It comes as no surprise to a reader of Jane Austen that Mary Chesnut was also an Austen reader. It shows in three primary ways: the humor blended with seriousness, the novelistic tendencies of the diary, and the commitment to the lives and problems of women. Even in the darkest days of the war, Mary wrote in the diary, “I laugh aloud.” She was determined to show no one, not even her husband, how grim her fears and forecasts for the future were. Like Austen, Chesnut also loved novels; perhaps her favorite was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), for it showed, as she was attempting to do, all levels of society, both moments of nobility and episodes of ridiculous behavior. She also saw life and society as a Vanity Fair.
Indeed, the novelistic aspect of the diary has been often remarked upon, most notably by Edmund Wilson, the eminent literary critic, who observed that Chesnut establishes, “as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone.” Wilson especially draws attention to the story of Sarah Buchanan “Buck” Preston and General John Bell Hood, whose on-again, off-again romance lends suspense to the pages and whose final failure to marry serves as a metaphor for the end of the war and the decline of the South.
Chesnut’s inclination toward novels actually led her to attempt the writing of fiction in between the writing of the journals in the 1860’s and the major revision of the 1880’s. Her first novel, The Captain and the Colonel, takes place in wartime and draws upon her family and friends for the characters. She spent much time revising her work, trying to improve on the plot, character development, and dialogue. Her second fictional attempt was Two Years of My Life, also drawing on her own life, including her romance with her husband, James Chesnut, Jr. Neither novel was ever published, but surviving chapters suggest, according to Woodward, that these serious efforts at the writing of novels influenced and helped to shape the major revision of the diary in the 1880’s.