No Ordinary Lives:
Four 19th Century Teenage Diaries
Do you keep a diary, a journal? Do you have children or teenagers who enjoy writing and may be encouraged through a gift showing others who wrote about their daily activities? No Ordinary Lives by Marilyn W. Seguin gives you that opportunity!
In addition to basic information about writing and keeping a diary, there are tips for locating available diaries and an extensive list of resources, both in written form and online.
The four diaries included in No Ordinary Lives, were written in the 1800s and are all from children and teenagers from Maine, including a diary from Nat Hathorne who later called himself Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Interestingly, there is some question as to whether Hathorne’s diary was “faked” by somebody else, which, in itself, is a sad commentary, but also illustrative of the potential value of documents written while they were young, by those who later become famous. If the diary is real, and I choose to believe it is, then it records probably the earliest “story” written by Hawthorne. It is an endearing, silly little story about having a conversation with a horse who is very hungry, had no breakfast, but had to stand waiting while they were grinding the corn he had pulled to town! Of course, Nat crept in and took some of the corn and gave it to the horse! Later, after Nat had done even more to help, he begins to feel guilty and worry about being caught for helping the poor animal.
One of the differences between Nat’s diary and that of Ethel Godfrey was that Nat wrote about events and activities that occurred in his area, while Ethel had chosen to write only about her personal life. Of course, this is a major decision issue for diarists and obviously affects what the individual may decide to record.
Ethel was writing her diary in her mid-teens and describes her interpersonal relationships with friends with whom she goes to school. One point that perhaps highlighted a difference in school relationships at that time was that the children got together to study. I think, although I could be wrong, that as time passed, and as children became more involved with different activities, that this faded as a routine activity, yet it seemed from this diary that it helped cement friendships between boys and girls. Sad to have lost that from the past.
The other two diaries, although written by individuals who were 13 and 19, are very similar in style. They are written as a log of daily activities, some of which include personal comments while others merely state what occurred daily. The content though is entirely different!
The first book, written by a 13-year-old boy who, after being taken to live with the Shaker community when his parents were not able to support the children, chose not to leave even though his parents begged him to return home. The diary covers daily work activities performed by this young man and certainly does not appear to in any way be similar to the lives of today’s children. Yet the young boy had found a home, a faith, that was meaningful to him and there are many references where he would speak during their religious services.
The last book was written by the daughter of a sea captain who was forced to travel with her parents as they traveled around the southern end of South America and on to the west coast. Although there are times of happiness, there is much loneliness and boredom shared in her diary. One point mentioned only by the book’s author was that she later fell in love with a captain! I wonder if she then took her place onboard as the Captain’s wife and continued to sail the seas?
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading and reviewing Waltzing Australia by Cynthia Clampitt, who recently published her nearly 500-page diary she wrote to document her tour of Australia. Obviously made me wonder whether our sea captain’s daughter grew to love her life and continued to write and even publish the stories about her time sailing. I add this note also to show that as one of today’s writers, Cynthia certainly found a perfect way to use the diary form—to log her activities as she traveled, with personal notes included!
Marilyn Weymouth Seguin, by giving the title No Ordinary Lives to her book, highlights that diaries are personal—they provide the opportunity to write about our innermost thoughts, to be seen only by ourselves. Or, they may be used to provide an intimate look at the lives we have led for our family and those who study historical times in an intimate fashion.
Myself, I would not be willing to share my diary with anybody because I would tend to write about my own personal life. What about you, would you share your life with another through your diary? If you are not sure, but are thinking about keeping a diary, then I highly recommend No Ordinary Lives to you—it may be just what you needed to help you get started!
G. A. Bixler