More Than Common Powers of Perception

cabot diary

Publisher / date: Beacon Press / 1991
pages: xix + 357
Hardcover
genre: diary

Last Saturday I spent some delightful hours with Elizabeth Mason’s diary; I’m currently up to the part (1858-1860) where she and Walter Cabot are deciding their mutual attraction.

Elizabeth’s journal is an exploration of one Bostonian family’s life, and (especially) one young girl’s dreams, aspirations, and self-criticisms. I find her inner-thoughts very inspiring at times. I will content myself with sharing one passage. It is June 1857; Elizabeth has long been contemplating her self-perceived “coldness” — for she has declined an offer or two. A declined offer is what prompts this passage:

“He is content with crumbs indeed, and he seems to dwell very much on a continuance of our intercourse as friends. If we can meet again on familiar terms and he will give up all other ideas, I think possibly I might be a pleasure to him, and he to me. I have read in novels of these sort of intimacies, and always imagined that they might be much more natural than any other intercourse between men and women, but perhaps it can only take place in novels. I pity a man like Mr. Higginson, who feels the emptiness of a solitary life, for he has not the resources of a woman, cannot surround himself with home occupations or the ties from loving services, that only women can render, and has no friends and sympathizers as women have, for it seems to me that it is only women who can be real sympathizers. Men are so busy in their own objects, so full of business, that their time and thoughts are none too much for themselves; but a woman’s life is in others, and her nature makes it easy and natural to be interested in their affairs. Not that I do this, but I see how it might be done, and try to come nearer to my ideal. A true woman lives for herself only in others — a difficult attainment…” [p. 170]

The young Elizabeth hopes for education; a warmer relationship with her mother (especially) and father; these subjects bring out touching emotions in the diarist. Of the married woman, I can’t quite say – as I’ve not finished the book! She gets a bit more newsy, and the entries are sometimes further apart (the editing may contributed to this sometimes, but she does comment also). 1872 is particularly heartrending — and the reader finds Elizabeth back to those pithy thoughts and feelings she expressed to her diary earlier (ie, before her marriage). I bought it in Plattsburgh, at The Corner Store, in November 2004; as you can see, it was published even longer ago!

The editor, P.A.M. Taylor, a (male!) historian from the University of Hull (England), has included a nice selection from the original journals; his minimalist approach to editorial intrusion provides just enough information to keep the story’s salient points in the forethought of the uninitiated reader. Taylor has written a superb introduction (which covers the book’s first 30 pages); and, what I rather like, given summary of the years coming up in each “section,” thereby alerting readers, in a most informative manner, what’s about to happen.

More than Common Powers of Perception:The Diary of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot is a must-read for those interested in the period, in Boston, in the lives of young women. More than twenty years after this initial publication, I do wish someone had seen fit to publish the diaries in toto. More Elizabeth Cabot would be quite welcome.

* * *

  • A companion book: A Woman’s Wit and Whimsy: The 1833 Diary of Anna Cabot Lowell Quincy (193 pages; 2003); Anna is mentioned in Elizabeth’s diary.
  • Boston Letters of a slightly later period, see Harvard’s online offering of Letters and Diaries of Margaret Cabot Lee (privately printed, 1923). Margaret, who lived 1866 to 1920, is part of Harvard’s series, “Women Working, 1800-1930” (see their collection of “diaries and memoirs“).
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