Diary of an Unidentified Woman 1853


Olivia Perry

Last week we set students on our MA in Modern British Studies the following task: Using some of the fantastic diaries in the Cadbury Research Library, write 500 words about a nineteenth or twentieth century diary. Before this we encouraged students to immerse themselves in the work of Carolyn Steedman to reflect on the relationship between lives and stories, on subjectivity and self-fashioning, and how to read material not just for its content – as a source of knowledge about the past – but as a way of understanding the relationship between lives and stories, and the ways in which individuals made sense of the world and the place in it.

Over the next few days we have decided to share their findings. Kicking us yesterday was  Jacob Fredrickson on the Diary of William Prince Telfer. This blog comes from Olivia Perry. who writes on the diary of an unidentified woman from 1853. You can follow Olivia on Twitter if you like @livvyanarchy.  Click on our ‘Study with Us’ page for more information on the MA.

1853. A ‘Henry Penny’s’ improved patent metallic pocket-book diary is sold to an unknown person for 3s, 6d. A celebration, a new year is brought in with a bottle of champagne. The identity of this person is not known, but their activities in 1853 are documented daily. The description of the diary indicates that it was written by a woman, however, their name and gender are never told. They are believed to be a woman due to the types of activity they are involved with on a day to day basis.

The weather is a common feature varying on a scale of ‘very wet day’ to ‘beautiful day’. This could indicate the weather patterns throughout 1853 in an area of Kent near Margate. This scale may, however, not just document the particularities of the British weather, but instead is a pathetic fallacy, illustrating feelings felt towards ‘HPC’.

‘HPC’ is documented most days, including details of when he eats, where he is going and what times he comes and goes. HPC’s temperament is also highlighted throughout, his unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour is unnerving. This behaviour may only be indicated in my interpretation of the diary, however, the writer refers to HPC as ‘shaking and moving to and fro’ and having an ‘off day’. The writer also describes HPC to ‘scold the children’ on multiple occasions. Two phrases struck me when reading the dairy entries; ‘he is a vile human’ and ‘harsh hands’. These phrases were not used in the same sentence; however, I think the diary does build up a certain picture of the way the writer understands HPC and the relationship between them.

Perhaps this diary was written by a woman who was scared of her husband and his violence towards her. The use of the word vile truly indicates the writer’s hatred for HPC, whilst harsh hands can be open to interpretation. Harsh hands could be used to describe the aesthetic nature of HPC’s hands, however, this is unlikely to be the case due to my perception of these individuals being reasonably wealthy. Harsh hands, therefore, could simply indicate the writer’s feelings towards HPC’s hands and perhaps indicates that he was, in fact hitting them. Certain domestic violence was culturally acceptable in 1853, as long as ‘the stick was thinner than a thumb’ is a common phrase that was used.

In 1853, however, legislation was brought in to punish people who beat their wives with sentencing up to 6 months. This does not, however, mean that wife beating was not a common occurrence and that this punishment actually deterred men from beating their wives. Perhaps this diary illustrates a woman documenting every move her husband makes in the hope that she can avoid this violence as much as possible?

This diary could even indicate a woman attempting to resist against the unfair treatment she has had to face, by documenting how unhappy and sometimes angry she is towards HPC. Even the fact that the diary is written in short hand, and in a small diary may be so that it would not be read, or at least not understood if it was found by HPC. This could also indicate that the whole family were able to read. The exact relationship between HPC and the writer of the diary is also uncertain, but their feelings towards HPC are not. HPC may well have been another relation to her, perhaps a sibling, and the writer may not have been a woman. HPC may in fact not be violent at all to the writer, and the relationship may be misunderstood. The writer could, in fact, be concerned about the behaviour of HPC and is, therefore, documenting his ‘symptoms’ within this diary.

At one point the writer mentions that HPC has gone ‘bathing’ and they are displeased with this. As HPC often travelled to Margate he could have bathed in the Royal Sea-Bathing Infirmary which was originally used to treat ‘scrofula’ (which was probably a form of tuberculosis). The writer was not happy about HPC’s trip to the baths and, therefore, this may point to them believing that medicine was not going to help, or that HPC was not suffering from an illness.

Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary  Sept 10 1853

I have written ‘writer’ to refer to this unknown person, however, the diary includes different hand writings. This could indicate that the diary was put together by different people, offering confusion as to whose identity is being constructed through the analysis of the writing.Children or ‘chicks’ are mentioned throughout the diary, which may have been the individual’s siblings and they may well have written parts of the diary.

Perhaps even the children wrote in the diary on the days that the individual was not able to due to HPC inflicted wounds. If one person did write this diary, maybe they wrote with their other hand for parts. This may also be due to injuries, or the person could have been left handed in a period of time when this was seen as savage and criminal and so they may have been forced to write with their right hand.

Something that is clear, is that this individual was religious and much of the diary revolves around trips to the Church with the family. This is probably quite common for individuals in 1853, but only attending Church was documented and not the content of the services, or prayers. This could indicate what the diary was used for, simply to track where the person had been on that day and what the weather was like.

Times are documented rather meticulously throughout, perhaps illustrating the organised nature of the person. The diary still does, however, have a personal feel as it documents the feelings towards HPC which is a main theme of the diary. This could indicate that Church was seen more as a necessary place to attend, rather than there being a personal connection to religion.

Despite this individual being wealthy, which is likely due to the drinking of champagne, turkey and plum pudding on Christmas day, and the expensive nature of the diary, they clearly had a very volatile life style which is represented in the need to document the times in which things happen and the broken relationship with HPC.

Despite this diary being of someone who is unidentified we are therefore able to construct some interpretations of how this person experienced 1853, from the short hand notes scribbled away in their diary. A diary is often a very personal item which can show how an individual thinks, in this case in a very organised and meticulous way. This diary was probably not written to be read by others as it is written in abbreviations and, therefore, the audience was probably themself. Despite not knowing this person’s gender or name, we still have some insight into their life which in fact may not have been influenced by this knowledge and associated stereotypes or by other sources.

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