Written in a code devised by William Mason in his 1707 book La plume volante, Byrd's diaries scrupulously maintained an account of his daily life. Only in the twentieth century did scholars pore over the diary manuscripts to decode them.
Keeping a became popular in the European Renaissance, particularly as a form of religious devotion. Diarists would frequently keep scrupulous accounts of their fault, failings, and frailties, an characteristic particularly of Puritan American diarists. In a sense a diary is an example of what Stephen Greenblatt has called "self-fashioning," that is a method of self-conscious examination and improvement and a method of documenting (for oneself and perhaps for others) or performing (on paper) an identity.
Two things strike most student readers of the diary. First, Byrd's religiosity seems very formal and superficial, particularly in contrast to the rigorous scrutiny of Puritan diarists. This quality may be explained in part by Byrd's Anglicanism, which looked for salvation in the rites and rituals of the Church of England. Where Puritans expected to have (and used diaries to document) a conversion experience, mainstream Anglicanism provided the formalism of the Book of Common Prayer as the sign of religiosity.
Second is Byrd's voracious sexuality, certainly a marked contrast to New England Puritan writers. Some readers construe his predatory sexuality as an amusing peccadillo, simply consistent with the rakish behavior of many eighteenth-century gentlemen. However, it is important to remember that in the Southern colonies a rigidly patriarchal society maintained a vicious double standard: on the one hand, men (especially men of the landed gentry) were expected to "sow their seed"; fornicating or adulterous women, on the other hand, if caught were punished severely. In fact, some gentlemen deliberately impregnated their female indentured servants in order to extend their servitude. Byrd's attentions to women crossed class lines (but do not seem to have included his slaves, which cannot be said for all Virginia's landed gentry).
As you read, consider the following questions:
What do the diaries tell us about Byrd, his times, his society? How do his diaries compare to those of other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century figures hat you have read? What sense do you make of Byrd's almost mechanical habits? How do you react to his almost predatory, certainly unruly sexuality?
Return to William Byrd II of Westover Homepage.
Prepared by Dr. Thomas L. Long, October 1998.