Reading Rarities: The Diary of A Victorian Lady

thediaryofavictorianlady
Buy this book on Amazon.

OK, I’m kind of excited about this Rarity. Well, I get excited about most of the stuff I review, but this book is a little different. The Victorian era and Victorian women in particular are such enigmas. Sure, we have novels and other works from Victorian women, and we have a pretty good idea of what the culture was like, certainly the clothes, but it’s always a treat to be taken into day-to-day life. While Mary Chesnut and L.M. Montgomery are two of the best examples I’ve seen of American and Canadian diaries, the Brits are no slouches either. There are Queen Victoria’s fascinating writings, of course, but one example of an upper-middle class volume is The Diary of A Victorian Lady by Englishwoman Adelaide Pountney.

Keeping a diary during the Victorian era was common for both men and women, possibly more than today, but the exact numbers are impossible to quantify. All we know is that we have a lot of diaries in various archives around the world, and each one in its own way gives an unique glimpse of Victorian life.

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Page from the 1846 diary of London clerk, Nathaniel Bryceson. (BBC News)

Victorians didn’t just write about daily life; they drew it and embellished it. It was not uncommon for them to craft illustrations or decorations on anything that had a surface. Envelopes, tabletops, mantelpieces, pen blotters–a Victorian’s imagination was allowed to roam freely over their personal belongings. Within reason, of course. This phenomenon was known as “creating effects,” and magazines gave women endless tips. It’s basically Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart.

In the case of Adelaide Pountney’s diary, she combined both writing and effects. Her diary is technically a daybook, as all the dates were preprinted and she would usually write a few sentences which were accompanied by an illustration. If she were alive today, Instagram and Twitter and would be right up her alley.

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An illustrated letter from Julia Stephenson to Charles M. Kurtz, December 9, 1883, United States. (Smithsonian Institution)

We don’t know all that much about Adelaide, but The Diary of A Victorian Lady includes a somewhat detailed biographical sketch. Adelaide was born in 1839 and died in 1916. She started her diary at twenty-three, which she kept from 1863 until 1870. All the volumes were illustrated, and all were handed down to her niece. Her grandniece, Rachel Sillett graciously consented to the printing of the 1864-1865 diary. According to the Forward in the book those two years were the most complete and in the best condition, whereas the other years had pages missing and days left blank.

Anyway, Adelaide’s father was the Reverend Humphrey Pountney of the Church of England. The Pountney’s home life seemed to be happy, with the family living for a period of time in Munich. Unfortunately, there was a typhoid epidemic in Germany at the time, a disease which half the Pountneys contracted. Most of them survived, but Reverend Humphrey and four of Adelaide’s brothers and sisters died in 1858.

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The high street in Topsham, Devon, one of Adelaide’s usual haunts. (Sandays Bed and Breakfast)

Now a widow, Adelaide’s mother took her remaining children back to England, where they bought a sizeable house in Leamington Spa. While the family seemed relatively well-off, Adelaide never had money of her own. She also had some lingering health problems as a result of the typhoid, so less was expected of her than of her sisters and brothers. The family later moved to Devon because it was hoped that the sea air would have a bracing effect.

The years of 1864 and 1865 were eventful for the Pountneys, which is probably why Adelaide’s diary from that time is so full. Her good friend, Emily Barron, left for Australia, where she married Adelaide’s brother, Greville. Her youngest sister, Rose, married the Reverend Henry Purton. Sadly, Adelaide’s brother, Arthur, who also had health problems, died sometime during 1865, but the diary doesn’t say exactly when.

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St. George’s Church in Georgeham, Devon, where the Pountneys often attended. (Georgeham Parish Council)

Besides that, Adelaide’s diary reflects a very typical Victorian existence. She goes shopping. She calls on her friends and neighbors. She draws and paints. She learns German. She makes herself new dresses. She writes about farm matters, such as the day when she fed the pigs apples after they got rings put in their noses. She goes to church every Sunday, weather-permitting, usually in the morning and afternoon. She takes walks and sits on the cliffs overlooking the sea. She plays croquet with friends and gleefully notes in her diary when she wins a game. Adelaide’s life definitely seemed like a happy one.

What I like best are the illustrations, because they’re incredibly detailed for how tiny they are. Here we get to see Victoriana living and breathing and not all posed and stiff for a photo. Many of the pictures involve people sitting around at dinner or engaged in family time in front of a roaring fire, but there are action shots, such as when Mrs. Pountney tells Adelaide and Arthur to kick off their shoes and get warm after they’ve come in soaked from the rain. Adelaide also shows a time when she and Rose went to the train station to have their watches properly set. Adelaide’s dog, Toby makes plenty of appearances, such as when the poor thing got shaved by a neighbor’s son and Adelaide lamented his new appearance. Croquet, of course, is a favorite subject too, as Adelaide liked capturing each day’s hoop placement. And of course, Rose’s wedding has a nice little pic, too.

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Maybe Adelaide saw this view on one of her hikes. (TripAdvisor UK)

Something else that strikes me about Adelaide’s diary is that although it’s very personal, there’s still a little bit of a veil over her life and her time. Part of it is due to the lack of space, but it also may have been reticency and stoicism. Adelaide doesn’t mention Arthur’s death, which I’m guessing happened on one of the days she left blank, even though the Forward states that the two of them were fairly close. Maybe she was afraid that if she said anything, even just in her diary, she’d fall apart.

The lack of detail isn’t a minus, though. Victorians drew very clear boundaries for themselves in every aspect of their existence, and Adelaide choosing to censor herself in the way that she did can be seen as her being true to the period. Yet her illustrations make it more personal than words ever could, because they’re her view of life in Victorian England.

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No, this isn’t Adelaide, but the photo is from the 1860s, anyway. (Pinterest)

The Diary of A Victorian Lady won’t disappoint, and it holds up to repeated perusals. Even if a reader already knows some about the time, a book like this just whets the appetite for more visits with our Victorian forebears.

Hope to see you on Thursday, when I’ll be posting my review for the Butlers and Maids Blogathon. Thanks for reading all, and have a good one…


Bibliography

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life In Victorian England. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Pountney, Adelaide. The Diary of A Victorian Lady: Scenes From Her Daily Life, 1864-1865. Ludlow, Shropshire, England: Excellent Press, 1998.

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