- Seven Eggs Today: The Diaries of Mary Armstrong, 1859 and 1869
Wilfrid Laurier University Press's impressive collection of life-writing offers essential sources for scholars interested in the raw material of history or in the literary crafting of narratives about the self. The most recent addition is Seven Eggs Today: The Diaries of Mary Armstrong, 1859 and 1869, a well-edited, well-researched treasure from Victorian Ontario. The title suggests that Mary Armstrong's recorded life is one immersed in domestic detail, and to some degree this is true: she ends many of the entries in her 1859 diary with the number of eggs the hens laid (though I admit I missed the entry where they actually laid seven eggs),and she documents that the cows did not give much milk on the fourth of February, 1869, because it was too stormy to feed them turnips. She chronicles her husband’s grumpiness (‘his temper like old Wine,’ she writes on 12 May 1859, ‘gains strength from age, but unlike Old Wine does not improve by it’); her son's success as a doctor; the churning; the baking; the lectures; the streetcars that take her to Toronto; her sisters; and the death of her father on 3 August 1869.
The two diaries - one from 1859 and one from 1869 - take up only sixty-seven typescript pages. Both record the first half of those years, and the second diary amounts to only fourteen typescript pages with an additional few pages of household accounts which record Armstrong's sewing, cash on hand, bills payable, and bills receivable. Another account-book diary written at mid-century is the archived diary of Emma Chadwick Stretch, written in Prince Edward Island from 1859 to 1860 when she, like Armstrong, was about to turn forty. These kinds of diaries are an often overlooked source of information about women's lives and labours. Armstrong's diary is not as reticent as the Stretch diary - Armstrong is more expressive and reflective about her emotional life - but both contain a wealth of concrete information about the texture of women's lives. The editor thoughtfully includes seemingly unimportant household accounts in the published version. His approach to editing the diaries as a whole is commendable. He leaves in gaps, stricken mistakes, odd punctuation, underlining; in short, he has done as much as he can to transmit in printed text the idiosyncratic presentation of the diary manuscripts, and these are valuable inclusions. Maps, photographs, and sketches added in by the editor help to conjure up the texture of her life. Though neither diary is extensive, editor Jackson W. Armstrong, the great-great-great-grandson of the diarist, has wrung a wealth of information from them, showing that a focus on domestic details does not preclude using the diaries to 'speak to broader themes of life in Victorian English Canada,' as he says. These broader themes are addressed in his introduction. [End Page 301]
The introduction is organized into two parts: the first, 'A Canadian's Study,' outlines for the reader the kind of world that Mary Armstrong inhabited. Armstrong's family sought more certain circumstances, as so many did, by emigrating to Canada in 1834. After her marriage in Toronto in 1837, she witnessed (and profited from) the growing prosperity of Toronto and area during the 1860s and then saw the country achieve Confederation, though political developments do not receive much attention in either diary. In the second section, 'A Diarist's World,' Jackson Armstrong summarizes critical approaches to life-writing and to diaries in particular, with attention to British, American, and Canadian scholarship. His substantial overview is enriched by his attention to historical and historiographical sources, and critical insights are applied to the diary with skill and attention. He explicates, for example, Armstrong's role in running the household in a subsection titled 'Women's Work and Household Management.' Her work, like her diary writing, had a daily and weekly rhythm that structured her everyday routines.
Jackson Armstrong is a meticulous editor...