Victorian Diaries

In modern times, diaries are private affairs, often guarded with lock and key.  During the  nineteenth century,  diaries mostly served two purposes.   First, as part of one’s religious practice.   The daily habit of writing was seen as a way to both develop methodical habits and of keeping check on one’s virtues.  The second, was to share observations on the outer world with family and friends.    It was not until the 1930s that memoirs began to emphasize the personal. 

Sharon Marcus writes in Between Women, “Victorian lifewriters who published diary excerpts valued their very failure to unveil mysteries, often praising the diarists ‘reserve’ and hastening to explain that the diaries cited did ‘not pretend to reveal personal secrets’.

    Caroline Healey Dall’s forty-five volumes of journals ( kept from 1838-1911) cover  her involvement with Transcendentalism, and both the Suffrage and Abolitionist Movements.   Helen Reese states, “While it is clear that Dall sometimes composed with future generations in mind, she also seems to have forgotten this audience frequently, writing entries that bare her soul utterly.”

*Sunday Dec 31, 1848-

“Five of us went to this lecture (Higginson’s on American Slavery at Lyceum Hall)…A terrible explosion followed our return.  I cannot to this hour imagine how father could have found the heart to make us all so miserable.  He was very angry and told me that if I continue my anti slavery efforts that I should do it at the risk of losing his affection forever.”

Tuesday May 31, 1849-

“I sewed and taught Willie until it was time to attend the Anti Slavery meeting.  It was intensely exciting…because after Stephen Foster had made one of his most disagreeable and repulsive speeches, Douglas rose, and vindicated his own Christianity, and that of true reform, in one of the finest that ever fell from the lips of man.”

Sunday Dec 9, 1849-

“On Monday, I went into Boston, and had my tooth filled.  The whole city was full of excitement about the Webster and Parkman case.  My own suspicions fixed on Littlefield from the beginning and I was glad to hear from Uncle W. before I left that he was arrested…I have been reading Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps’ and find it a most delicious and refreshing book…”

Tuesday July 23, 1850-

“I spent this morning sadly in a long talk with Ellen (her sister), in which she told me what she thought of my faults- of my bluntness etc, etc. and in which she undertook to tell me that father was on the eve of disinheriting me, on account of my reform notions….I despair of  ever being understood rightly in my own family…I had no comfort that afternoon- save in resting my aching head & eyes on  my husband’s busom- as I wept.  I began to read ‘Jane Eyre’ over- for comfort.”

W. Newton Mass.  Boston-Convention Wednesday Sept 19, 1855-

“…  Miss Hunt welcomed the people, Mrs Davis read her address, and then I followed with my own report (a survey of the laws of Massachusetts regarding married women) – which had a most unmerited success.  E.P. Whipple said it was the ablest thing done in the Convention, some stupid person said that it would have done Dan. Webster credit!”

Tuesday Nov 30, 1858-

“Had a pleasant interview with Mr. Browne, and a talk with him about Margaret Fuller.  He said that she was an inspired Bacante and that it was in that style that she sought influence- therefore Emerson retired and so forth. Browne so out Emersons, Emerson, that I could not ask him if he meant her influence was sexual- yet surely that is the English of that phrase?…Certainly her vigor lay partly  in the hot current of her blood- but so does that of all women to a degree seldom understood by men…”

* diary excerpts from Daughter of Boston, The Extraordinary Diary of a 19th Century Woman by Caroline Healey Dall.  Edited by Helen Reese

other source and suggested reading: Between Women by Sharon Marcus

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Romantic Chess of the Victorian Era

photo of Adolf Anderssen  (July 6, 1818 – March 13, 1879)

During the 19th century (especially from 1851-1870), the style of chess was marked by tactical play and daring sacrifices.  Indeed, it was considered ungentlemanly to refuse a gambit.  One of the most popular opening moves was the King’s Gambit accepted.  In this, white offers a pawn in exchange for establishing  firmer control of the center of the board. 

Chessmasters often met in coffeehouses, where  their matches were not methodical and defensive, but fast-paced, filled with fearless, bold attacks.  Winning did not matter as much as winning with style.

Some of the leading Romantic chess players included such notables as Paul Murphy and Henry Blackburne.  But it was  Adolf Anderssen whose  “Evergreen Game” and “Immortal Game” have gone down in history as two of the most beautiful chess games ever seen.

The latter was played on June 21st, 1851 against Lionel Kieseritzky at the Simpson’s-in-the-Strand divan in London, England.   During the match, Anderssen sacrificed his queen, both rooks, and a bishop.  At the end, Kieseritzky was greatly ahead in both material and points-still possessing his queen, two rooks, and a bishop.  However, Anderssen’s seemingly insane gambits had forced his opponent into a corner unable to defend.   Thus, Anderssen declared, “checkmate” using  his three remaining, weaker pieces. 

The Romantic style of chess fell out of favor when Wilhelm Steinitz (the first Chess World Champion) embraced positional play over  tactical.

Yet, the exhilarating  rapid attacks and brash heroics of the Romantics remain forever in lore.

  Chess scene (inspired by the Immortal Game) in the film, Blade Runner

Of Victorian Women and Whips

“I put out my hands, which she fastened together with a cord by the wrists.  Then making me lie down across the foot of the bed, face downwards, she very quietly and deliberately, putting her left hand around my waist, gave me a shower of smart slaps with her open right hand…Raising the birch, I could hear it whiz in the air, and oh, how terrible it felt as it came down,  and as its repeated strokes came swish, swish, swish on me!”- from Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1870

During the 19th century, women’s periodicals were filled with personal accounts such as the above.  Correspondents detailed use of ropes, handcuffs, which pieces of furniture they tied the girls to, and even the number of strokes they unleashed.  They elaborated on whether they chose to flagellate their daughters while in their drawers or bare-bottomed.  One lady, who signed off as, “A Happy Mother” detailed how she first slathered  her children in cream before whipping them.   

 A debate started in 1868 regarding whether mothers should use corporal punishment on daughters past puberty.     The magazines were flooded by letters to the editors.  Some complained that parents should not take  pride in humiliating their children in such a manner.   Others complained that the accounts were much too titilating  for modest publications.  

 Indeed, as  flagellation was a very popular subject in Victorian erotica, many of  the letters first published in the domestic magazines concerning corporal punishment were later copied verbatum in the adult magazines .   While evidence supports the fact that more men purchased the latter, there are also various accounts of everyday middle-class women not only frequenting the infamous Holywell Street where such stores displayed erotica in their windows, but also wrote and published erotic works of their own. 

However, for most women, such naughtiness could be more safely enjoyed within the pages of the leading domestic magazines.  For, if anyone entered the room while they were reading of servants ordered to pull down a daughter’s underclothes, they could quickly flip the page to an article on fashion, the economy,  politics, or the  latest developments in the suffrage movement.

*source:  Between Women by Sharon Marcus