Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts from the Archive

"Je n'ai pas eu le tems de broder le fichu de melie, mais je vais natter des cheveux pour lui faire un collier comme la mein"*
 --Victorine du Pont to Sophie Dalmas du Pont, September 18, 1808

Lessons learned. When there's no time for embroidery, hacking off some hair and making a necklace is totally justified, Non?

*I haven't had time to embroider the kerchief for Melie but I will plait some hair to make her a necklace like mine.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Thoughts from the Archive: Sympatico Edition

"We of course had been much delighted with the evening-- 'Call it but pleasure and the pill goes down' for under other circumstances to have passed two evenings in weeping & shrieking would be deemed an odd way of being amused and really does it not seem ridiculous to go to be made to feel miserable"
--Anna Cabot Lowell Quincy, April 19, 1833

Clearly we understand one another...who doesn't enjoy a good sob from time to time?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thoughts from the Archive: Historical Dreamboat Edition

John Lowell to Rebecca Amory, 1789
"Mr Lowell's respectfull Compliments wait on Miss Amory - he has inclosed a tune apparently the same, she expressed a wish for, but from the shortness of it is apprehensive he is mistaken - he indulges a hope that Miss A. will in future honour him with her commands; and he can add with sincerity, that it shall ever be the study as it will certainly be the happiness of his Life to Afford her the smallest Gratification"

Monday, April 30, 2012

Thoughts from the archive...

To the well-meaning transcriber of Katharine Lawrence's diary:

Thank you for slogging through what I assume was a lot of teenager handwriting for my comfort and reading pleasure.  But when you insert in parentheses "here follows a description of gowns worn" before blithely moving on, I want to find you and throttle the life from you.

Best wishes,
The frustrated historian

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wedding Bell Blues

In my research this week I've been revisiting the diaries and drawings of Sophie du Pont, daughter of gunpowder magnet E. I. du Pont and caricaturist extraordinaire in preparation for doing more writing about the sketches.  While reviewing my notes, I found a section of diary in which Sophie discussed the impending 1832 wedding of her friend Mary Black. "We have talked," wrote Sophie
over the wedding, bridesmaids groomsmen, white kid gloves, &c &c &c &c till I can scarce think of anything else...When I saw all Mary's preparations - a sense of sadness stole over me - I thought of her quitting forever the home of her childhood & of all the cares she was taking on herself, &c &c"
Clearly, to Sophie at least, weddings were not all kid gloves and roses.  In her 1825 diary, Bostonian Anna Cabot Lowell voiced similar concerns about the wedding of her cousin and childhood companion Georgina.
I never knew any body who seemed to be more deeply affected than she was at the awful change which was going to take place in her situation.  For several days before she was very serious & looked extremely pale.
Anna continued on to discuss the terrifying lead up to the wedding and her description of the morning of the wedding could be exchanged with that of the morning of an execution with fairly little effort.
I busied myself as much as I could in arranging the flowers that were to adorn the supper table & in other preparations of the kind...At 9 o'clock, Mrs Eckley came  & fixed her hair...After she was dressed we sat in profound silence in her chamber waiting the appointed hour.
While beheadings usually involve fewer flowers and less attention to coiffure, clearly Anna saw wedding as no less dramatic, traumatic, or final.  In her description of the ceremony, Anna wrote
When Uncle Charles said... 'I pronounce you a married couple, whom God hath joined, let no man put assunder,'  I could see that Georgiana trembled & I am sure I felt almost as if a death-blow had been struck.
These were not the wedding responses I'd expected to find. As a material historian of young women, I like the idea of weddings. They encapsulate both a transitional moment in the lives of my subjects (the transition from the child-y side of young womanhood, to a more clearly adult status) as well as a thing-a-palooza. Trousseaus! Items for going "to housekeeping"! White kid gloves!  What's more, weddings allowed the young women I study to write and think and talk, in great and endless detail, about stuff.  What could be better?

The grim alarm, though, with which Sophie and Anna greeted the weddings of their confidants also, I think, reflects on material matters.  While afraid of being separated from their friends (by physical distance, by social status, by redefined identity as married women, etc), Sophie and Anna both also emphasized material separation.  Their friends had to leave behind their homes, their girlhood things and pursuits (and people?) to take on a new domestic world.  Their marriages mean that they gained access to, and responsibility over, material worlds that their unmarried friends did not truly inhabit.

Nor, in the case of Sophie at least, do they want to.  In her letters and drawings and diaries Sophie was outspoken in her distaste for domestic obligations.  Marriage, in her eyes, meant the taking on of 'cares.'  Anna, too, upon visiting the now married Georgina, wrote that she did "the business of her house with ease, dignity and propriety" after which Anna the adult blacked out the following lines, presumably unsatisfied with her discussion of Georgina's new role as mistress of her own home.

I look forward to returning to Boston, where the archival collection housing Anna's diaries also includes the courtship letters exchanged by Georgina and her sweetheart, as well as reading more late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century accounts of weddings.  Will the marriage terror continue?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Once More With Feelings...

   While working in the archive in Boston I came face to face with one of my least favorite aspects of archival research...oh, the censoring.

   Because I deal in teenage-girl documents, I run into this a lot.  There's nothing that frustrates me more than being in the middle of what seems to be a fabulous story...and the black descends.  Because weakling 1790s ink doesn't stand a chance against the thick blacks of the 1860s just as the open emotions of a seventeen-year-old in love don't stand against the disapproving pen of a censor fifty years later.

  In some of the cases I've run across it's clear that the censorship comes from the hand of the author as an adult woman.  When her cousin and confidant married in 1825, Anna Cabot Lowell, then seventeen, fearfully pondered marriage in her "ninth private journal".

I may, (& probably shall) live single all my life & then what a comfort will it be to me, to have a never failing source of entertainment & occupation to while away the tediousness of many a solitary hour.  Or if my lot should be cast & I should be destined to become a wife...

I couldn't tell what Anna felt about the possibility of marriage because she thoroughly blotted out the next 5 lines of the diary.  The envelopes containing her diaries bear annotations  - noting the dates that she read or "went over" her old journals - and the matching ink suggests that she made these changes in her forties or fifties.  Sophie du Pont censored her teenage letters (as well as those of her sisters) and diaries around the same time, also noting the years in which she'd read over the documents in adulthood. As adult women, they chose to obscure the scandalous, silly or scurrilous things that they'd written in their youth.  And while that's frustrating to me as a historian, as a woman who wrote very many silly things in teenage diaries, I understand the impulse.  I wasn't prepared, however, for the frustrating censorship in my research so far came in the diary of Elizabeth Cranch.

   Elizabeth Cranch - daughter of Richard and Mary, niece to Abigail Adams, and friend to all -  was a fairly faithful, if not prolific, diarist in her late teens and early twenties.  She began a 1786 diary with the news of the death of her fiancĂ©.  On October 29 "Mama," she wrote, "informed me of the death of my dearest friend"

She goes on to mourn her lost love, in subtle and oblique ways, throughout the rest of the diary.  Yet on that day, in her grief, she wrote another line.  However, her descendant(s), while annotating and commenting on the historically significant people and events in the diary, violently struck out the entry.  While the news of Cranch's dearest friend's death is still legible, what she went on to write is not.

    These holes, in blacked out lines and excised paragraphs, leave me wondering about the stories that the gaps obscure - both the story on the page, indelibly covered, and the other of why those words needed to be hidden.  Betsey Cranch recovered from the death of her fiancĂ© and went on to marry and have a passel of children.  What about her grief over her first love, the man who did not become her husband, so upsetting to her annotating descendant that the evidence had to be so violently covered?  The emotion? The fact that Grandmama Norton had been so deeply in love?  What did Anna Cabot Lowell feel about the possibility of her future marriage and why was that feeling worth hiding as an adult woman?  Inquiring girl historians want to know.


Intrepid readers~ Want to know more about Betsey Cranch and other nineteenth-century editors of eighteenth-century women?  Check out Kathleen McDonald's fabulous essay for the Women Writers Project Conference - here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Two centuries on and that girl still rubs me the wrong way...

  There's a peril in the work of historians.  I play with incomplete pieces of other people's lives. I meddle and muddle about with their things, read their words, interpret their motives and intentions.  And then, occasionally, I find myself liking one of them.  Or feeling wretched that, though she didn't know it, she was only a few months away from her own death.  Or, as was the case all day today at the archive in Boston, wanting to strangle her.
   It's particularly perilous in my dissertation, though I didn't see it coming when I proposed the topic.  See, the thing is -- teenage angst is shockingly consistent.  Its expression, of course, varies.  But even before the term "teenagers" was coined they were still out there, slouching around, writing overwrought poetry, complaining about their cruel and heartless parents, and sniping at their siblings.  I really didn't think about having to spend my days elbow-deep in the diaries and letters and things of moody, emotionally-charged, angst-riddled teens.  Honestly, what was I thinking?

  Here's the thing, though.  Despite their whining, they're fabulously interesting.  I love that they bounce between self-absorption and startling depth in the course of one diary entry.  I love that, though some two centuries separate us, they make me laugh out loud (take that stodgy reading room!!)  I love that while they were being dismissed as insignificant because of their age and gender,  as a group they scared the pants off the founding fathers.  Worth the angst?  Probably.

  So, as a continue my life as big historical snoop - or rather, serious academic researcher - I'll keep reminding myself that, for every pretentious and overwound Hannah there's a wry and snarky Eleu.  For every angsty Amelia there's a sunny Mary, dying at 19 but still writing her heart out.  And however frustrated they all make me, and they all frustrate the hell out of me from time to time (because goodness knows it's best to never sign or date your letters, refer to everyone by a series of cryptic nicknames and black out all the good bits),  it means something. And I've got to hand it to 'em - they left something behind.  And, whether they imagined it or not, they've made it possible for me to read their lives between the lines.   Probably worth a few bad poems about the loneliness of the sea...