Gail G. Campbell. “I wish to keep a record:” Nineteenth Century New Brunswick Women Diarists and Their World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
By Jane Errington
As Gail Campbell reminds us, reading someone else’s diary takes us into a foreign land. And yet, in this evocative analysis of the diaries of three generations of 28 nineteenth-century New Brunswick women, there is a sense of immediacy that is compelling. “I wish to keep a record” takes us into a world that has a myriad of women’s voices – rural and urban, young and older, single, married, and widowed. Unable to find diaries of Acadian, Indigenous, or Afro-Canadian women, Campbell never claims that this study reflects the broad cultural landscape of the province. Moreover, as she is careful to point out, diaries, by their very nature, are a reflection of an individual’s sensibilities. But all these women “belonged” to New Brunswick and Campbell persuasively argues that this gave a particular shape and rhythm to their lives, one quite different than that of immigrant women or even those from other parts of the Maritimes. And “I wish to keep a record” evocatively chronicles the complexity and diversity of her subjects’ experiences over time and space, as they negotiated the changing circumstances of their families, their communities, and of the colony as a whole.
Before delving into the diaries themselves, Campbell first “sets the stage” – introducing her subjects, and providing an overview of women’s lives and the economic, social, and political transformation of the province over the century. There is also a fascinating chapter on “A Historian’s Craft” that recounts Campbell’s own journey trying to tickle out her subjects’ “stories.” Among other things, she highlights the need to try to understand the particular circumstances within which each diarist chose to keep a record as well as the impact that broader economic, social, and political forces had on her life.
The heart of this book, however, is Campbell’s analysis of what the diaries, taken together, can actually tell us about women’s experiences and how they responded to and shaped their world. Through a modified life course, thematic organization, we follow various women from “flirtation and courtship” to their response to death and dying. Each chapter draws extensively on the diaries of two or three women, often supplemented by extant correspondence to help elucidate the entries. Over arching each chapter is a realization that these women’s experiences were rooted in family and kin. And at the same time, they were part of local communities and networks, and were aware of and often participated in the wider world, whether through school, work (both paid and unpaid), church, involvement in politics and social reform, or travel to exotic parts of the world. Confronting the trope of separate spheres head on, Campbell convincingly illustrates that these women’s experiences need to be understood within concentric circles that radiated out from the family but were not bound by being relegated to the private sphere.
We never lose sight of the fact that Campbell is interpreting both the written record and the possible meaning of silences. For example, in the chapter “A Sustaining Faith” Campbell notes that “while diaries provide compelling evidence of the centrality of religious practice … glimpses rarely extend beyond the concrete manifestation of that practice.” But when one pays attention to how and when a diarist records such activities – attending a Methodist meeting, or comments on a sermon – it is possible to “gauge the importance they themselves accorded their spiritual experience” (191). Drawing on lengthy diary entries Campbell demonstrates how both religious observance and faith were woven seamlessly into the lives and activities of her subjects.
Part of what makes this volume so appealing is Campbell’s attention to the often delightful detail provided by her subjects. Some the diaries are incredibly rich – Lucy Morrison’s, for example, recounts in April 1881 her daily work in her green houses and gardens as she prepares to meet her customers’ needs for cut flowers and vegetables. This is in contrast to Jacobina Campbell’s sparse one-line rendering of her days in October and early November 1830 that nonetheless evokes a life of church and school for the children, but also quilting, knitting, and making up homespun. And then there is the world of a young Hannah Estabrooks who recounted in January 1903, with some apparent resentment, having to go to work at the local store. There are times, Campbell notes, when the reader feels like a voyeur and this is no more apparent than in the last chapter, “In the Midst of Life.” The matter-of-factness with which nineteenth-century diaries recorded the deaths of family members, friends and neighbours is often heartbreaking. These women knew that death at any age was unavoidable. For some it was a test of faith; for all it also brought terrible loss.
Diaries are, in the end “an edited version of a life” (303). And the historian edits them further, as she reads and then presents selected passages to illustrate a particular point. As Campbell argues, no interpretation is definitive but drawing on a deep research base, and a thoughtful engagement with a wide-ranging secondary literature, Campbell’s study offers a sensitive and nuanced analysis of the world of white women in New Brunswick as they worked and played, worshipped and looked after family and their wider society. This is a volume that is a must read for those who are engaged in the history of New Brunswick and for those who themselves are trying to tease out the stories of women in the nineteenth- century settler world of North America.
Jane Errington, Ph.D. is a member of the History Department at Queen’s. Her current research interests explore how understandings of gender, class and race shaped North American colonial societies, particularly in Upper Canada.