Secret Voices: A Year of Women’s Diaries, edited by Sarah Gristwood

642 0

Reviewed by Harriet

I have set myself many tasks for the year – I wonder how many will be accomplished? A Novel called Middlemarch, a long poem on Timoleon, and several minor poems.

So wrote George Eliot on  New Year’s Day 1858. This is the first entry in Sarah Gristwood’s fascinating compilation of diary extracts dating from the late 16th century almost to the present day. Some of the diarists will be familiar to many readers – Anne Frank, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath, and many others – and some are much more obscure but fascinating none the less. 

The anthology is structured month by month through the year, with each day containing between three and seven extracts, obviously depending on their length, which varies from a sentence or two (‘For no reason at all I hated this day as if it was a person – its wind, its insecurity, its flabbiness, its hints of an insane universe’. Dawn Powell, 1938) to quite extended paragraphs, such as Queen Victoria’s ecstatic account of her wedding day, 10 February 1840. She was even more ecstatic the next morning:

When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express! He does look so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen. We got up at ¼ p. 8. When I had laced I went into dearest Albert’s room, and we breakfasted together. He had a black velvet jacket on, without any neckcloth on, and looked more beautiful than it is possible for me to say …

This quotation illustrates one of the key strengths of a collection like this: the way it demonstrates how women throughout the ages were able to use their diaries to express emotions and tell stories that they would never reveal publicly. There are a few exceptions, like Dorothy Wordsworth, who read her diary to William, and Woolf, who speculated how her husband would edit hers for publication, but generally they provided a much needed outlet for  feelings and experiences otherwise necessarily suppressed. There are a certain amount of happy days, some related to love (or sex), others to nature and peacefulness, and entries to make you smile or wonder, such as 

Then sent him to the Village for the man with the Bear. The man brought it. A tame huge animal, female I suppose by the Master calling it Nancy. We fed it with Bread and Mutton. It drank Small Beer’. (Lady Eleanor Butler, 1790). 

But there is also a great deal of pain and suffering. Children die, or even, as in the case of Anne Morrow Lindberg, are kidnapped and murdered. Husbands die, or are unfaithful, or just make life miserable: Sophia Tolstoy has a dreadful life caring for her aged, sick husband, who treats her abominably, and Anna Dostoevsky suffers terribly from her husband’s gambling addiction (‘At the end of three hours Fyodor came back and told me he had lost all the money he had taken with him….There’s no help for it, however, and we still have forty-five ducats.’). People get ill and anticipate their own deaths. Black women suffer from prejudice or exclusion. Girls have, or precipitate, abortions.  Love affairs end. One woman fights alcoholism and contemplates taking her own life, which she does the day after her final entry: ’What am I so terribly frightened of? Life itself, I think’. (Rachel Roberts, 1980).

But among the misery, there is much to admire and uplift. Ada Blackjack, an Inuit woman, works as a cook on disastrous 1921 Arctic expedition to Wrangel Island, and was the only survivor. Amelia Stewart White takes the Oregon Trail with her husband and seven children, giving birth to the eighth just after their arrival. Carolina Maria de Jesus, a Black single mother of three children, writes her diary while ‘living in the slums of São Paolo, sharing a single tap with several hundred people and scavenging for scraps she could sell to buy food’. Happily it was later published and she became a literary sensation and social pioneer. Unsurprisingly most of the women here were from the middle or upper classes, who had more time and leisure to write, but a notable exception was the magnificent Hannah Cullwick, a Victorian maid-of-all-work, who wrote her diaries at the urging of the man she called Massa, with whom she had a bizarre but apparently very happy relationship for several decades. 

Needless to say, notable events are recorded. War is declared on 3 September 1939: 

while we were still sitting around feeling rather sick, the air-raid warning went. For a moment we didn’t believe our ears – we hadn’t had time to realise we were at war then we went down to our gas room and began damping the blankets with pails of water. (Joan Wyndham).

In 1945 the atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima (‘Oh my God, this atomic bomb. Mankind will exterminate itself and this earth if we don’t soon exercise some restraint.’ Edie Rutherford). Kennedy is shot on 1963 and the event and its aftermath are recorded by Lady Bird Johnson. On a happier note, in 1985 Princess Diana is seen dancing with John Travolta at the White House (‘Instant history, glamour for the ages’, (Tina Brown)).  On 31 December 1999  a champagne celebration is planned in the newly built Millennium Dome, but after about half the guests get a glass, the bartenders are ordered not to give out any more despite ‘hundreds of glasses full of bubbly behind them, and at least 200 bottles of champagne on display.’ One frustrated guest is overheard screaming:

‘What do you mean? We’ve been waiting three fucking hours in a fucking train station for the fucking millennium and you’re telling us you won’t give us one of those fucking glasses of fucking champagne behind you? What do you fucking mean?’  

I couldn’t have phrased a parliamentary question better myself’, comments the diarist Oona King.

Sarah Gristwood’s collection is educational, moving, uplifting, inspiring and enormously enjoyable. It has a useful Foreword, notes on the diarists, and an index. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Shiny New Books Logo

Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny. She once compiled a couple of anthologies of women’s writing, and wishes she’d compiled this one.

Sarah Gristwood, ed., Secret Voices: A Year of Women’s Diaries (Batsford, 2024). 978-1849948159, 528pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

Do tell us what you think - thank you.