Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Highland diarist in Ireland

‘Christmas day. What a pity - I forgot teetotalism when I mixed the puddings, and not one of the outside men would taste them. Now when those unruly people have such self-command where they think it a sin to yield to temptation, is it not plain that properly educated they would be a fine and a moral race, almost equally plain that those thousand crimes they do commit they have not been taught to consider sins.’ This is from the delightful, but opinionated, diary of Elizabeth Smith, born, in Scotland, 120 years ago today. She moved with her Irish husband to manage and improve his landed estate in County Wicklow, and her diaries are considered literary but also important for what they reveal of Ireland’s social history before and after the potato famine in the mid-19th century.

Elizabeth Grant was born on 7 May 1797 in Edinburgh to Sir Peter Grant, a lawyer and MP, and his wife, Jane. Her childhood was spent mostly at the family estate of Rothiemurchus, Strathspey, and in London, with her education provided by governesses and tutors. In her mid-20s, she was writing, and earning money from, stories for magazines such as Fraser’s and for The Inspector: a Weekly Dramatic Paper. However, her father fell into debt and, in 1827, took his family to India where he had managed to secure himself a position as a judge in Bombay. While in India, in 1829, Elizabeth married the Irishman, Henry Smith. When he inherited a neglected estate, Baltiboys, in County Wicklow, they went to Ireland, to rebuild the house and develop the farms.

Elizabeth raised three children, and actively helped to manage and improve the estate. She also continued to supplement the family income by writing. She died in 1885. Her memoir of years spent in Scotland was edited and abridged by her niece, Lady Strachey, and first published, by John Murray, in 1897 as Memoirs of a Highland Lady. This has been reprinted many times over the years, and is freely available online at Corpus of Scottish Writing (1898 edition) and Internet Archive (1911 edition). There is much less information readily available about her married life and time in Ireland, but see Wikipedia, Am Baile, Highland history and culture, the Rothiemurchus website, or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).

From around 1840, Smith kept a diary, which she hoped would provide guidance and instruction for her children. Although she kept the diary until her death, the entries during the 1840s are considered particularly complete and informative. In 1980, the Clarendon Press published The Irish journals of Elizabeth Smith, 1840-1850: a selection, as edited by David Thomson with Moyra McGusty. Then, in 1991, Canongate Classics brought out a more complete edition of the diaries, under the title The Highland Lady in Ireland: Journals 1840-50 edited by Patricia Pelly (a great great granddaughter of the diarist) and Andrew Tod. This edition, however, omits the years from 1843 to 1845 when, in response to the Irish famine, the family moved to Paris. The publisher claims, ‘[Smith’s] sharp observations of all classes of society however, from corrupt landowners to the poor and often dissolute farm-workers, make this book a memorable and important chronicle of her times and a unique contribution to the social history of Ireland.’

According to Andrew Tod’s introduction, the diaries add to ‘the Highland lady’s reputation as an extremely distinguished diarist’, but also significantly help revise the historical picture of Irish landlordism, and give (after the family’s return from France) a day-to-day account of how the eastern part of Ireland coped with the challenges of the potato blight. Some pages of The Highland Lady in Ireland: Journals 1840-50, including the introduction, can be read online at Googlebooks. An excellent review of the diaries by Janet K. TeBrake can also be read at History Ireland.

Here are several extracts from Elizabeth Smith’s diaries.

6 February 1840
‘Very fine hunting morning, bright but cold. Had cold luncheon ready in the hall for the hunters, no one called in but the Doctor who made a good dinner and gave Janey and me a Latin lesson, and told us Lady Milltown was not well, complaining of no one ever calling on her, out of spirits. Her Lord complaining that she never dresses till near dinner-time, an idle slovenly habit she learned in France, never stirs out, she that used to be so active, he don’t know on earth what to do with her; so it must be for she has no pursuit. With that beautiful house [Russborough] full of the choicest works of art she has no pleasure in it but to see it now and then dusted, her fine family of children are no resource to her. She is incapable of assisting in their education. No reader, beyond a novel which only wearies the spirits, no worker.

And here let me remind you, dear little girls, of an old saying of dear Grandmama’s that a woman who had not pleasure in her needle was never happy, and very seldom good, it may sound a little forced but it is nevertheless perfectly true. A woman has so many solitary hours. Reading through all would be very far from profitable to her, a scientifick pursuit or a devotion to some particular art would withdraw her attention too much from these numberless little duties upon which the happiness of all around her depends.

Besides this want of occupation poor Lady Milltown has had the misfortune to yield to a vile, irritable, jealous, malicious temper which has alienated every friend, and of what avail to her is all her wit and her talent and her rank of which she is so vain now that she is getting old? The spirits that once carried her through are deserting her and she has nothing to replace them with, no one loves her, not even her children, I can’t excuse her failings though I make every allowance for her entire want of education, her early marriage to a profligate man, her later marriage to an unprincipled one, for she knows the right way, and won’t pursue it.’

9 July 1840
‘Your father says, dear children, that I shall quite frighten you into fancying your mother had been in her youth a monster of wickedness from the severity with which in mature age I have censured the follies and the flippancies of girlhood, for my indiscretions amounted to no more serious crime, bad enough. What can be more odious than a pert flirting girl, often betrayed by her giddiness into little better than a jilt. First of all inconsiderately entangled herself, then without reflecting on her duty to him whose whole object she had become or on her own feelings towards him, or on his character, or on the reasons urged against him; was easily frightened into giving him up, and weakly led to act a heartless part in affecting levity very ill timed and God knows very unlike the reality. The whole tale was melancholy, none acted rightly and each I believe suffered for it. Let it rest with the Dead.’

24 October 1840
‘The Doctor was quite agitated yesterday in telling us of a most shocking piece of negligence - worse - neglect of positive duty in our Vicar and Curate. A girl thirteen years of age, for whom they are receiving an annuity from the County, allowed to live among papists, unacquainted with the nature of an oath, remembered two years ago to have said some prayers, etc. This shocks him and others because it came before them in a Court of Justice, where her testimony could not be received by the magistrates on account of her ignorance; but I could rake up fifty such cases or such like, where the total inattention of our clergy is every day increasing evils that a generation of better care will not eradicate. And people wonder that the reformed religion does not spread here. I wonder it is tolerated - it seems to fail to produce even in gentlemen an idea of their duty. What effect can it have on the poor. Mr. Moore is greatly more culpable than Mr. Foster - he knows his duty, which the other poor creature really does not - poor Ireland!’

25 December 1840
‘Christmas day. What a pity - I forgot teetotalism when I mixed the puddings, and not one of the outside men would taste them. Now when those unruly people have such self-command where they think it a sin to yield to temptation, is it not plain that properly educated they would be a fine and a moral race, almost equally plain that those thousand crimes they do commit they have not been taught to consider sins.’

1 April 1841
‘Mr. Murray is to be buried to-morrow, there is no idea who will be the new agent, Lord Downshire not being a man of any attachments except to his purse. Tom Murray heard he meant merely to keep a common bailiff here at an inferiour salary. Ogle Moore has written to ask for the house. Will it be given? Will Mrs. Moore like coming in to play parson’s wife in the village so many miles farther from the gaieties of Dublin and nearer to clerical duties.’

The Diary Junction

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