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.