Victorian Diaries

The Victorians revitalized the journal form, through their engagement with journals on multiple levels: Victorians read them, published them, and inevitably, they wrote them. Living in an age that saw the widespread establishment of the telegraph, the steam locomotive, the photograph, and even the postage stamp, Victorians found their changing world flooded with new technologies for the transportation of people and ideas alike. Unsurprisingly, hand-in-hand with these changes, came the impulse to record them for posterity. The story of the individual, as portrayed in the journal, became popular. Victorian novels like Dracula and The Moonstone used fictionalized journal entries as part of the narrative, and Victorian biographies took on similar methods, often employing diary entries or letter excerpts. Throughout the period, autobiographical forms — including the diary — flourished.

Life Writing Genres

Coinciding with an emphasis on individualism and improvements in printing technologies, the Victorian age saw the reclaiming and publishing of many autobiographies and life narratives. Diaries were one branch of this broader tradition of autobiographical writing or "life writing" that was expanding in the Victorian period. According to Linda Peterson, although the tradition of keeping commercial, and later personal, records in written form was centuries old, it was not until 1797 when "an anonymous literary critic in the Monthly Repository coined the term autobiography for a 'new' genre". The diary's place within the genre of life writing has slowly been recognized as well. In 2006, David Amigoni claimed that his collection, Life Writing and Victorian Culture, would include "chapters on Victorian biography and autobiography" as well as "hitherto neglected forms: collections of life histories, or 'prosopographies', that include visual representations of and memorials to individuals, diaries, letters and obituaries". Amigoni's choice is representative of similar decisions by several recent scholars to think about autobiographical writing more broadly, and increased study of diaries has been one result of this redefining work.

The Diary and History

Two of the most famous diaries - those of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) and Fanny Burney (seven volumes), saw their first publication in the Victorian period: Burney's in 1842-45, and Pepys' in 1852. Both were popular, and read widely. Keeping up with a practice first suggested by her mother, Queen Victoria herself began a diary in 1832, which she continued until her death in 1901. Queen Victoria's Journals were made available in 2012. The early autobiographies and "Life and Letters" biographies of the period, many of which are predicated or written upon the strength of extant diaries, bear witness to the weight Victorians placed on life writing as a source of history.

The individual voice the diary is predicated upon also lends itself to a great variety of subjects and expressive possibility. In her 2006 study, Anne Marie Millim claims that "diary writing during the nineteenth century adopted a variety of forms and renders the network of cultural signifiers that shaped a specific historical moment." Among this variety of forms, diaries were kept to maintain historical records. Pepys's diary records the Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Diaries also functioned as scientific research — Charles Darwin's dozen notebooks later provided the foundation for his Origin of the Species. The popularity of the diary increased so much during the Victorian period that John Letts, a bookbinder and printer, printed the first commercial diaryin 1812, a combination of a journal and dated calendar, which introduced the blank, dated diary that exists today. Diary scholarship is still expanding, and new work is being done to explore the more obscure forms and the diversity of writers who created journals. While early life writing scholarship often focused on the narratives of public figures, recent scholarship has taken into account diaries that cross class and gender distinctions, including working class diaries and those focused on women within the domestic sphere.

"Journal" vs. "Diary"

When Elizabeth Gaskell began recording her daughters' development in 1835, she chose to call her narrative a "Journal". Readers of diaries and journals have long discussed the distinction in terms, without a universally clear solution. Prominent diary scholar Philippe LeJeune, in his essay, "The Practice of Writing A Diary", offers no answer: "For the moment, let's set aside the French expression journal intime (a diary). In German, it is simply referred to as Tagebuch. In English, it is either a diary or a journal. In Spanish, Portugese, and Italian, it is a diario." English is the only language for which readers are given a choice of terms; LeJeune actively avoids discussing the relative merit or applicability of journal vs. diary, and simply delegates the choice to his readers in an ongoing refusal to fix meaning.

Throughout history, life writing scholars have attempted to theorize the distinction, but have failed to produce a generally accepted terminology. In his Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries (1974), Richard Fothergill takes a similarly ambiguous position, writing that the "usage" of diary "appears to be indistinguishable from that of 'journal.'" His comment is echoed by Arthur Ponsonby, who wrote, "as it is, the words are used quite indiscriminately." Twenty years later, William Gass wrote that a diary "should be filled with facts, with jots, with jogs to the memory," and a journal lets "facts diminish in importance"; they are "replaced by emotions, musings, thoughts." According to William Matthews, "the 'dull' journal has a plan, purpose, and audience, while the diary is personal, unsystematic, and much more interesting." Expanding on previous scholars, Cinthia Gannett connects the term diary with the feminine, writing of the term: "diary, which is denotatively similar, but which has come to be associated with connotations such as overly personal, confessional, trivial, and as I will argue, feminine." Gaskell's journal has historically always been published by its editors as a "diary", although it bears some of the decidedly feminine traits that Gannett associates with the Diary. Gaskell's journal, focused as it is on a mother and her two daughters, is reminiscent of the community of women that populates her later novel, Cranford. In practice, I suggest that Gaskell's use of the term "journal" most closely aligns with the distinction made by Alexandra Johnson: "For purists, a diary is a daily factual record, dated and chronological. A journal is kept more fitfully and for deeper reflection. One records, the other reflects." Gaskell's journal is replete with deep reflection, and was markedly 'fitfully' kept, with only eleven entries in four years.

Diary and the Individual

The increasing popularity of autobiographical writing, and more especially, the variety it takes on within the Victorian period, also reflects important changes in Victorian ideology, beginning most obviously with the focus on the liberal individual. The immense production of life writing in the period suggests that Victorians were no longer content to let others write — and thus shape — the stories of their lives. Rather, through their engagement in life writing across forms, Victorians were claiming agency in crafting their own posthumous reputations and legacies. The function of the diary as a regulatory tool has most recently been brilliantly theorized by Anne Marie Millim, who writes "the diary, which functions as a site for self-examination and as a tool for self-management, allows the selected diariests to construct and assert their authorship before the publication of their work". The same impulse to use the diary to shape a public self has been noted by many scholars of diary, in texts that comprise individuals of all genders and classes. Indeed, rather than merely accepting the notion which predominates in Victorian literature, of the diary existing as "my second self, in this book, if I have no one else to hear me," Victorians seemed to be increasingly aware that by engaging in any form of life writing, they were actively crafting a narrative that might reach a far broader audience than only their "second self".

Gaskell sought just such a posthumous agency in crafting her own Victorian-era journal. Although addressed explicitly to her then six-month-old daughter, Marianne, Gaskell also inscribes her expectation that the journal will reach an aged Marianne, to whom it may impart maternal wisdom as well as fond family memories. Living out the ideals of Victorian individualism, Gaskell weighs advice and opinions in her journal, and then acts on them, creating a unique expression of her maternal self within the journal's pages. Gaskell's journal is only one of many maternal journals which undoubtedly wait to be made public. It is hoped that this website will invite increased scholarship into the myriad diaries that are yet waiting to be discovered and studied.

Victorian Motherhood Diaries

When pain and sickness made me cry
Who gaz'd upon my heavy eye
And wept, for fear that I should die?
My Mother.
-Ann Taylor Gilbert, 1802

In an 1841 letter to her sister-in-law, Ann Robson, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote: "one can't help having 'Mother's fears'; and William[,] I dare say kindly[,] won't allow me ever to talk to him about such anxieties, while it would be SUCH A RELIEF often." Gaskell's letter refers to a passing illness of her eldest daughter, Marianne's, from which she had already recovered. At the time of the letter, Gaskell had two surviving daughters, and may have been expecting her first son, but she had already experienced the loss of her first daughter to stillbirth. The "fear" that colors both her letter and Ann Taylor Gilbert's poem was an all too familiar one for Gaskell, and she sought the "relief" that conversations with her husband could not provide through writing out her maternal anxieties in her journal.

Considering the intense emotions connected with motherhood in the Victorian age, it is perhaps surprising that so few maternal diaries dating from the period have been published. Elizabeth Gaskell's Journal, written from 1835-1838 and first printed in 1923, is one of the earliest published diaries to be explicitly concerned with motherhood. While it is probable that many Victorian women kept diaries during the period, and that their documents include references to motherhood, few of the women whose diaries were published as complete texts emphasized motherhood the way Gaskell does. Among published Victorian diaries, most relate the lives of public figures, of whom many, like Dorothy Wordsworth, George Eliot and Elizabeth Eastlake, were not mothers. The journals of other public figures who were known diarists, like Margaret Oliphant, were published only in extracts as part of a biography.

Apart from library archives, the most easily accessible maternal diary writing comes from public figures during the Victorian age: Elizabeth Gaskell, Fanny Burney, Fanny Kemble, and Queen Victoria herself. Of these, Gaskell's is the most intensely maternal, while Queen Victoria's portrays a happy domestic atmosphere involving both parents:

"On waking we thought & talked much of our dear little Alice, whose birthday it is today. We arranged her table with presents in the window, in the breakfast room, & then went up to fetch the little darling. She as well as Vicky, were in white & pink frocks She was very happy with all her toys, & Albert sat down on the flour with her to play with some bricks, she had been given." (25 April 1846)

In each of these diaries, the mothers' mention of their children occurs amongst memories of social engagements or other interests. Fanny Burney's journal includes stories of her son playing a toy trumpet shortly after comments about the public reception of one of her works.

Mother diaries, although uncommonly published, are ubiquitous, and The Gaskell Journal: Digital Edition has been created in the hope that more editors will follow suit in making these life writing documents available online to a broad audience. The existence of many such journals is known, though access is limited. The Archives of Ontario has published brief extracts of five journals in a public exhibit, offering teasing tidbits of the content that can be read via an in-person perusal. In one such excerpt, Frances Milne, an Ontario housewife, writes in her journal: "Looking after boys is no easy task, allow me to remark". Her poignant observation hints at the unique voices that remain in the archive, ready to be discovered.

One might extrapolate Milne's comment to the broader aim of this project: looking for nineteenth century mother diaries "is no easy task." Given recent renewals of interest in the ability of life writing to illuminate our study of our past, however, it is hoped that locating the diaries and journals of generations of mothers will continue to be scholarly practice, and that the result will be an enriched archive.