. Even there, usually people who post such tell-all blogs, do so under pseudonyms, and with details like company names, left out.

  7. Jennifer

    May 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Yes, exposing one’s private life to the world is not usual, and in Anne’s case it was explicitly and deliberately done against family wishes.

  8. Will S.

    May 27, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Which makes it an especially egregious offense, IMO.

  9. Jennifer

    May 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Yes indeed. I vowed then I’d never purchase the book. If I could only find the edition her uncle edited (which may be the second edition), I might change my mind, but am not very enthusiastic about it.

  10. Will S.

    May 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I’m personally tired of seeing movie / reading about WWII and the Nazis, myself. I was sort of forced to watch ‘Sarah’s Key’ not long ago, when I was hanging out at some friends’ house, and I found the whole movie just utterly demoralizing, with no redeeming message, just unremitting horror. I can’t imagine reading the book…

  11. Jennifer

    May 28, 2012 at 12:00 am

    That’s a shame. Another thing I try to do is only focus on stories which deliver some kind of hope, or something at least other than non-ending depression. I can’t afford to do anything else now, if I ever could before; life wears on you.

  12. Will S.

    May 28, 2012 at 12:11 am

    I feel the same, Jennifer.

  13. Jennifer

    May 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    If you’re interested in a war story that’s not WWII, this one looks good:

    Thinking of many such things on Memorial Day.

  14. samsonsjawbone

    May 28, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    I get in dark moods where all I can “enjoy” is unremitting horror. (“Enjoy” is not really the right word.) Anyway, agree with you about publishing people’s private diaries – ought not to be done.

  15. Will S.

    May 28, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    @ Jennifer: Thanks for the kind sentiments and recommendation, but I’m not particularly interested in the Vietnam War; we Canadians didn’t officially participate, as a country, in it; I’ve seen a few Vietnam War movies, like Apocalypse Now, but I’m not interested on the whole in the genre, to any great degree.

    @ Samson: Yeah, horror of the real kind is not for me.

    Yeah, I think publishing diaries without the express permission of those in question, is really a violation of their privacy.

  16. Jennifer

    May 28, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    Oh yeah, sometimes I forget you’re Canadian.

  17. Will S.

    May 28, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    I don’t know how you can forget that, since I not only don’t hide it, but do a lot of Canadian-themed posts, both here and at Happolati’s Miscellany, but I’m sure you’ll certainly remember, next time. 🙂

  18. Jennifer

    May 29, 2012 at 12:16 am

    I’ll try my darndest, lol. I’m not that interested in Vietnam per se either, but ever since I got Andre Dubus’s lone novel “The Lieutenant”, I decided to look for another war book to put into my collection of men’s stories. “Matterhorn” may be a bit steep though.

  19. Chris

    May 29, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Will, I disagree.

    Once the last person mentioned in the diary has been dead for 100 years, the item is historic, and publish away. Treat them like official secrets: by the time they are published there is no tactical use in them.

    It is interesting how, now the documents from the cold war and the Falklands war are being declassified, how some of the reasons why certain decisions were made become apparent. (the McCarthy enquiries for the Americans: the sinking of the Belgrando for the Commonwealth).

    Victoria is long dead. I think privacy has stopped now. And she lived right through one of the most interesting periods of the British Empire, and knew most of the major players. I would be very interested (but I do not think I will alive to see it) in what our current queen’s diaries say.

  20. Will S.

    May 29, 2012 at 8:54 am

    @ Chris: Oh good! I was hoping at least SOMEONE would disagree. 🙂

    In the case of Victoria, though, as I mentioned in my update at the bottom of the post, there is evidence she wanted her diaries published, so that I don’t mind. I was thinking more of Anne Frank – and also the long-dead Samuel Pepys.

    So, you think the fact that Pepys had been dead for over a century before his diary was ever published, justifies it, eh? I don’t know; it isn’t clear to me that Pepys concented, even though he wanted all his books, including his diaries, preserved intact as a collection, after his death. Doesn’t mean he wanted them transcribed and published! I note, from the wiki, that the first three transcriptions all omitted the sexual details, but, as with Anne Frank’s diary, these were eventually added back in.

    I suppose after a century, there’s likely no-one around in the family who personally knew the individual in question, so no-one to be embarrassed. Even so, I don’t know; it just doesn’t see sporting.

    I have written some private diaries, which I NEVER want published, even a century after I’m gone. I think I should perhaps destroy them. Or maybe turn them into blog posts. (j/k) 😉


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