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THE CULTURAL WORK OF DIARIES IN MID-CENTURY VICTORIAN BRITAIN KATHRYN CARTER University ofAlberta The mid-century marks a collision of conflicting attitudes about diaries in Victorian Britain. At a time when more diaries were being published than ever before, more diary writers were insisting on the privacy of their writing. There is a kind of willful denial about diary writing and its alleged privacy, best described later in the century in The Importance of Being Earnest. When Algernon asks to see Cecily's diary, she covers it with her hand and responds, "Oh no . . . You see it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy" (1015). Certainly, the denial serves to fuel the intrigue around reading published diaries. But the denial also serves an ideological function: diaries at mid-century are symbolically private texts, believed to be an ideal place to chronicle the withdrawal or seclusion from a larger social order which is seen as antipathetic to the "authentic" self. The fiction of the diary's privacy not only upholds a certain model of selfhood but contributes to the consolidation of public and private spheres necessary to mid-century notions of class and gender. To test this theory I examine the presentation of diaries in two oneact farces staged in the 185Os and in the late-1850s London Times coverage of a divorce trial centered on evidence of adultery in a wife's diary. The hypothesis grants diary writing more cultural import than is sometimes allowed, but in all three examples, it becomes clear that the purported sincerity of diary writing needs to be protected — and is, in fact, vigorously defended — at mid-century. This paper examines why privacy has social significance at mid-century, why the nomenclature of privacy is increasingly attached to diaries at that time, and how it affects women's acts of self-representation. Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) 252Victorian Review The popularity of published diaries began in the 1820s. The English Catalogue of Books shows double the number of diaries or journals published after 1820 as compared to the previous decade; their published numbers reach a high level in the 1830s and stay steady until 1860 when they decline again. By mid-century, fictional diaries feature in Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860). A diary parody called "Pips, his diary" appears in Punch and the London Times throughout 1849. Although excerpts from Fanny Kemble's diary did appear in the London Times as early as 1835, diary critic Harriet Blodgett asserts that Fanny Burney's was the first woman's diary to be published in 1842 (6).1 Blodgett adds that Burney's diary was published at a time when "spurious diaries purporting to authenticity were a popular form of reading" (6). If the nineteenth century was "the golden age of the diary" as Peter Gay asserts, this golden age was reaching maturity by midcentury (qtd. in Hunter 53). Not only were diaries popular but critics agree that something about the privacy of the diary changed by mid-century. Pepys's diary, decoded and published in 1825, contributed to the change: according to diary critic Andrew Hassam, the influence (due to the widespread popularity) of Pepys's diary was such that nineteenth-century readers, unlike earlier generations, just assumed that true diaries avoided publication (440). Margo Culley, summarizing the changes, states that more men than women wrote diaries until the mid-nineteenth century and, until then, both men's and women's diaries were semi-public documents; after that time, she says, diaries became more private (4) and were more frequently written by women. My own research attests to the fact that more women were writing diaries by the end of the century; in addition, diary writing becomes increasingly associated with younger women; Oscar Wilde's 1895 portrayal of Cecily is a case in point. Today, we (including diary manufacturers) take it for granted that more girls will keep diaries than boys. Culley's observation about the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 251-267
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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