- “I Wish to Keep a Record”: Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick Women Diarists and Their World by Gail G. Campbell
This fascinating study uses the private writings of twenty-eight female residents of New Brunswick, all born in the Maritimes (mostly in New Brunswick) between 1795 and 1875, to explore the norms of their lives, which varied according to social class, marital status, locale, education, religious orientation, the author’s age at the time of writing, and her family’s occupation. The women span three generations, and, in many instances, the diarists were related. The diaries themselves are concentrated on the second half of the nineteenth century, with three moving into the first decade of the twentieth. On some occasions, their content is summarized, and, on others, the reader is given substantial transcriptions of the original texts, thereby foregrounding the authors’ voices as well as their subject matter. Altogether, these diaries [End Page 288] present an engaging sense of history from below, as lived and felt by its participants, who could scarcely anticipate the future readers of their personal documents. I was particularly impressed by the diaries’ revelation of these women’s social networks and of the degree of informal sociability among relatives and friends, even for relatively isolated rural families.
While we see much variation in the lives and writing styles of these diary writers, they scarcely represent a cross-section of nineteenth-century New Brunswick society. Gail Campbell explains that, despite her best efforts, she could not locate diaries from women outside the English-speaking Protestant mainstream–that is, from those who were Acadian, Aboriginal, Black, Jewish, or Catholic. (Unanswerable are questions as to whether any of these women kept personal journals and, if written, whether their diaries failed to survive or might yet await discovery.) Throughout the book, Campbell carefully balances information from her restricted set of primary materials against census data and other sources. For example, although factory work became increasingly common for single women in New Brunswick toward the end of the nineteenth century, she notes that “our diarists rarely mentioned either factories or factory workers” (230). On the other hand, Campbell shows how the descriptions of women’s political involvement and of their business activities, found in their personal records, challenge the notion of separate spheres: in the 1881 census, Lucy Morrison was assigned no occupation, yet her diary logs minute details of her extensive gardening and nursery business, successfully conducted out of her home.
Campbell reminds us that men’s diaries seldom reveal much about the work and lives of women, whereas women’s diaries, which tend to track the family at large, tell us quite a lot about the activities of the men in their lives (135). Some diaries are primarily utilitarian, tersely sticking to such basics as weather and crops, while others describe work, visits, family activities, sermons, travels, food, and shopping. None of these women appear to have ever committed their words to print, albeit some, such as Laura Trueman Wood, wrote with the verve and wit of a journalist. Sophy Carman, one of the book’s few urban diarists, was the mother of the illustrious poet, Bliss Carman.
However, a reader expecting inner revelations of the sort to be found in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals will be disappointed. Some of the diarists expressed concern about religious matters (especially as Baptist and Methodist preachers vied for adherents) or discontent in relation to their work as teachers (Margaret Loggie) or in a store (Hannah Estabrooks). Courtship and marriage are common topics, but [End Page 289] sexuality in itself appears to be absent, although Campbell mentions a marriage in which the bride was “well into her third trimester of pregnancy” (107). Rather, as Campbell movingly notes: “It is in their reports of death that we get the most intimate glimpses of our diarists,” especially as they mourned untimely losses of husbands, children, siblings, and friends (286).
In addition to appreciating this study...