Boredom Busters: 5 Biographies

In no particular order, except how they came to mind, here are five biographies, diaries, and/or letters that I have found SO engrossing that I never want the reading experience to end. They are all *old* books, so your fingers can search the used book market, thereby creating some online business (perhaps for small retailers). If the coronavirus keeps YOU home, cozy up with these tales of life in other times.

(1) Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife  (2007)

Greer_Shakespears WifeA consistently engaging narrative, though its foundation is erected upon slim, extant historical evidence. Greer’s prose and knowledge of the time period, the players, and an ability to extrapolate a meaningful conclusion, keep this book not far from my bedside. Although early for my usual tastes, to me, this book shows what a good writer can do with a few choice bits and a winning way with words.

“Anyone steeped in western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife.”

 

 

 

(2) Jean Strouse, Alice James: A Biography  (1980)

Strouse_Alice JamesI am no Henry James fan (although I have a soft spot for The Aspern Papers. What researcher in pursuit of family letters wouldn’t? And I adore the film The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland). His sister’s life, on the other hand entrances me. Alice James had so much going for her, until she sank under the idea of invalidism. Strouse’s words flow like butter, whipping up an irresistible tale of one woman’s life.

“Interesting perceptions are preferable to marketable achievements only when there is enough money to go around.”

 

 

 

 

(3) Avril Pedley (ed), A Georgian Marriage: The Family Papers of Sir Nash & Lady Grose, 1761-1814  (2007)

Pedley_Georgian MarriageOh! to have found such a treasure trove as the correspondence of Nash Grose and Mary Dennett. Editor Avril Pedley, the owner of the letters, tells us, early on, how she came by such an astounding series of letters. The sharp mind of Mary Dennett brings the Georgian era to life. The one book I never wish to finish.

“Pray when did I desire you to keep every scrap of my writing? Never I am sure… tear it, burn it or anything else”

 

 

 

 

 

(4) Susan C. Djabri (ed.), The Diaries of Sarah Hurst, 1759-1762: Life and Love in 18th Century Horsham  (2009)

Djabri_Sarah Hurst

One of the first diaries I truly found to be “a must have”. Sarah Hurst’s diaries cover only a few years, those during which she was parted from her beloved Captain Henry Smith, a marine at war in far-away Canada. Barbara Hurst, a descendant of the diarist’s brother, transcribed the diaries, bringing Sarah out of the shadows. Djabri’s editing only adds to the total package of this fascinating document. A diarist with a unique, compelling voice.

“I had now carried on my affair with Lieutenant Smith for 3 years unknown to my friends tho’ not without great compunction of mind and several efforts to break with him, which however prove ineffectual.”

 

 

(5) Frederick Pottle (ed.), Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763  (1950)

boswellThere’s only one James Boswell. And this diary begins it all. I’m pretty sure I found my copy in a long-gone-now secondhand book shop in Rutland (Vermont), Tuttle Antiquarian Books. I seem to remember the shop’s basement level was one of my favorite haunts. Prolific Boswell – ‘friend’ to Dr. Johnson, ‘enemy’ to Mrs. Thrall – lived in a charmed circle of people who left writing behind, be it published works or intimate words.

“The ancient philosopher certainly gave a wise counsel when he said, ‘Know thyself.’ For surely this knowledge is of all the most important.”

Letters to a Governess

Over the weekend, I discovered this unknown little charmer – a slim book published 1905, featuring letters written by the children of Walter Scott to their governess, Miss Millar.

Letters, Hitherto unpublished, written by members of Sir Walter Scott’s family to their old Governess…” is a slice of life in the Abbotsford (Melrose, Scotland) household between the dates of 1810 to 1837.

Sophia Scott

I enjoyed the descriptions, in the introduction, of Scott’s children, especially of his two daughters: Sophia (who married the Scott biographer, J.G. Lockhart) [above] and Anne [below].

Anne Scott

Currently in the midst of reading letters written by the three Clephane sisters of Torloisk (the eldest married Spencer, Lord Compton in 1815), I had hopes of finding extracts of their letters TO Scott when I searched for the volumes of Lockhart’s Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott.

There are TEN volumes (in the 1882 edition) of the Memoirs, which are listed below:

vol. 1 – 1771-1997
vol. 2 – 1798-1806
vol. 3 – 1806-1812
vol. 4 – 1812-1814   [a fine description of Torloisk]
vol. 5 – 1814-1818   [Mrs. Scott’s portrait]
vol. 6 – 1818-1821   [Sophia Scott’s portrait]
vol. 7 – 1822-1825   [Anne Scott’s portrait]
vol. 8 – 1825-1826
vol. 9 – 1827-1829
vol. 10 – 1830-1832

There are other editions (earlier and later), but having access to one specific edition will help continuity.

Scott’s children were not long-lived. For those having an interest in some background to the family, as well as superb photographs of Abbotsford – the home Scott built from his book proceeds, which nearly bankrupted him, visit the estate’s website. Even James Edward Austen Leigh (Jane Austen’s nephew, who married my diarist; see Two Teens in the Time of Austen) toured Abbotsford; he was a fan of Walter Scott’s “Waverley” series, and the family devoured everything Scott produced.

The introduction to the Governess letters comments upon their most-recent (c1905) dissemination through the hands of several people with ties to Miss Millar. I now wonder, of course, where these precious letters CURRENTLY reside.

 

Gilbert White: Natural History & Journals

How could I overlook one of the most *celebrated* journal keepers, based in Jane Austen’s own county of HAMPSHIRE?

Gilbert White (18 July 1720-26 June 1793) lived in Selborne, Hampshire – inheriting upon his father’s death “The Wakes,” which is now a museum. Selborne is ten miles south of Basingstoke.

Although he was curate for Selborne, it is White’s observations of nature and the countryside that brought him the lasting fame he now “enjoys.” His 1789 book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has really been in print ever since. His journals are what interest me the most, however; the daily tidbits of a life.

Gilbert White Journals

Top on the list of Gilbert White-related websites is THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, which features “a fairly complete transcription of forty years of the personal journals.” In December (2018), I got caught up in his last year’s entries, 1793. I also found the entires of Timothy the Tortoise as entrancing as others have done (Timothy features in his own books, for instance!) The online entries are well-presented.

For those who love books, the 3-volume set of White’s journals, published (in full) in the late 1980s in an edition edited by Francesca Greenoak; illustrated by Clare Roberts. Sydney Padua calls this edition “gorgeous,” “huge,” and “lovely to hold.”

The Gilbert White House Museum has online the “original manuscript” of White’s book, written as a set of letters to Thomas Pennant, and others.

Gilbert White manuscript

The handwriting is consistent and easy to read, but, as you can see, contains “corrections” and “insertions.”

To sum up the man, I turn to Tom Clark, who writes: “All evidence indicates he [Gilbert White] was a cheerful, witty, mild and endlessly curious man.”

EXTRAS:

  • Tom Clark’s Beyond the Pale includes photos of The Wakes and the countryside, and cites some Gilbert White diary entries
  • Basic Information on Gilbert White, including a portrait, from the Gilbert White House Museum site: Who is Gilbert White?
  • Amy M. King, “Publication of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, 1789″
  • Rhian Williams, “Gilbert White’s Eighteenth Century Journals as ‘Everyday’ Ecology” (from Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 24, No. 3, 2017) (viewed online or as PDF)
  • A fascinating look at the written descriptions of Gilbert White, as well as extant and inauthentic portraits, in The Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society (vol. 43, 1987): “Likenesses of the Reverend Gilbert White,” by J.E. Chatfield. (article is PDF)

Mary Somerville’s “Personal Recollections”

I *LOVE* to find new books that are based on letters, diaries, or personal recollections. Sometimes, as in this case, they are edited and published by a loved-one.

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS from Early Life to Old Age, of MARY SOMERVILLE, with selections from her personal correspondence, was published in 1873 by John Murray (there also exists an 1874 Boston edition by Roberts Brothers). The editor, who does a nice job of introducing the material, bridging gaps, and adding valuable information, was Martha Somerville, Mary’s daughter.

Martha speaks favorably of a bust of her mother – which is reproduced as the frontispiece in the Murray edition. The bust was “modelled in Rome in 1844 by Mr. Lawrence McDonald.” The illustration below is from the Boston edition; it may represent the “crayon drawing by Mr. James Swinton, done in London in 1848.”

mary somerville

Although I suspected her to be the Mrs. Somerville (1780-1872) whom Emma Smith (one of my Two Teens in the Time of Austen) mentions in the 1820s, it was by searching the book for the Chelsea Hospital that I got confirmation of my hunch being correct!

Mrs. Somerville was the wife of physician William Somerville, whom the Smiths knew quite well.

william somerville

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for him lists him as “the husband of eminent mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville.”

While the article notes his appointment to the Chelsea Hospital (home of the “Chelsea Pensioners”), it is in his wife’s “recollections” we learn of the dire situation the family was left in, after they “lost their fortune,” due to someone they had considered a friend. The Smiths claim Somerville had a salary of £2000 (an enormous sum). Mary Somerville recalls the position at Chelsea as a chance for the family to survive.

Emma Smith and her sister Augusta did note the “ill health” of Mrs. Somerville in these first years at Chelsea. No wonder: the Somervilles also lost a daughter, after a long illness, as well as their home in Hanover Square, London.

The surprising part for me, was to learn that Mary Fairfax (her maiden name) hungered after knowledge and self-schooled on an unparalleled level. Mathematics was her meal of choice. An interest in astronomy started her on the path she followed the rest of her life.

mary somerville portrait

This is an important book – about an important (and, yes, pioneering) woman. Somerville College, Oxford took its name from Mary Somerville. She is mentioned in Smith and Gosling writings, but because of this book, I have an interest in finding out more about Mary Somerville. Highly recommended for the slice of life, as well as for its biographical information.

Mabel Hall-Dare: Chronicles of Mrs. Theodore Bent

Dedicated editors/biographers and small presses sometimes turn up the most exciting books. This post concerns the three books of travel edited and compiled by Gerald Brisch from the travel diaries of Mabel Bent, née Mabel Hall-Dare.

Brisch’s website expertly lays out not only the journeys of Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel, but also brings the reader closer to the family circle of the Bents. I first found the website through the Photo Album, for Alice Tupper is among Mabel’s relatives, and she’s also among the Smith and Gosling relatives (by the 1860s). Had Mary Gosling lived beyond the early 1840s, she would have had Alice’s brother Gaspard Le Marchant Tupper as her son-in-law. So it was a thrill to find Mabel’s Aunt Alice, and to find more of Mabel herself, for it is obviously that the two were known to the Spencer-Smith family.

Mabel Bent

But back to Mabel Bent, as she became after her marriage in 1877.

I must begin my Chronicle somewhere if I am to write one at all and as in this matter I am selfish enough to consider myself of the first consideration because I write to remind myself in my old age of pleasant things (or the contrary) I will begin now.

The place was “Room 2 of the Hôtel de Byzance, Constantinople, in February 1886.”

The three volumes in the series The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent (1883-1898) are:

As you can see just from the titles, the Bents were not the “average Victorian traveler.” They ventured far from their Ireland and England homes. Theodore’s writings exist, published in his lifetime, but it’s Mabel’s eye-witness accounts of life on the road that interests me. Who could resist this opening, written in Cairo in 1885 (from vol. II):

“I did not think the journey here would have given me anything to write about, but it was so bad that I will begin by saying that it was snowing when we embarked at Dover, and so dark and thick that we had to stop for sounding near Calais as the pier head could not be seen. … We were 4 English in the corners [of the compartment] and in the middle a French lady for Monte Carlo who scolded us well in good English and French for not giving up a corner…. [W]ith relief we parted from her in Paris.”

These delightful journals are in the archives of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, University of London. Brisch has admirably fleshed out the journals, with introductions, photos and maps, and generous footnotes. These are big volumes, each well over 350 pages. Other texts, concerning the couple’s travels and published writings, are best outlined on Brisch’s website.

In volume III, on Arabia and Persia, is reproduced a rather surprising snippet from none other than a newspaper in Salt Lake City (in 1901), writing about Mabel herself as

“one of the most prominent members of that little band of eminent ladies who, fearing nothing, spend the greater portion of their time exploring uncivilized lands in the pursuit of knowledge. For years now Mrs. Bent has been engaged in travel. In the company of her distinguished husband she risked her life a hundred times, and since his death she has been no less active…”

A unique life brought again to life because of surviving journals. Reading about the diaries – how clear the writing is, for instance – and seeing samples (even of doodles) is part of the delight in these books. The Bents were early members of the Hellenic Society (founded in 1879). The Society has a treasure in these journals. Mabel was an avid photographer (the Photo Album includes a picture of Mabel behind the camera!), so it is interesting to hear Mabel discuss this rather new art (in Greece, in 1885): “All the women here are terrified at the idea of being photographed and my camera is rather a ‘white elephant’.” The inhabitants should have been equally wary of her pen. Thankfully, they did not realize the extent of her journalizing.

See also:

Prolific Diarists, Writers & Artists: Tuckett family

The Victorian members of the Tuckett family (also: Fox Tuckett), first found through the Frenchay Village Museum website, are surprising prolific producers of words and illustrations. Happy will be the next solitary day that can be spent among them.

The above link brings one the DIARY of Mariana Fox Tuckett, kept during the period of December 1857 to March 1859 [tis is a Word document]. The same webpage offers up links to so many other mouth-watering diaries. Several, from the 1840s by Frederick Tuckett, relate to New Zealand. Earlier journals relate his adventures in America (1829-1830) and Europe (1833-1834). You will also find some LETTERS as well as a photo.

Francis Tuckett is represented by a travel diary, through Germany and Belgium, in 1824 [this is a Word document]. Francis, a mountaineer, also can be found in a book snippet, entitled “Looking Back”.

Caroline_Francis_Mariana_Elizabeth Tuckett

Caroline, Francis, Mariana and Elizabeth Tuckett

It was the DELIGHTFUL DRAWINGS of Elizabeth Tuckett, in “Looking Back,” which made me search for her – and find that she produced a series of BOOKS (articles too) illustrated by herself. So far I have found:

Here’s a sampling of the illustrations from Beaten Tracks:

Beaten Track-Toulon_TuckettBeaten Track_Tuckett

 

Eleanora Hallen’s diary

Eleanore Hallen large

This HAS to be “the” most delightful drawing of a family by a child of that family that I’ve yet come across! “A family of the Hallens March 1836“. There is so much going on in this one page: Portraits, scenes from life, even some “erased” souls.

The Hallens are Canada based – and present for the period of settlement in Upper Canada, when homes were wrested from the forest.

  • An excellent biography, based during the Upper Canada settlement period, is one of my FAVORITE purchases made in Montreal years ago: Sisters in the Wilderness, by Charlotte Gray. About writers Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. Their sister who stayed in England is the biographer Agnes Strickland.

The Hallens moved to Canada (from England) in 1835. They were a family of eleven children. Upper Canada (today’s province of Ontario) was a wilderness. The Hallens – as documented by daughter Eleanora – travelled from Worcestershire, to take a ship from Liverpool to New York. The sail across the Atlantic took seven weeks. Ultimately, their new home was a log cabin north of Toronto.

* * *

LINKS

An archived site featuring the above Hallens diary:
https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/008-3140-e.html

A 1994 “young adult” book based on Eleanora:
https://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/cmarchive/vol22no5/eleanora.html

Other “immigrants” to Canada: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/immigrants/021017-110.05-e.php

There are OTHER Hallen diaries!! George Hallen and Mary Hallen, for instance. See the Hallen “fonds”:

http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/pdf/pdf001/p000000931.pdf