Women's Diaries Overview - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Huff (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: An introduction to British Women's Diaries: A Descriptive Bibliography of Selected Nineteenth-Century Women's Manuscript Diaries, AMS Press, 1985, pp. ix-xxxvi.

[In the following excerpt, Huff describes commonalities of form, structure, and content among nineteenth-century women's diaries.]

Not long after the close of the nineteenth century, Virginia Woolf speculated about the form and content of diaries while writing her own. Characteristically, she decided that she would like hers "to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends." Yet she realized too that the diary could not be shapeless, for "looseness quickly becomes slovenly," and she feared her own diary writing "becoming slack and untidy." Woolf's comments in many ways capture the impulse and practice of diary writing for nineteenth-century British women. Women in the last century wrote diaries because they wished to embrace the flux of life, to store its nuances in a place of safe keeping, so that when the time came they could sift and evaluate the past, whether it was measured by the recurrence of birth and death or by the tallying of accounts. As Woolf realized, creating a diary is a skill which requires the manipulation of the vastness of experience. By deciding what to enter in her diary and which form to use to encase the record of her life, each [diarist] tells her own story in her own way.

Recently scholars have recognized our need to hear the stories told by little-known or neglected women, for only by hearing their voices can we rightfully evaluate our own past and their place within it. Echoing Virginia Woolf, Elaine Showalter [in A Literature of Their Own] emphasizes that the extraordinary woman must be viewed in relation to her contemporaries, and, furthermore, that the study of women's lives provides new pathways for the investigation of numerous other disciplines. Her comments are generally confirmed by scholars of women's studies, who are keenly aware of the necessity for uncovering the writings of women, not only because these are fascinating accounts, but also because these records contain much information about medical practices, the configuration of the family, recreational activities, child care, political events, and social customs.…

Nineteenth-century British women's manuscript diaries are of two types: those kept in a printed format and those whose format is self-determined. The self-determined volumes are usually bound, although in a few cases the diary keeping impulse exerts so much influence that the writer creates a makeshift journal of single sheets of paper folded together. In the self-determined diary the writer is free to choose the format, which can vary from daily to yearly entries and may include newspaper clippings, sketches, and poems, as well as notations of expenditures or addresses. The printed format is imposed on the diarist, although the writer often ignores and violates the rules, spaces, dates, and arrangements dictated by the diary publishers.

One of the primary features of diaries with printed formats is their compendium of useful information, since they were intended by their publishers to function simultaneously as personal records, almanacs, and account books. The blurring of the distinctions between the monetary and the personal, as well as between the public and the private, is especially strong in volumes with printed formats, where the diarist enters her comments alongside pages for accounts. Such an ordering facilitates an equation of monetary reckoning and personal evaluation. Furthermore, the inclusion in diaries with printed formats of certain types of public information and features of popular entertainment provide a direction and framework for the diarist's rendition of her life.

The contents of diaries with printed formats changed over the course of the century. As entertainment began increasingly to center on the acquisition of goods, the rebusses, charades, and Vauxhall songs which were common in the first few decades gave way to a spate of advertisements at the close of the Victorian era. Such a change betokens the different attitudes at the beginning and the end of the nineteenth century, and indicates as well how the study of diaries with printed formats can help the social historian determine trends.

Analyzing the format of these diaries helps determine the writer's self-conception and social class… By selecting a volume entitled a "Ladies' Diary," a writer provides a possible clue to her class, and certainly to her self-image, while the printed contents of such volumes indicate what the general interests of ladies were supposed to be. The publishers of these diaries felt their buying public would be entertained by color foldouts, especially common at the beginning of the century, but they also thought information would attract their audience. In accord with Virginia Woolf's idea of the diary as a catch-all, printed diaries list facts about virtually everything from foreign postage to taxes on lunatics. Interestingly, many of the advertisements in printed volumes feature other diaries.

In addition to the printed contents of diaries, the writer's use of such a volume is significant. The spaces for the diarist's comments in volumes with printed formats are ordinarily quite restricted, and the majority of the writers reacted to this by spilling their remarks into the spaces designated for other entries or by continuing certain entries at the back of the volume. Occasionally diarists failed to compose entries in the spaces allotted to a particular day, and in such instances the writer merely redated the entries. A lack of spacing between entries or comments entered both vertically and horizontally are common in some self-determined volumes.

Yet another feature common to both self-determined diaries and diaries with printed formats is the summary and anniversary entry. The memoranda space in many diaries with printed formats is meant to function as an ordering device, an opportunity for the diarist to review her actions, but frequently the space is not used by the writer for this purpose. Instead, diarists write summary and anniversary entries when noteworthy or recurrent events take place. Childbearing, family deaths, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and the end of the year serve as pauses in the diarist's life and occasions for composing retrospective entries. Entries which merely summarize a period of time during which the writer has been unable to compose her diary usually occur after childbirth or a family death. In such cases the diarist primarily recounts the event. However, the purpose of entries written on anniversaries is usually self-evaluation and reflection, for here the diarist considers the past year's texture and activities as well as her recent behavior, and looks forward to the coming year.

If diaries were merely composed diurnally they might be the untidy creations which Virginia Woolf feared, but instead their narrative structure shows recurrent traits which provide them with a discernible form. Rather, diaries are structured by significant events in the writer's life whose occurrence must be considered when determining the arrangement of the individual diary and the perimeters of the genre. Anniversary and summary entries serve an important function in the diary's arrangement, since they act as divisions which are roughly analogous to chapters in a novel or stanzas in a poem.

These nineteenth-century manuscript diaries also exhibit common stylistic properties.… Diaries have often been considered highly personal, almost solipsistic, compositions whose secretive quality is symbolized by a lock. However, such a conception of the diary is at odds with the stylistic features of nineteenth-century manuscripts, where the use of the first person plural pronoun indicates that diaries were often written as family documents. Diarists frequently employ "we" rather than "I," and their common omission of the singular pronoun makes their entries seem distanced rather than intimate. The collective quality captured by the use of "we" points to a society where the family rather than the individual was often the most important unit, and where women in particular were expected to subsume their identity in the familial configuration. "We" is also employed by diarists when they are composing their works as travelogues where its use again shows its collective function.

A reading of nineteenth-century manuscripts indicates the self-reflexive qualities of the genre. Many diarists appear to be aware of an audience, for they often begin their journals by addressing a possible future reader, often themselves at some later date, or a family member. Because a woman was frequently the designated chronicler of family records, she copied out the diaries of family members, but she might also render another's diary because of its importance for herself. One way of learning about the thoughts and activities of a friend or relative was to read her diary or to hear it read aloud. The well-established practice of diary reading may help account for the frequent use of "we," since this is a narrative device which includes the reader or listener and which, consequently, was often used by nineteenth-century novelists.

Yet other stylistic features point to the conscious craft of diary writing and indicate that Virginia Woolf's sense of the diary as both a carefully considered product and a catch-all captures its seemingly contradictory essence. Diarists apparently often reread their journals and edited them, since additional comments and crossed-through words and phrases appear in the manuscripts. These changes indicate the writer's awareness of an audience just as their tendency to use circumlocutions does. When the diarists considered a word or phrase objectionable, they wrote in a foreign language or employed dots and dashes. Their inclination to mark over pencilled entries with ink also indicates the diarists' sense of their creations as something permanent.

Diarists' habitual use of standard narrative techniques helps give their writing a literary tone and quality. In many diaries the writer narrates one or more deathbed scenes, and to capture the drama of the moment, uses quotation marks throughout the dialogue. Long narrative accounts of important events or conversations are a staple in many journals. Diarists often relate anecdotes with a novelistic verve, providing punch lines, moral plots, character delineations, and well-constructed scenes.

The tone and intent of diaries can change rapidly from humorous to solemn, as the author switches from narrating a fascinating incident to addressing God. The direct addresses to the Lord, which occur most commonly in summary and anniversary entries, seem closely related to the sermons and prayers which were a daily ingredient in the lives of nineteenth-century women. In addition to addressing God about spiritual matters, diarists also sought His help during dire circumstances such as childbirth, illness, or death. In such instances their sentence length and structure usually varies from its normal pattern. The change in the structure and length of sentences often signals a shift in import in the diaries, just as it does in other kinds of narrative. Diarists who write more about their inner lives tend to write longer sentences and entries, while the women who concentrate on outside events construct more fragments and shorter entries. The latter may occur partly because so many fragmentary phrases and terse entries are frequently extensions of account books.

The content of nineteenth-century British women's manuscripts is as wide-ranging as the concept of the diary as a "capacious hold-all" would imply. At one end of the spectrum of possible journal forms stands the account book. Some of the manuscripts included in this bibliography are primarily account books, though women often combined the rendering of accounts with comments about their daily lives or their spiritual progress. The variety of items listed in even a short volume employed for keeping accounts is staggering; and this type of diary indicates the complexity and diversity of nineteenth-century life as well as the numerous discrepancies between it and our own. The cost of hair oil, chimney pots, and mahogany screens, as well as of staple items such as coal, beer, and sugar commonly appear in diaries, which are an excellent source for the expenditures of everyday life in the last century. Naturally, the items or expenses which occur in diaries changed somewhat over the course of...

(The entire section is 5232 words.)