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

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Passionate Life

“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. “- Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft  was born in London, England on  27 April 1759, the second eldest of six children.   Emotionally neglected by both parents,  she often slept outside her mother’s bedroom to protect  her from Mary’s father when he came home in drunken fits.    Neither parent cared about her education, resulting in Mary only having a few years of schooling. 

From an early age, Mary decided, “I must be independent and earn my own subsistence or be very uncomfortable.”   She escaped home at the age of nineteen and became a companion to a wealthy widow.   In 1783 , with the money she’d earned,  Mary opened a school at Newington Green, outside of London.   Around this time, she penned her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which advocated independent thought, self-discipline, and rationality.    It was published by Joseph Johnson in 1787.   After informing him of her plans of becoming a full-time writer, he helped Mary find an abode in London. 

There, Mary entered a new world of ideas and intellectual debate.  Invited to Johnson’s afternoon dinners she conversed with other writers, artists, and political revolutionaries.   The liberal Johnson had published works by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the mystical poet and painter, William Blake.  Mary fell madly in love with the artist, Henry Fuseli, most famous for his erotic painting, The Nightmare.   Mary was twenty-nine to his forty-seven.  He fascinated her with his  tales of visiting prostitutes and his pornographic drawings.   At a time when proper ladies were supposed to deny their own sexual desires,  Mary welcomed Fuseli speaking to her in such a frank manner.   And not treating her as a fragile doll who shouldn’t hear of such things.  She was devastated when he broke up with her and married one of his models, Sophia Rawlins.

To escape her pain, Mary threw herself into her writing.   The  French Revolution which had begun in 1789 inspired Mary and her circle.  Many believed it would spread to England.  Parliment member, Edmund Burke, condemned the destruction of the French aristocracy in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Mary defended the Revolution in Vindication of the Rights of Man.  In 1790, the second printing had her name attached to it, and she became a bonafide heroine to all English supporters of the cause. 

The Revolution with its dreams of liberty inspired many female writers to critique their subservient place in society.  Six weeks later Mary wrote, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.   In it she urged women to fight for their civil and political rights.  She claimed the only difference between men and women stemmed from upbringing rather than biology.   If girls were granted the same education as boys they would be able to find employment and be financially independent.    “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. ”  She encouraged women to rise “from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away.”  The book made Mary one of the most famous women in Europe.

  In 1792  she traveled to France.    The common people had triumphed.  Joie de vivre spilled out through the streets.     Love affairs were encouraged; celibacy denounced as unhealthy and unnatural.  

But for all the mirth, the Revolution was entering a heightened, dangerous phase.  In January 1793, after King Louis XVI was guillotined, England and Spain declared war on France.  Now, in France,  foreigners were looked upon with suspicion.   Rumors  spread of guards arresting people in the middle of the night.  Mary feared for her life and almost  fled the country.  But she had met a new man: American  Gilbert Imlay.

Imlay, born in New Jersey, had fought in the American Revolution, and  now worked in business (much of it shady).   Even though Imlay admitted to having simultaneous relationships with other women, Mary fell deeply in love.  With Imlay, she wrote in her diary,  she experienced orgasms for the first time.  

The happiness did not last.   On a personal level, Imlay began spending much time away on business.  On a global scale, the radical French leader, Robespierre, rose to power and the Terror began.  Thousands of people (including many of Mary’s own friends who had supported the Revolution) were sent to the guillotine.    In October, the British people living in Paris were rounded up.   Luckily,  Imlay had registered Mary as both his wife and an American citizen. It was at this perilous time that Mary discovered she was  pregnant.   She spent her days working on a new book, A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution.  To  report accurately, she forced herself to go to the Place de la Revolution and watch the  daily beheadings.

On May 14th, Mary gave birth to Fanny.   When Mary joined Imlay, who had gone back to London, he informed her he didn’t want to be husband or father.  Mary attempted suicide by taking laudanum.  Imlay discovered the note she’d left and found her in time.   Afterwards, Mary tried to fight off her depression by traveling around Europe with Fanny and a nursemaid.  Nevertheless, when she returned to London and discovered Imlay  living with another woman,  she attempted suicide for a second time.   If the first attempt was a mere cry for help, there is little doubt that the second time she really wished to die.  Her letter to Imlay expressed: “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold. . . . I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude”

  She stepped out one rainy October afternoon,  rented a small boat, and rowed it over to the less crowded Putney Bridge.   Welcoming death, she plunged into the Thames River.    She  expected to sink quickly as her clothes had become soaking wet from the rain.  Instead, water filled her lungs and she choked.  A  witness jumped in and rushed Mary  to a doctor who resuscitated her.

Of the suicide attempt, Mary wrote: ” I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointment; nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect, I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, it is by other circumstances that I should be dishonoured.”

Afterwards, Imlay offered Mary financial help but she wrote to him for the last time in 1796 refusing his help and saying she departed with him in peace.  Since death had not embraced her as she had expected it to,  Mary stoically decided to get on with her life.   With this new determination, Mary penned, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.   The  book brought her the adoring attention of William Godwin.

From the outside it appeared a bizarre pairing.  Mary was passionate and freespirited.  William, shy and withdrawn.     The former minister had become a founding father of anarchism with his book, Political Justice.   In it, Godwin spoke out against government and envisioned a future society where  people lived harmoniously in total freedom.  

They became very close friends but both were hesitant to make the first step towards romance.  William, being naturally timid, and Mary hesitant to give her heart away again after the disasterous affairs with Fuseli and Imlay.  But by 1796 they could no longer deny their love.  In Godwin, Mary found her soulmate.  They wrote several letters every day to each other; sharing a love for literature, philosophy, and idealistic dreams of a future utopian society.  They calculated Mary’s menstrual cycle for safe times to have sex.   The rhythm method worked as well as always; Mary was pregnant by December.

Godwin considered marriage  a form of slavery for women  (it should be remembered  at this time women surrendered all financial and bodily rights to their husband).    But when Mary voiced her fears of another child suffering illegitimacy,  he agreed to their getting wed.

On August 30th, Mary went into labor and gave birth to Mary Godwin(who would become famous as the authoress of Frankenstein) that evening.   However, the placenta never came out and a doctor was forced to take out the broken pieces by hand.  The procedure, without any painkillers, took several hours.   The doctor did not sterilize his hands or equipment causing an infection.   Eleven days later, with Godwin by her side,  Mary Wollstonecraft passed away.

The conservative Anti-Jacobin Review stated the cause of her death clearly depicted the differences in the sexes, and claimed it,  “the destiny of woman.”

Godwin was too distraught to attend the funeral.  He wrote his friend, Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”

Godwin channeled his grief into devoting all his time to his wife’s memory.  Inspired by Rousseau’s candid Confessions, Godwin sought to write a vivid, true portrait of his wife. He gathered all her diaries and letters and published, Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”.   He believed the honest portrait would enamor people to his beloved wife.  That they would see her as a strong woman who had lived and loved passionately with all her being.   In the preface he wrote, ”  I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel in ourselves an attachment to their fate and a sympathy in their excellencies.”   However, England had become increasingly conservative and the Tory press nearly demonized Mary for enjoying premarital sex and for her suicide attempts.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation remained shattered for over a century.  Women were cautioned that no self-respecting female should ever read her works.   Largely ignored even by 19th century suffrage activists,  it was not until the twentieth century that she was embraced by such luminaries as Virginia Woolfe and Emma Goldman. 

Today, Mary Wollstonecraft  has reclaimed her place  as the mother of the feminist movement.   And unlike many of the members who believed they had to deny their feminine side in order to be equal to men, Mary embraced her femininity.   She  was as unafraid to love as she was to speak out against social and political injustice.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream. “- Mary Wollstonecraft


Writing: The Passion of Your Novel

I recently finished a biography on Emily Dickinson.  These words she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson resignated with me: “I was thinking, today-as I noticed, that the ‘Supernatural’, was only the Natural, disclosed-”

I’ve probed  the hidden my entire life.   I can’t remember a time I wasn’t studying the occult.  I remember being nine years-old and taking out books on psychic phenomena, Edgar Cayce, reincarnation, and so forth along with my trusty Nancy Drews – and wondering why the librarian was looking at me odd.

Another love of mine has always been the Victorian era.  The Victorians were fascinated both by the world around them (evident in all the inventions of that century) and in the nature of man.  Forget the the images of  distant, cold persons so prudish that table legs had to be covered.   Heightened social awareness  propelled Abolition,  the Suffrage Movement, education and work reform.  New ideas sprang everywhere: Transcendentalism, Egyptology, Spiritualism,  Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, Unitarianism.  Health movements such as homeopathy, mesmerism, vegetarianism, hydrotherapy.

It is amusing to think many now look upon those times as “genteel”- when the Victorians feared their lives had become too fast paced due to the railroad and telegram.   In the 19th century- the “Newness”- was all around.

With my great passion  for the so-called supernatural and 19th c. history-  it feels a natural progression that my writing should be fueled with these elements.

What are the passions that drive your novel?

Laura Bridgman: The First Blind and Deaf Person to Learn Language

Laura Bridgman c. 1845

Laura Bridgman was born on December 21, 1829 to a family of farmers in Hanover, New Hampshire.    At two years- old she was struck with scarlet fever and lost her sense of sight, hearing, smell, and even most of taste.   Only the sense of touch remained.   Pushing meant, “Go”.  Pulling meant, “Come”.   Soft patting was approval while heavier smacks indicated disapproval.   Frustrated by her lack of being able to communicate her desires, or understand others, it is little wonder she threw fierce tantrums which only her father could somewhat control.

Laura’s plight caught the attention of Dr. Samuel Howe, the first director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.   Founded in 1829, it was the first of its kind in the United States. Howe was a social reformer who challenged John Locke’s theory that people only gather information through their senses.  Instead, he followed the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy which stated God instilled  people  with innate skills.

In the early 1800s, blind-deaf persons were considered virtually impossible to reach.  Howe was anxious to become Laura’s teacher.  If he could educate a child who’d lived in her own world almost since birth, he’d once and for all disprove John Locke.  Through Laura, he could prove humans were not born with blank minds.

No one had ever before been able to teach language to a blind-deaf person.

Howe traveled to Hanover and convinced Laura’s harried parents to allow him to try educating her.  In 1837, Laura entered the school.

At eight years-old, she did not know her own name.

Howe first taught her words before individual letters.  He pasted papers printed in raised letters upon common items such as keys and silverware.    Once she comprehended that these “bumps” signified the object, he taught her the alphabet and how to combine letters to form words.   From there, Howe taught her how to communicate with others through the manual alphabet.  Two years after entering the school,  Laura was able to write her own name.    Once adept in language, she followed the general curriculum of other students:  reading, writing,  math, history, geography, geometry, and philosophy.

drawing of Howe teaching Laura c. 1838

Laura’s success attracted people from all over the world.  Charles Dickens visited her in 1842, and with his usual over-sentimentality described her as, “pure and spotless as the petals of a rose”.  In reality, Laura, though amiable, was quick-tempered and moody.

Fame had its price.  Victorians were fascinated by “freaks”, and unfortunately, Laura became a sideshow.  Hundreds of tourists came weekly to watch the girl “perform” by finding places on a relief map or signing her name.   Little girls poked the eyes out of their dolls and named them, “Laura”.

Howe, himself, played a part in some of the pageantry.   He brought his most talented pupils on tour, including Laura.  On stage, they performed plays and recited poetry.   While Howe wished to change the public’s general perception of those with disabilities, it is also evident that he was soliciting donations.

In 1843, Samuel Howe married Julia Ward and left for a honeymoon in Europe.   During his absence, Laura  began to read religious tracts that differed from Howe’s own Unitarian beliefs.  She found his God to be too abstract and wished to feel a more personal Savior.   After several months of intense reflection, she became a devout Baptist like her parents.    Howe returned,  incensed that his greatest pupil who he considered a daughter, had rebelled against him.  In truth, Laura had entered puberty and was becoming a woman with her own mind.

While Laura remained her entire life at Perkins, her relationship with Howe was never the same.   She never got over the hurt of his rebuff of her.  After his death, she wrote to a friend, “I think much of Dr. H. day & night, with sorrow, & gratitude, & love, & sincerity.”

Laura taught needlework at the school and sold some of her own handmade crafts.  Two of her greatest loves were reading and writing letters to friends and family.  At the age of 59, she became ill and died on May 24, 1889.

Laura Bridgman’s sufferings and triumphs were not in vain.  In 1886,  Arthur and Kate Keller had read Dicken’s account of her.  Their own daughter, Helen, had also been struck with scarlet fever at the age of two and had become blind and deaf due to its horrible effects.    They hired Annie Sullivan, a graduate of Perkins, to teach their six year-old feral daughter.

Using the methods Samuel Howe had used on Laura Bridgman,  Annie Sullivan would become known as, “The Miracle Worker”.   Her pupil, Helen Keller,  learned to speak, read Braille in English, French, German, Greek, and Latin.   After graduating from Radcliffe College with honors,  Helen became a world-famous speaker and author.   A human rights advocate, she spoke out for the suffrage movement and the abolition of slavery.

It must be remembered, that born a half-century earlier, Laura did not have the same access to braille books as Helen.  Helen once stated that if Annie Sullivan had been Laura’s teacher, “she would have outshone me”.

Thanks to Samuel Howe’s innovative teaching and a little farm girl who refused to live in darkness, a new world was opened for Helen Keller and all those who followed.

Laura Bridgman reading in South Boston. c 1888