On First Looking into Allingham’s Diary

by Mark Wallace

William Allingham (1824-1889) was a County Donegal protestant who spent most of his adult life in London, a successful man of letters. I picked up his diary in a second-hand bookshop, knowing he was an intimate of Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, along with Tennyson, Carlyle features heavily in the diary. Allingham himself remains a shadowy figure, a reflector through which Carlyle, et al. are filtered, but rarely an agent in his own right.

William Allingham

The diaries are prefaced by Allingham’s own account of his childhood in Donegal, which was to be the opening of his autobiography, never completed. Here he makes one remarkable admission:

In these first years I do not remember to have felt any emotion of affection either for my parents or for anybody else.

This is not to say he remembers an unhappy childhood, just that his parents were not affectionate towards him, and he in turn never felt affection for anybody: “The persons around me were personae merely”.

Another recollection of Allingham’s reminds me of a childhood preoccupation of my own:

A terrible thought of Eternity sometimes came, weighing upon me like a nightmare,- on and on and on, always beginning and never ending, never ending at all, for ever and ever and ever,- till the mind, fatigued, fell into a doze as it were and forgot.

The thought of space, its apparent endlessness, and the conceptual impossibility but simultaneous inevitability of such endlessness, was one that occasionally came upon me in my youngest years with a dazzling force, and I once asked my father, “What’s at the end of space?” He answered, “Bog”. I persisted: “What’s after that?” He said, “More bog”. This answer was unsatisfactory, and bore a clear bias towards envisioning infinite space in the image of the local landscape. It took me much longer to find an acceptable answer to this conundrum, but eventually I stumbled upon Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I didn’t get very far in that dense tome, but within the first few pages I was introduced to the woman who interrupted a scientist lecturing on astronomy with a cry of “Rubbish! The world is a flat plate standing on the back of a giant turtle.” “What,” the scientist asked, “is the turtle standing on?” The woman replied, “You’re very clever, young man, but it’s turtles all the way down.” [quote from memory not verbatim]. I had my answer, and their was no need to read any further. Alas, Allingham did not live long enough to receive such satisfaction.

Not part of the diary is the famous quote said to have been made by Carlyle to Allingham. Allingham was discoursing on something or other, when Carlyle suddenly turned to him and said “Mon, have a care, have a care, for ye have a tur-r-ruble faculty for developing into a bore”. It turns out, James McNeill Whistler is the source for this, one of my favourite Carlyle quotes, having been allegedly told it by Allingham himself. In any case, I will continue reading Allingham’s diary with interest, for it is a good source of information and anecdote and character insight into Carlyle, Tennyson and various other personages of the period 1850-1889. And, I should add, in so far as his diary is a testament, Allingham was by no means a bore, but a great observer and recorder of character, and a curiously and interestingly reserved presence in his own diary.