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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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wonderful stuff! I’ve sort of stopped journaling myself since I started my blogs, which I regret. I also find myself less willing these days to detail too much of my internal, personal thoughts.

    What an eloquent writer Dall was, such beautiful prose for a diary!

  2. Hey DD,

    Glad you liked the entries. The whole book is very fascinating. She associated with so many greats of the time. And she was a very eloquent writer. You can see how seriously diarists took their writing. Whereas, I think, most people today (myself included) just scribble down random thoughts and such.

    There’s another 19th century diary that was printed some years ago. I recall seeing it in the bookstore but never picked it up. It had been written by some woman during the Civil War. Now I wish I had bought it.

  3. Another you might like then (and I’m not even sure it’s still in print) is “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey” by Lillian Schlissel. Fascinating accounts of how women coped with life on wagon trains headed west during the 1800s. I read it ages ago and it still haunts me.

    I am often impressed by the writing skills of people in earlier generations. Letters home from Civil War soldiers can be shockingly poignant and heartbreaking. I think it’s another skill we are losing in our fast-paced, sound-bite driven age.

  4. Tasha, do you know when lockable diaries were made? I’ve always liked those (but never wanted one for fear of losing the key).

  5. DD,

    Thank you for reminding me of that diary. It also rings a bell.

    *runs to check*

    Okay, it is still in print.

  6. Hey Marian,

    In the book, Between Women, Sharon Marcus writes, “Unrevealing diaries, on the other hand, were plentiful in an era when keeping a journal was common enough for printers to sell preprinted and preformatted diaries and locked diaries were unusual….Locked diaries were so uncommon that Ethel Smyth, born in 1858, still remembered sixty years later how her elders disapproved when she started keeping a secret diary as a child.”

    So they did at least exist in the 19th century. I did a quick search online but wasn’t able to find out exactly when they were invented.

  7. Oh, man, these entries are fascinating. I want to read the whole thing now.

    Makes me wish I enjoyed journaling, but I’ve always hated it, sadly.

  8. I wish I was in the habit of writing everyday, but I’m starting to get into the habit of carrying a notebook everywhere so I hope to get into this habit. The Victorians really had it right

  9. Hi Amy,

    I’m so glad you also found the diary entries interesting. I think I’ll do a few more posts with them. There’s so much within the pages: Her association with so many of the greats of the time: including the Alcotts, Fuller, Peabody, Theodore Parker. The disagreements between the people within the Movements…

  10. Hey Chazz,

    Carrying a notebook around is a great idea. Daily writing helps me immensely in many ways: discipline, stirring of creative ideas…The more I write, the more I want to write. In many ways I think exercising the mind is very much like physical exercise. If you do it daily (or almost daily) it becomes habit. Whereas if one hardly ever works out, it’s hard to to get off the sofa to do so.

  11. I’ve never been very good at diaries so I don’t feel like I can write my thoughts, emotions or anything like that. But the notebook, i use to write ideas, poems, research ideas, etc.

  12. Heya Chazz,

    Word of advice: also slip the notebook under your pillow at night. Some of the best ideas and images come just as one is either falling asleep or waking up. Don’t assume you’ll remember in the morning, or you’ll join the legion of us who’ve ended up kicking ourselves the next day. 😉

  13. I’m from Massachusetts, so I find this history interesting. Though I’ve never kept a diary, I understand it can be wonderfully therapeutic.

  14. I’ve always been fascinated with how prolific some of these early diarists were. I’ve been studying the Transcendentalists lately, so this sounds like a book I need to look for!

  15. “Locked diaries were so uncommon that Ethel Smyth, born in 1858, still remembered sixty years later how her elders disapproved when she started keeping a secret diary as a child.”

    Thanks for the search, Tasha. I liked the above quote as well, since I made it through my angsty years with the help of a private diary.

    When I turned thirty I read the diary again and was surprised at how hormonal and misguided I’d been.

  16. Hi Kristine,

    I´also find the history of that time in New England very interesting. It was such a vital time.

    Regarding diaries, they can definitely be therapeutic for people who use them for that reason.

  17. Hi Dominique,

    If you’re studying the Transcendentalists, the best book I’ve read is, The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall. Elizabeth ran her own publishing house and was the first to publish Emerson’s works. And she was also, if I remember correctly, the first to invent the term, “Transcendentalism”.

    Anyhow, the book is amazing. Reads like a novel (not at all dry like some non-fiction can be), and was a finalist for the Pulitzer.

    Hmmm…I sense a book review post on it coming up! 😉

  18. Hey Marian,

    You’re very welcome.

    Regarding your teen diaries….I’m sure that’s the reaction most people have when they read them years later! 😉

  19. I have several different diaries from the Civil War era written by women. Yeah okay not original manuscripts wouldn’t that be awesome! But they were found and printed. If you are interested I can come back tomorrow when it’s not in the middle of the night for me and tell you the titles.

  20. Hi Lyra,

    That would be great. Thank you! I’d be very interested in knowing those titles, as I’m sure others will be too.

  21. Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman Edited by Charles East

    A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle (Patience Pennington) Edited by John G. Sproat

    A Heritage of Woe: The Civil War Diary of Grace Brown Elmore, 1861-1868 Edited by Marli F. Weiner

    A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary Edited by Gerald Schwartz Note: Esther Hill Hawks is a Yankee.

    A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War: The Diary of Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, 1860-1861 Edited by John Hammond Moore

    Mary Chestnut A Diary from Dixie: The Civil War’s most celebrated journal, written during the conflict by the wife of Confederate General James Chestnut, Jr.

  22. Thank you, Lyra! 🙂

  23. I love that she had her comfort read… And that the use of the word “delicious” to describe a scrumptuous book is not so new as I’d imagined. (I guess this means I’m not the first to use it thusly. ;-))

    I read a book a while back–“Mistress of the Elgin Marble”–a biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, in which the author used the letters of the lady in question as her primary source.

    I was actually disappointed with the lack of “drama” of those letters, considering the countess lived a rather remarkable life. Then again, her letters were meant for all and sundry to read, and possibly she worried also about spies’ eyes. Maybe for that reason her prose was mute and pallid compared to the life she lived. Ah well. Still.

    Let us pray none of my diaries see light. They make no sense whatsoever. 🙂

  24. Sputsie!!

    Yup, she uses our word, “delicious.” 😉 It is funny to find out so many things we think of as modern…are not.

    Regarding the letters, I nod in sympathy. The great thing about the diaries and letters from that time, is due to the fact that they were written for others to see, they are carefully composed and very readable. The negative side, is that we aren’t privy to their more personal endeavors.

    I’d love to find a diary from back then in which a woman chronicles a first person account of well…female issues.

  25. Indeed. 🙂

    And I shall overlook your implication that we are not modern ladies, through and through. 😉 But yes, finding out such things is, well, quite delicious. 🙂


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