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  • From Family Notes to Diary: the Development of a Genre
  • Christina Sjöblad (bio)

When did Swedish women start to write diaries, and what did the early diaries look like? Is it possible to understand the origins of diary-writing from the material handed over to us in official archives? These are some questions I will discuss in this essay. “What have you God, meant with me and my three sisters, you who wanted us to come into this world?” This urgent question is asked in the diary of a thirty-five-year-old Swedish woman in 1744. It was urgent because the four daughters of Colonel Jan Abraham Lillie were still unmarried, and this was a problem for their widowed mother. How would they manage to live after the death of their father in 1738, with only one brother as their male support? Metta Lillie’s journal, written between 1737 and 1750, is an early example of a woman’s diary in Scandinavia, in fact it is the first real full-scale diary. That is, if by “real” diary we mean a text written in the first person, with dated passages in chronological order, where the writing subject speaks not only of events in her surroundings, but also about her feelings and thoughts concerning these events.

In Swedish archives there are notebooks from about fifteen diary-writing women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than in the other Scandinavian countries. The earliest ones of course contain very short entries, rendering everyday facts, and it is not until the eighteenth century that we find journals where a personal voice breaks the enumeration of happenings. In comparison, more diaries written by men have been preserved in the archives from these centuries and often published later on in series of historical texts. Quite a few of these journals were kept during war expeditions under the kings Charles XI and Charles XII—when Sweden was one of the great powers of Europe, and the Baltic Sea was surrounded by Swedish possessions. Many were also written after the disaster of Poltava in 1709, where the army of Charles XII was beaten by the Russians and thousands of soldiers and officers were taken to Siberia to be imprisoned for up to twenty-five years. Other male journals were written on travels and reported official news about the governing of the vast area that Sweden comprised in those days.

Can one simple reason accounting for the small number of written documents by women be that many of them could neither read nor write? Recent research on literacy in Sweden shows that by the seventeenth century more Swedes could read and write than in comparable countries; this was true not only in the more populated parts of southern Sweden but also in the far north. This educational process started even before the canon law of 1686, which stated that the church had to insure that boys and girls learned to read the hymnbook and the catechism. This law enabled the government to insure that Protestantism was spread among the people after the Reformation and that the inhabitants of the newly conquered Danish and Norwegian provinces would become good Swedish-speaking citizens. Every year the parish priest had to check the literacy of his congregation in parish catechetical meetings, which were interrogations held with all members of a household, and then report the results to the bishop. Notes were taken on each individual’s competence, and young people of all classes were strongly motivated to learn, as they were not allowed to get married or speak in front of a judge until they could read. According to international research, it seems that, on the whole, literacy in Europe was more energetically promoted and was achieved sooner in Protestant countries. The ability to write was more widespread among men than among women in the eighteenth century and was more common in villages and towns than in the countryside. 1 Letters and diaries from farmers’ wives are very uncommon. Women’s diaries handed down to us, with very few exceptions, come from the upper classes, the nobility, the court and officials.

A remarkable episode, told by Samuel Pepys in...

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