Sunday, January 31, 2010

First Person History: On-line Diaries & Letters

Sunday, January 31, 2010
Susan reports:

No historian's description can rival the words of the people who actually lived that history. More and more diaries, journals, and letters from every time period are being put on-line in websites and blogs, and for any history nerd (not just us), they're completely fascinating and absolutely addictive.

Martha Ballard (1735-1812) was a midwife who lived in Hallowell, Maine. Though she did not begin keeping her diary until she was fifty, the book remains one of the very few such journals kept by a colonial woman, and recounts not only her work as a rural midwife (she delivered over 800 babies), but also her trials and joys as a mother and wife in a turbulent time in American history. Her story was made famous by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. (The photo, top left, is from the PBS adaptation.) You can read Martha's entire diary on line, in either her handwriting, or transcribed.

The letters home of Lt. David Thomas (1922-1945), left middle, an American airman serving in World War II, offer a different kind of experience. Posted on-line by his grand-nephew, Neal Thomas Hurst, in the form of a blog, these very readable letters bring back the day-to-day experiences of a young man during the war. Who can resist a letter that begins "Dear Mother, I didn't die"? Knowing that the lieutenant was later killed in action during a bombing mission over Germany in 1945 makes the letters all the more poignant.

The Life & Loves of a Victorian Clerk is exactly that: the daily journal of Nathaniel Bryceson (1825-1911), a nineteen-year-old wharf clerk in Pimilico. Documenting the year 1846, Nathaniel's journal is being put on-line day by day by the City of Westminster Archives, and includes wonderful 19th c. illustrations (like the one left) from their collections. So far Nathaniel has written of his job, his long walks around London on his days off, his neighbors, his girlfriend Anne Fox, and everything else that entertains a young man in Victorian London, from a public execution to a carriage accident -- and this is only the first month.
My personal favorite is the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), left. Pepys was a naval administrator and member of Parliament. His daily diary from 1660-1670 chronicles both his personal life (I've already quoted here about his choice of books) and ambitions, and momentous historical events in London like the Plague and the Great Fire. This site posts an entry each day, much like a serial novel, and the comments added by readers greatly enhance the site.

These suggestions are only a beginning. How about the 17th c. extracts of the Royal Society's Journal Books? Or Jane Austen's History of England in her own hand, or William Blake's Notebook, or Lewis Carroll's original manuscript for Alice? They're all here, thanks to the British Library.

Perhaps you have a favorite you've discovered, too. If so, please share the link -- whatever the topic, we're interested!


nightsmusic said...

Fascinating! I was reading a similar diary to the airman's, but that was some time ago and the grandson stopped posting the journal entries. I don't even remember the title now. *sigh*

The diary of Nathaniel Bryceson is probably my favorite so far, but I need to read more. Much, much more ;o)

I have a really stupid question though. I am so bad with remembering what symbols stand for what with the older currency in Britain. In this sentence:
Buckled shoes toed and heeled 1s 6d it's 1 shilling and 6 what? Pence? d? I can't remember what the d stands for. *sigh*

I did laugh at the shade nearer a capital offence line though, if I'm reading the entry correctly.

Thanks! Great links and post.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

I had never seen the original edition of the Jane Austen "History of England." How wonderful to be able to "turn" the pages that way! Thank you so much for these links!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Memoirs are my favourite sort of historical research. They give me the opportunity to form my own opinions about the time and the place the writer speaks of, without the filter of an intermediary. I value that immensely. Thank you so much for posting these links.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I wouldn't worry about figuring out the English money -- In the intervening 150 years or so, the values have changed so dramatically that whatever Nathaniel is spending for his stockings here would be pretty meaningless to us today. Inflated money is one of the hardest things to figure out in history.

But I, too, did love the line about almost committing a capital offense with Anne Fox. Probably much like getting to third base...and on a public bench!

Madame, I hadn't seen the Jane Austen ms., either. I loved the little drawings she did -- no matter when a king or queen ruled, they were still dressed in contemporary (to Jane) attire.

Lesley-Anne, we share your sentiments about memoirs exactly! The more "interpretations" you have between you and the original source, the farther away you become from it. That's what's so great about having more and more of these rare manuscripts and books turning up on line -- they're finally accessible to everyone with a computer.

Victoria said...

If you're including letters, you must add Mozart's letters to your list! They're wonderful. Make sure you get a modern translation (like Robert Spaethling's) that includes misspellings, and well, the "off-color" sorts of letters. They're incredibly clever, witty, funny, sad, and insightful. If you love Mozart, they offer a wonderful glimpse of his personality.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you, Vicky, that's a great suggestion. I'd love to read Mozart's letters; I didn't realize they were available. Learning about the person behind a work of art -- whether a symphony or a painting -- helps to appreciate & understand it all the more.

Rowenna said...

In a different world but the same time period as the young lieutenant's letters, follows a young woman writing in the final months and following World War II, just outside Chicago. It's a fascinating insight into a very ordinary life, and the creator of the site when to a lot of work to include movie posters and newspaper clippings relevant to the daily entries.

Anonymous said...

Two other diaries on line:

George Orwell's domestic and political diaries (from 9th August 1938 until October 1942) published as a blog, exactly 70 years after the respective original entry.

and the Diaries of Cecil Sharp, 1915,16 (1917 &18 to come) reproduced page by page as written covering his folk song collecting journeys in Appalachia:

Sharp's evocative photographs of many of the singers can be found here:

For those not familiar with Sharp
there is a BBC audio slide show:

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Rowenna and Michael -- many thanks for the links! I've bookmarked these and added them to my own *stash* of first-person material.

Michael, I was particularly interested in seeing the Cecil Sharp photographs, too. These pictures are so definitely from a time before everyone had "camera smiles" -- oh, what amazing faces!

Michael Robinson said...

You, and your readers, also may be interested in these 'Lives' of diarists from the new Oxford DNB and available without a subscription:

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks, Michael. I had no idea that even part of the Oxford DNB was generally accessible like this -- I've always gone to it via university libraries. Very good to know!

QNPoohBear said...

I'm chiming in almost a year later to say that I love diaries. I'm studying to be an archivist/special collections librarian and I volunteer at a historical society reading their old diaries. I've learned so much from the diaries and there are a few stand outs that I'd love to see published or made publicly accessible. I also read a field diary from an American Civil War soldier. Though diaries are great, most people didn't reveal much of their own personal feelings in their diaries. I have found letters to be far more personal. Diaries typically recorded daily activities.

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