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In Diaries There Are Days August 2, 2010

Posted by Laura Winnick in England, Undergraduate.
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“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

It’s been almost one month since I first blogged, and those twenty days have been spent reading and exploring space—textual space, the space of the memory, and the city-space of London. I’ve read about four diaries from the eighteenth century thus far.  In my research I have travelled with Mary Berry through France and Germany, struggled to read Elizabeth Fry’s scratchy handwriting, joyfully followed the narratives of the famous Frances Burney, and have now settled into the easy pace of eleven year-old Elizabeth Wynne’s accounts.

My many notebooks with my many notes.

Luckily, three of the diaries I’ve read have already been published, which means that I can easily read their thin, printed pages.  The one diary on microfilm that remained in Fry’s original eighteenth-century handwriting was extremely difficult to read. I scrolled through some of it, but eventually abandoned the project as it took hours to read one roll of film. Although I originally intended to read most diaries recorded in handwriting, I’ve instead found many original publications of eighteenth-century texts here at the British Library. These publications have quickened my reading, and they are only available at this library. Published diaries are the best way for me to take advantage of my short time here: I can read quickly and orderly, without having to return to microfilms, where I scroll endlessly to find my place in the text.

In diaries there are days, but in those days, as Dillard asserts, there are lives: complete, honest, and personal. I’ve been trying to read these memoirs as accounts of self, the textual representation of identity. Take a day in the life of the young Elizabeth Wynne, for example:

November 4th 1790:  My sister rode on horseback.  She was pricked by a wasp.  I cannot fail to mention it because although it is a little thing because when there is nothing else to put in ones journal one must put in such little things.

After you chuckle over this account, think about this passage as a textual representation of voice and personality. Can’t you hear the whiny eleven-year old pining for adventure, desperate to record her journeys in her diary?

This voice becomes exceedingly important when thinking about the relationship between genre and author. At first a simple, candid account of her sister’s ailment becomes a personal, intimate moment of awareness of text and self. The writer reflects not only a knowledge of her form, but comments on the limits of her form, that is, the boring tediousness that manifests in the genre of autobiography. These moments are illuminating for an archivist like me. Upon finding them I am made aware of the relationship between writer and diary, memory and inscription. I better understand the duality of someone living each day and then later recording that day in a diary. It is an odd process–employing words to give shape to time, the daily ritual of it, the struggle, the real work of writing.

The eleven-year-old is right, though: such little things in these diaries, and, for my research, such important little things. In the past month I have had to adjust to archival research, to excavating these small matters from pages. This type of research works differently than undergraduate assignments. It has different hours, different proprieties, and employs a different system. My research involves reading very widely—as many diaries as I can—yet searching for narrow descriptions of very specific ideas. In most English classes, you aren’t given the assignment before you begin the reading. Rather, it is the other way around: you read first, and then return to the text for support for an argument.

But here I walk into the British Library, with my argument next to me, anxious to find description of two really detailed processes: any mentions of embroidery or needlework and accounts of reading on Sundays after religious services. The former is my thesis topic; the latter the topic of interest for a book about eighteenth-century religion, a chapter of which my professor will be writing. This type of research is a bit backwards to me, and it took me a few weeks to balance it. Little things: I have to look closer, zoom in, read around, and skim pages. I have to allow time to move with me. I have started to divide the days by pages, not by hours. (Yesterday, I reviewed a startling 100. Today, only 60.)

In the British Library, three floors of reading rooms.

There have been even smaller matters to adjust to while conducting my research: the trivialities of working in a scholarly, esteemed library. I’ve grown accustomed to bounding up the stairs of Michigan’s Graduate Library, toting my lunch, laptop, books, and whatever other odd items I’ve stored in my backpack. I burrow myself into one of the comfy chairs and stack up my books, food, and water around me, creating a home-away-from-home where I loiter until two in the morning. But the BL doesn’t really stand for that.

Reading here is rigid and respectful. You can’t bring lunch, gum, a camera, or even water into the reader’s rooms. You have to store your belongings in a locker and then put your laptop and notebooks into a clear plastic bag. Every time you walk into the room, guards check your reader’s pass and every time you walk out, they rifle through your belongings. Twice I have forgotten my reader’s pass—that sneaky little green card that allows me to step into the room where the diaries are housed. Without it, I can’t even attend a session about using the library’s beta catalogue (believe me, I’ve tried). Three times I’ve forgotten what seat I’m in, so I have to run back and check before the books I’ve requested are handed over to me. Once—and only once, I swear—I laughed out loud. After the grimaces directed toward me, I don’t ever think I’ll do that again … but I can’t be bothered* if my reading is more entertaining than that of the other guests! I’ve uploaded some pictures of the outside of the library, my notes, and notebooks. I wish I could show you the spines of the old books I’m reading. But I didn’t dare take any kind of picture inside the reading room: I think they would have banned me forever.

All my supplies--and my green reader's pass!

*British slang for “it’s not my fault”… See I’m working on it!

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