What Is the Dominant Emotion in 400 Years of Women’s Diaries?

A new anthology identifies frustration as a recurring theme in journals written between 1599 and 2015

Some of the women diarists featured in the new anthology
Some of the women diarists featured in the new anthology. Top row, left to right: Ada Blackjack, Anne Clifford, Florence Nightingale, Fanny Burney and Anna Dostoyevskaya. Bottom row, left to right: Elizabeth Fry, Cynthia Asquith, Beatrice Webb, Charlotte Forten Grimké and Virginia Woolf  Illustration by Meilan Solly / Images via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

In 1940, in a suburban house in the shipbuilding English town of Barrow-in-Furness, Nella Last angrily reflected on the changes wrought by World War II: “I always used to worry and flutter round when I saw my husband was working up for a mood; but now I just say calmly, ‘Really dear, you should try and act as if you were a grown man and not a child of 10, and if you want to be awkward, I shall go out—ALONE!’”

When Last’s husband wistfully told her that she was “not so sweet” these days, she replied, “Well! Who wants a woman of 50 to be sweet, anyway? And besides, I suit me a lot better!” Last would, three years later, write of how “a growing contempt for man in general creeps over me.” The first battles she fought were tiny ones: not having tea always ready when her husband came in, suggesting he take his lunch out on Thursdays when she worked in a wartime canteen.

But these are the fields on which the grassroots of feminism were fought. Rejecting the rules by which she had lived the first half-century of her life, Last recorded her progress in a diary, published in 1981 as Nella Last’s War, that she wrote for the Mass Observation social research project. The diary’s enduring popularity shows that Last, the subject of the 2005 TV movie Housewife, 49, was not alone in either her resolution or her anger.

Secret Voices: A Year of Women's Diaries

A captivating collection of extracts from women’s diaries, looking back over four centuries to discover how women’s experience—of men and children, sex and shopping, work and the natural world—has changed down the years. And, of course, how it hasn’t.

As an author and longtime student of women’s history, I spent many months reading through hundreds of women’s diaries, collecting extracts for a new anthology. Pleasure was a recurring theme, represented by Fanny Longfellow’s quiet delight in her first baby with poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, May Sarton’s gratitude for the scent and color of spring flowers in a cold New England February, Virginia Woolf’s zest for her first car, and Alice Walker’s relish for the color of her lover’s skin against cobalt blue bedsheets. But across 400 years of diarists, perhaps the most dominant emotions were frustration and the resolution born of silent fury.

In 1617, Lady Anne Clifford swore that however much pressure her husband put on her, she would never give up her lands in Westmorland—her family inheritance. Two hundred years later, in 1818, Ellen Weeton found herself turned out into the street by her husband and denied access to their child. (“I broke out into complaints; this only was my fault,” she wrote.) In 1923, Ada Blackjack—sole survivor of a doomed 1921 expedition to Wrangel Island, northwest of the Bering Strait—recorded coolly how a male expedition member held over her the threat of her child back home being taken out of her custody, and the relief, as well as the huge challenges, of life alone in the Arctic after his death.

Sometimes, the diarists’ anger and frustration were expressed indirectly, cloaked under a veil of resignation and wry humor. Beatrix Potter wrote a secret coded diary during her long years as a young Victorian lady at home. She was in her 30s when she began publishing the tales that would make her famous, and as she began to find her way in the world, she no longer felt the need to keep a journal. Potter’s diary described all the ways in which she failed to conform to Victorian ideals of femininity, as well as her difficulties in getting her now-noted mycological studies taken seriously by the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “It is odious to a shy person to be snubbed as conceited, especially when the shy person happened to be right,” she wrote in 1897.

An 1894 photo of Beatrix Potter with her father and brother
An 1894 photo of Beatrix Potter with her father and brother Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, women in the past had a lot of reasons to be frustrated, distressed and despairing. But some of those battles are on the way to being won today.

Domestic abuse of the kind Weeton endured still goes on, but modern women are better placed to protect themselves. “When man injures woman, how can she defend herself?” Weeton wrote in 1825. “Her frame is weaker, her spirit timid; and if she be a wife, there is scarce a man anywhere to be found who will use the slightest exertion in her defense; and her own sex cannot, having no powers. She has no hope from law; for man, woman’s enemy, exercises, as well as makes those laws.”

Nelly Ptashkina, a Russian teenager who in 1918 reflected on the terrifying possibility that she might never marry, might frame her fears differently today. And, if she were alive now, Florence Nightingale would surely not have to wait so long before overcoming her family’s opposition to her becoming a nurse. “Oh for some great thing to sweep this loathsome life into the past,” she wrote at age 25. And, in her 30th year, shortly before she began her medical training: “My present life is suicide.”

Charlotte Forten Grimké
Charlotte Forten Grimké Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The battles fought in these women’s diaries were worth fighting, as evidenced by the number of diarists who spoke up against racism and slavery. “I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind,” wrote educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké in 1855. “Oh! It is hard to go through life meeting contempt with contempt, hatred with hatred, fearing, with too good reason, to love and trust hardly anyone whose skin is white—however lovable, attractive and congenial in seeming.”

These women’s problems weren’t limited to their status in a male-dominated society. The grief of an infant’s death, for instance, is just as painful today as it was when, in 1848, Longfellow described every day of that terrible process: “Sinking, sinking away from us. Felt a terrible desire to seize her in my arms and warm her to life again at my breast. Oh for one look of love, one word or smile!” Thankfully, mothers are statistically less likely to confront that tragedy today.

By the same token, I remember first reading novelist Fanny Burney’s extended description of undergoing a mastectomy without anesthetic in 1812 and wondering whether I could get out of the library without throwing up on the floor. Women still undergo this operation, but thankfully not when fully conscious.

An 1834 portrait of Fanny Longfellow by artist G.P.A. Healy
An 1834 portrait of Fanny Longfellow by artist G.P.A. Healy National Park Service

The great battles are never wholly won. But perhaps the issues where we and our foremothers meet most directly are the personal, internal ones—the battles women fight in their own heads, with their friends or in their diaries.

In the early 20th century, Sophia Tolstoy, wife of the author of War and Peace, debated whether she should stay in what had become an abusive relationship. In 1884, sociologist Beatrice Webb wrote on whether she should marry the rising politician Joseph Chamberlain: “I don’t know how it will all end. Certainly not in my happiness. … If I married him, I should become a cynic as regards my own mental life. I should become par excellence the mother and the woman of the world intent only on fulfilling practical duties and gaining practical ends.”

Webb eventually married another man, the socialist Sidney Webb. But the fact that the world knows her by his surname (she was born Beatrice Potter) is exactly the kind of issue she discusses in her diaries. The diary of Anna Dostoyevskaya, meanwhile, discusses in grim detail the perpetual battle between hope and despair of anyone living with a compulsive gambler, in this case her husband, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I think the diary of Elizabeth Fry was the one that most struck me.

An engraving of Elizabeth Fry reading to inmates at Newgate Prison in London
An engraving of Elizabeth Fry reading to inmates at Newgate Prison in London Jerry Barrett via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0

Famous as a prison reformer and Quaker at the turn of the 19th century, Fry is another who, like Nightingale, has been presented as the epitome of womanly virtues. But her diaries, like Nightingale’s, tell a more nuanced story.

“If I have any active duties to perform in the church, if I really follow, as far as I am able, the voice of truth in my heart, are they not rather incompatible with the duties of a wife and a mother?” she wrote as a young woman in 1799. Fry was effectively debating the difficulties of combining career and family. Marrying not long afterward, she eventually became the mother of 11 children. She frankly recorded her difficulty, after a hard labor, in bonding with a newborn baby.

“I did not experience that joy some women describe when my husband first brought me my little babe, little darling!” Fry wrote in 1801. “She early became a subject for my weakness and low spirits to dwell upon, so that I almost wept when she cried; but I hope, as bodily strength recovers, strength of mind will come with it.”

Almost a century and a half later, in 1945, Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison described a group of friends discussing “this business of babies. It really is doing in both Joan and to a lesser extent Ruth. And the same thing has happened to me. … It is rare to have an hour undistracted. Because of this, I know I can never be first class at anything. … We deliberately took on this burden. Yet we didn’t know beforehand how crippling it would be.”

An 1881 painting by Marie Bashkirtseff, who depicted herself as the central figure seated in the foreground
An 1881 painting by Marie Bashkirtseff, who depicted herself as the central figure seated in the foreground Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The framing of these dilemmas may change. The old disgrace of a divorce is no longer felt—one hopes—today. But Lady Cynthia Asquith’s distress over the future of her son John, who might today have been diagnosed as autistic, might strike an echo in families still, though we now have different societal perceptions of developmental disabilities.

What struck me most, in these months of reading women’s diaries, was that sense of familiarity. During the Victorian era, the young Marie Bashkirtseff—a Russian aristocrat and artist who died of tuberculosis at age 25—declared her ambition with an openness we might envy today. “I am my own heroine,” she famously wrote; since her diaries, when published posthumously in 1887, became a best seller, it’s safe to say the world agreed.

Those of us who grew up in the late 20th century often felt like frontline troops. However vital the victories of second and even third-wave feminism, the war inside our own homes and own heads was one we still fought every day. Maybe we did, maybe we do—but, crucially, not alone. These diaries prove there is an army at our backs, reassuring us, nudging us, urging us on every inch of the way.

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