Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baggage and Boche

Alfred A Cunningham, an American marine who pioneered the use of aviation for military purposes, died 70 years ago today. A diary he kept for several weeks during the First World War provides a sometimes thrilling account of chasing and gunning the boches (Germans), as well as lively thoughts on wartime England and France. Of the English, he wrote, ‘they have the most pernicious system of carrying baggage’; and of combat he said this: ‘After a few minutes we sighted a boche 2 seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had.’

Cunningham was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1882. After serving as a volunteer in the infantry regiment during the Spanish-American War and in Cuba, he worked as an estate agent. In 1909, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and promoted to first lieutenant two years later. Based at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, he developed an ongoing interest in aeronautics, which led him to be sent to the US Naval Academy, with its nearby aviation camp. Between October 1912 and July 1913, he made some 400 flights, for both training and testing purposes. In 1914, he was heavily involved in the decision to set up the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Florida.

By 1917, Cunningham had emerged as de facto director of Marine Corps aviation. Under his direction, the Northern Bombing Group was developed which, during the last year of the First World War, undertook bombing raids with British and French planes, as well as independently of them. For his service in organising and training the first marine aviation force, Cunningham was awarded the Navy Cross. After the war, he served in various positions, eventually being promoted to lieutenant colonel, and becoming executive officer and registrar of the Marine Corps Institute (from 1929 to 1931).

Wikipedia has a biography, and a longer one can be read at the Naval History & Heritage Command website.

For two months towards the end of the First World War, from November 1917 to January 1918, Cunningham wrote a lively diary, full of observations about Britain and France, and about fighting the Germans. It was published by the History and Museums Division of the US Marine Corps in 1974 as Marine Flyer in France: Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham (copies can be found cheaply on Abebooks).

The text of the book, though, is now freely available at The World War I Document Archive (maintained by Richard Hacken). Here are a few paragraphs from the book’s introduction by the editor, Graham A. Cosmas.

‘The diary, kept in tiny, neat handwriting in a small pocket notebook, begins on 3 November 1917 with Cunningham’s sailing from New York on board the S. S. St. Paul. After a description of a rough winter passage through the North Atlantic U-boat zone, the entries record the confusion, inconveniences, and hardships of wartime London and Paris and contain repeated expressions of homesickness, along with sometimes acid comment on the French people and culture.

Beginning with the entry of 23 November, Cunningham records his visits to the French flying schools south of Paris at Tours, Avord, Pau, and Cazaux. Here he conferred with French aviators and flew in aircraft of many types. He was impressed with the skill of many of the Allied pilots he met but sometimes appalled by their recklessness and by the accident rate among the student fliers. Throughout these passages, also, Cunningham expresses straight-laced moral indignation at the fondness of many off-duty American officers for liquor and women.

After another stop in Paris, the diary then follows Cunningham to a visit to the AEF Headquarters at Chaumont on 12 December, then to the Marine billets near Bourmont and Damblain and to front-line French airbases near Soissons. In these visits, he encounters American fliers of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille. The entries for 18-22 December, the most dramatic of the diary, tell of Cunningham’s participation in combat missions with French pilots and a brief but vivid experience of trench warfare and artillery bombardment.

The final section of the diary recounts visits to British bomber fields and seaplane bases in northern France and Belgium and a tour of the RNAF and RFC aerial gunnery schools at Eastchurch and Hythe, England. The last entries leave Cunningham on board S. S. St. Louis at sea on the voyage home.’

And here are two extracts:

12 November 1917, Savoy Hotel, London
‘After another night of expecting to be torpedoed any minute we sighted the lightship off Liverpool and took a pilot aboard. Every one on the ship had a feeling of relief and we bade our good friends the destroyers good-bye and they headed for sea to convoy some other ship in. I admit that I was rather disappointed that we did not have a brush with a sub, but this seems rather foolish considering the number it would have endangered. We arrived alongside the landing float at 10:30 a.m. The tide rises 30 ft. here so the steamers land alongside a tremendous floating wharf. The immigration officer looked us over and then we were examined by the customs people. They were extremely nice and did not ask me to pay duty on all the tobacco and cigars I have. I then landed and could not find a porter so had to lug my own baggage all over the place. Took lunch at the Adelphi Hotel and had my first experience with the war food laws. I was allowed about 1/4 of a lump of sugar, no butter and very little bread. The filet mignon I had looked like a piece of tripe. Everything is fairly reasonable, however. We left the Lime Street Station for London at 2 p.m. in one of those dinky little compartments. The country looked very peaceful and attractive and we arrived at Euston Station, London at 7 p.m. They have the most pernicious system of carrying baggage. You have to get your own baggage put in the van and when we arrived in London everyone made a wild rush for the baggage van and there was a regular riot for a while. Everyone scrambling to get their trunks, etc. and when you found your luggage you had to then find a porter and when you found him you had to hunt a cab. After wearing yourself out you finally have a cab with your luggage all over it and can go to a hotel. I never saw so much tipping. Everybody who looks at you has his hands out for a tip. I finally arrived at the Savoy Hotel and Stewart, Tumey and myself have a suite together. We took dinner at Simpson’s and I am now going to bed as the last few days have worn me out.’

18 December 1917, Front of the 4th French army
‘Got up frozen stiff. The weather fairly clear. Persuaded a French pilot of a biplane fighting Spad to take me over the lines. We went up like an elevator and talk about speed! Wk were over the lines in no time and I was all eyes. The archies bursting near us worried me some and made it hard to look all the time for boches. I saw something to one side that looked like a fountain of red ink. Found it was the machine gun tracer bullets from the ground. After a few minutes we sighted a boche 2 seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had. I got my machine gun ready. Before we got to him he dived and headed for home. On 1 of our rolls I let loose a couple of strings of 6 at him but it was too far for good shooting. After following him a ways over the lines we turned to look for another. None were out so we came home. Finest trip I ever had. If the boche had not turned quite so soon, I think I might have got him. Watched pilots doing stunts in afternoon. At about 8 p.m. we were huddled around a small fire in the hut when we heard 3 boche machines fly over very low. Two of them did not locate our place and went on. We went outside and saw the other 1 flying around trying to locate the hangars so we made for the machine gun pit. He finally flew down the line and let go a couple of bombs, as he came over we opened on him but the gun jammed and no one could fix it in the dark. He made 3 trips and let go 2 bombs each trip. Then he left us. We found he had dropped them all in the woods and no machines were hurt. We went back and tried to sleep but every time a big gun would go off I thought it was another raid. I am writing this Wednesday night with my hands blue from cold. There is certainly no lack of excitement around here.’

Monday, May 25, 2009

Let the paint dry

Rosa Bonheur, the most famous of 19th century women painters, died 110 years ago today. Remembered in particular for her paintings of animals, her renown today also stems for what, in retrospect, seems like lesbian tendencies - not marrying, dressing as a man and living with female companions. The last of her companions was a young American artist, Anna Klumpke, who kept a diary and used it for a biography of her mentor.

Rosa Bonheur was born into a cultured Bordeaux family in 1822. Her father was an artist; her mother, who died young, was a piano teacher; and several of her siblings were to become painters or sculptors. She seems to have been an unruly child, never happy in school, but became very focused on painting in her early teens. She was also interested in animals from a young age, and later studied anatomy, visited abattoirs, and even performed dissections.

Her first big success came with Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work, The Horse Fair, was completed in 1855 and brought her international recognition. It also brought her to the attention of Belgian art dealer Ernest Gambart. He persuaded her to travel to Britain (where she met Queen Victoria) and to tour with the painting. Thereafter, Gambart (but other dealers also) would purchase the reproduction rights to Bonheur’s paintings and sell engraved copies.

However, Bonheur found fame difficult to handle, and, in 1859, she retreated from Paris to a chateau at By, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, to sketch and paint and, over the years, receive many visitors. But it was an unconventional lifestyle she lived, wearing trousers, smoking (unusual for a woman at the time) and hunting; for a while and when focused on painting wild animals, she kept a couple of lions, supplied by Gambart.

She never married, but for 50 years shared her life with Nathalie Micas who had been a school friend since the age of 12. After Micas died she met an American artist, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, more than 30 years her junior, and invited her to By to paint her portrait. But the relationship developed beyond that and Klumpke remained with Bonheur until she died on 25 May 1899, one century and one decade ago today. Brief biographies can be found at Wikipedia and The Art History Archive.

Bonheur left her estate, include hundreds of paintings, to Klumpke who then founded the Rosa Bonheur prize (at the Société des Artistes Français) and organised the Rosa Bonheur museum at the Fontainebleau palace. Klumpke’s biographical book about Bonheur was published in Paris in 1908 as Rosa Bonheur: Sa Vie Son Oeuvre. Ninety years later, in the 1990s, Gretchen Van Slyke translated the work and University of Michigan Press published it in English as - Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)biography. The strange title stems from the fact that Klumpke’s text was written in the first-person voice, as if she were Bonheur. The book also includes a large number of extracts from Klumpke’s diary.

Original copies of the French book, now a century old, can be bought on Abebooks - first editions cost several hundred pounds. However, much of the English version - a 2001 edition - is free to view at Googlebooks.

‘The [following] pages,’ Klumpke says in her book, ‘are excerpts from the diary where I wrote down the day’s events every evening. At the very least, they provide an exact account of life at the chateau. Having done my best to render my famous model’s words and deeds, I’d love to think that while my brush was retracing the lines of her face, my pen was drawing a good portrait of her character, especially her spirited offhand conversation.’

Here are some extracts from Klumpke’s diary.

1 July 1898
‘After the sitting this afternoon, Rosa Bonheur stretched out on her lounge chair for a smoke while I kept on working. She scolded me for rushing: ‘Ah! that Miss Anna! she doesn’t ever stop. True, I used to be like that. Now I tend to dawdle, doing less but thinking more. Also, I did more studies. I didn’t just start a huge canvas without having gathered all the documents I needed.’

She watched me wipe my palette and went on: ‘I don’t work like that. I never wipe it off till I’ve scraped with a knife and poured on some turpentine. That way the wood stays clean. This palette, for example, looks practically new, yet God knows how long I’ve been using it for skies. Take it for your touchups. I’ll even sign it for you.

She grabbed a brush and wrote: ‘A souvenir for Anna Klumpke. May my palette bring you good luck. Rosa Bonheur.’ ’

4 July 1898
‘ ‘Today is young America’s birthday,’ Rosa Bonheur announced this morning. ‘To celebrate, I’ll give you a long sitting. Use it well!’

I’d got a good start on the head, and I prayed to God to let me capture the penetrating gaze and the benevolent, poetic air that emanated from her whole person.

In the midst of posing, she blurted out: ‘You’ve got such goodness in your face I can’t help thinking of my mother. Your face is long and oval, mine is square. You say I’m cheerful? You’re young at heart. Never would I have believed that we’d get along so perfectly. Your portrait has got fine tone and texture; it’ll be good.’ ’

5 July 1898
‘I worked on the head today. After the sitting Rosa Bonheur looked at the canvas and said: ‘Let the paint dry. When I’ve got an important piece at this stage, sometimes I just let it sit for a whole year long.’

‘In that case, dear great artist, I’ve got time for a trip back to Boston.’

‘Ah! that’s not what I meant,’ she said. ‘While the head is drying, you can paint the hands, the dress, and any background details you want.’ ’

30 July 1898
‘Late this afternoon Rosa Bonheur came into the studio where I was working on the portrait’s accessories. She looked it over absentmindedly and gave me a compliment or two. Then she turned around and placed her hands on my shoulders. While I gazed at her in surprise, she asked in tones of tender supplication: ‘Anna, will you stay here and share my life? I’ve grown attached to you. Life will seem so sad after you’re gone. I’ll be so alone again.’ ’

Friday, May 22, 2009

Writing for you, Sasha

It’s a year to the day since the death of Hana Pravda, a Czech-born actress who had lived and worked in Britain since the late 1950s. Although not a household name, she appeared in many much-loved British series, and directed plays in the theatre also. However, in recent years, she became better known thanks to an extraordinary diary she had kept during the Second World War, and which was only rediscovered in the 1990s and then published to much acclaim.

Hana was born in 1916 at her grandparents’ house in Prague, into a middle class Jewish family. Her father trained as a lawyer but joined the Austro-Hungarian army; her mother died while she was still at school. Aged only 17 Hana acted in her first film, and she then went to study acting under Alexei Dikii in Leningrad. On returning to Prague, she married Alexander (Sasha) Munk, a student activist at the time, and the two of them moved to a small town in eastern Bohemia where they thought they would be safe from the Nazi persecution of Jews.

In 1942, however, they were captured and interned in various camps. Hana survived the war, but Sasha died at Kraslice, only days before the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Subsequently, Hana returned to acting. She married George Pravda, and they emigrated first to Australia and then to the UK, where she appeared frequently in television dramas, such as Survivors, Danger Man, Z-Cars and Tales of the Unexpected. She also directed many plays at the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead, and continued to act for radio productions well into her 80s. She died on 22 May 2008, a year ago today, and was recognised by several of the British broadsheets with long obituaries - The Guardian, for example. Wikipedia also has a short bio.

All the obituaries mention her extraordinary diary, published to great acclaim in 2000 by Oxford-based Day BooksI Was Writing This Diary For You, Sasha. Here is how The Times describes the diary’s reappearance: ‘On Christmas Eve 1995 a parcel arrived at her London flat. It contained her wartime diary, barely legible, in its flimsy red notebook, and a photograph of Sasha. She had had to leave it behind in Prague in 1948. Attempts had been made to send it on, but it had been mislaid and forgotten for decades until a friend who had emigrated to Australia rediscovered it. After hesitating for fear of reviving old wounds she sent it on to Pravda, who initially ‘scrabbled on my hands and knees, reading snatches - I wanted to devour it’. ’

Day Books says: ‘Few diaries can have been written in more extraordinary circumstances than the one which a young Czech actress kept during the last few months of World War II. Not only was she on the run from the Nazis, following her dramatic escape from captivity: she was also searching desperately for her husband, whom she had last seen when they were prisoners together at Auschwitz.’ And it provides this quote from Hana’s diary: ‘One afternoon we saw a group of male prisoners walking past in the distance - too far away to talk to. They were clutching their grey prison blankets round their bodies, and all we could see of their faces were their huge staring eyes. They moved as slowly as ghosts. Would I recognise my Sasha among them? Would he recognise me? I think about him all the time.’

Other extracts can be found on Czech websites, such as Czech Radio.

20 November 1945
‘I am in Prague. It’s eight years since you kissed me for the first time, Sasha.
After my show tonight we went to the U Šupů Restaurant, but it was all closed up, and inside it was completely dark. Now I am sitting in our favourite coffeehouse, the Union, at our table in the middle room. I’m warming my hands on a cup of tea, just as I used to in the old days. The street hasn’t changed at all. You’re sitting opposite me. Your mother has just left us. You’re the only person for me in the whole world . . . The only one. The world is empty and I can’t stand it. I want to die.’

30 November 1945 (the diary’s last entry)
‘My dearest. My beloved. Ask God to forgive me. Pray for my soul - the soul I am losing. I don’t want to live with a shattered soul. Please help me to die.’

In recent years, Edward Fenton, who runs Day Books, has given a few snapshots of Hana in his blog - A Publisher’s Diary - on the Day Books website. Here’s a couple of entries:

4 January 2009
‘ ‘I did not succeed in killing myself,’ Holocaust survivor Hana Pravda wrote on 4 January 1996. A few days earlier, her lost diary had been sent to her by a friend in Australia, and memories had come flooding back to her. After the war she had been so distressed that she had seriously considered suicide, and the diary ends on that note. Such despair wasn’t typical of her; she was always a fighter. It was a privilege for me to be able to work with her, and to publish her diary - along with the epilogue which she wrote over 50 years later, on this day 13 years ago.’

1 February 2006
‘To Greek Street for Hana Pravda’s surprise birthday party in a little private room above a place called the Gay Hussar. Hana had been expecting to have a family dinner, and hadn’t known till the very last minute that so many of her friends would be coming to pay tribute to her. Her three granddaughters were there - and her grandson, who’d flown in from the US - and various friends from her long career, including Tom Conti, who was clearly the guest of honour as far as Mrs Pravda was concerned. But tonight she was the star. What an amazing life she’s had - and how amazing that she was there - still.’

Monday, May 18, 2009

Albéniz and Liszt (or not)

It’s one hundred years exactly since Isaac Albéniz, Spanish composer and virtuoso pianist, died. His early life was marked by brilliance and motion, and, as an adult, he never really settled anywhere permanently, living in Madrid, Paris and London. During some periods, he kept a diary - but he didn’t always tell it the truth, as when he claimed to have met Liszt.

Albéniz was born in Catalonia, Spain, in 1860. His mother, Dolors Pascual, was a native of Figueres, and his father, Àngel Albéniz, was a civil servant posted in Ripolles but then in other places. By the age of four Albéniz was playing the piano in public and was considered something of a child prodigy. At seven he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but went instead to Madrid to study there.

In his early teens, Albéniz made several attempts to run away from home, supporting himself with concert tours. Eventually, his father accepted his wish to play, and he toured as far afield as South America. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory when 14 for a short while, before further studies in Brussels. In 1880, he went to Budapest wanting to meet Franz Liszt - of which more below.

In 1883, Albéniz settled in Madrid to teach, and to study with Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to write Spanish music. During the 1890s, he lived mostly in London and Paris, composing for the stage, often in collaboration with Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who provided both librettos and funding. But, by 1900, he had begun to suffer from Bright’s disease. This didn’t stop him working, though he returned to piano music, and, in the last years of his life, composed Iberia - a suite of twelve piano impressions evoking the spirit of Spain - which is considered to be his best work. Albéniz died exactly 100 years ago today, on 18 May 1909.

There is plenty of information about Albéniz on the internet in English - Wikipedia, the website of Barcelona-based composer Mac McClure, and the Gaudí All Gaudí website all have biographies. There is also a small amount of information about Albéniz keeping a diary, but no evidence of it having been published in English. In particular, there is one incident - the Liszt incident - sourced from Albéniz’s diary that is regularly referred to in biographies.

Here is the relevant diary extract (dated August 1880 and lifted from the online version of Paul Mast’s 1974 doctoral thesis for the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester): ‘I have visited Liszt. He received me in the most amiable manner. I played two of my Etudes and a Hungarian Rhapsody. To all appearances he was much pleased with me, especially when I improvised a complete dance on a Hungarian theme which he gave me. He asked me all sorts of questions about Spain, my parents, my religious opinions, and, finally, about music in general. I told him quite frankly and decidedly that I gave no thought to any of those things, which seemed to please him. I am to return the day of after tomorrow.’

But the Gaudí All Gaudí website as above, says: ‘Albéniz noted in his diary that he met Liszt in Budapest on August 18, 1880, an impossible feat given that Liszt had taken up residence in Weimer by then. He was given to the exhibitionism of a child prodigy, as when he would play the piano blindfolded or with his back to the piano, or place a cloth over the keys to make the task even more difficult. Therefore his diary, though undoubtedly helpful in studying his character, is peppered with several passages that require a certain scrutiny, or at least an ability to separate fact from fiction.’

Yale Fineman, a music librarian, at the University of Maryland, says in an essay, dated 2004, that the diary entry about Lizst ‘was probably meant to placate his father who helped fund this excursion’, i.e. to Budapest.

Further extracts from Albéniz’s diary can be found in Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic by Walter Aaron Clark, first published by Oxford University Press in 1999 - many pages of which can be read online at Googlebooks.

Clark says: ‘In their fixation on the Liszt episode, biographers have neglected other passages in his diary that tell us much more important things about the young man. For instance, at an outdoor religious ceremony in Budapest on the 20th, Albéniz notes a ‘high degree of religious intolerance’ among the locals when a man is beaten by the mob for neglecting to doff his hat as the sacrament passes. This behaviour he finds simply ‘stupid’.’

In the days after the (made-up) meeting with Liszt, the diary contains no further mention of the man, and instead focuses on sightseeing, money problems, and the need for patience in ‘conquering’ a lovely young girl he has met, all his normal ‘methods’ of conquest having failed.

And here are some extracts from much later in Albéniz’s life (thanks also to the Clark biography).

21 February 1901
‘Those who search for God, those who discuss him, seem to me like those who wish to find a three-legged cat; they forget that it has four, and that God does not exist except in the here and now, that is to say while we live, think and express ourselves; thus we are God, and everything else is songs!!!’

11 March 1901
‘My misfortune is great; I am foolish with aspirations!!!.’

20 April 1904
‘The ideal formula in art ought to be ‘variety within logic’.’

Friday, May 15, 2009

Without seeing you

‘My Pierre, I think of you without end, my head is bursting with it and my reason is troubled. I do not understand that I am to live henceforth without seeing you, without smiling at the sweet companion of my life.’ These are some of the heart-rending words Marie Curie wrote in a diary after the death of her husband, Pierre Curie, with whom she had won the Nobel Prize for Physics three years earlier. Pierre, born one and a half centuries ago today, also kept a diary, at least when he was a young man.

Pierre Curie was born in Paris - 150 years ago today on 15 May 1859 - and educated at home by his father. Although he showed a strong aptitude for mathematics, lack of funds led him to take a laboratory job, in the Sorbonne faculty of sciences, rather than to full time study. As early as 1880, though, he and his older brother, Jacques, showed how an electric potential could be generated when crystals were compressed (piezoelectricity). By 1882, he had been put in charge of all practical work within the Sorbonne’s physics and industrial chemistry schools, but it wasn’t until 1895 that he obtained his doctorate - based on pioneering studies of magnetism - and was appointed Professor of Physics.

That same year, Curie married Marie Sklodowska, a Polish student of his, and they would have two daughters, Irène and Ève. Collaborating, Pierre and Marie were the first to isolate radioactive substances - radium and polonium - by fractionation of pitchblende in 1898; and they were the first to coin the term ‘radioactive’. Their research formed the basis for many subsequent developments in nuclear physics and chemistry. Together, and jointly with French physicist Henri Becquerel, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

In April 1906, Pierre died after his skull was fractured when he fell under the wheel of a horse-drawn vehicle on a rainy night. Further information on Pierre and Marie can be found at Wikipedia, on the Nobel Prize website, and at the American Institute of Physics.

The death of Pierre was a terrible tragedy for Marie. We know a lot about her feelings at the time because soon after her husband’s death she started writing a diary, the only one she ever kept. Years later, her daughter used some quotes from it for a much celebrated biography of her mother. The full text of Madame Curie - A Biography by Eve Curie, as translated by Vincent Sheean and published by Doubleday & Company in 1937, is available at Internet Archive. Some extracts of the diary (taken from Eve’s book) are also available on the website of the American Institute of Physics.

Here is how Eve introduces her mother’s diary: ‘After some weeks had passed, Marie, incapable of speaking of her woe before human beings, lost in a silence, a desert which sometimes made her cry out with horror, was to open a gray notebook and hurl onto the paper, with writing which trembled, the thoughts that were stifling her. Through these scratchy, tear-splotched pages, of which only fragments can be published, she addressed Pierre, called upon him and asked him questions. She tried to fix every detail of the drama which had separated them in order to torture herself with it forever afterward. The brief, intimate diary the first and the only one Marie ever kept reflected the most tragic hours of this woman’s life.’

And here are some extracts about Pierre.

‘We put you into the coffin Saturday morning, and I held your head up for this move. We kissed your cold face for the last time. Then a few periwinkles from the garden on the coffin and the little picture of me that you called “the good little student” and that you loved. It is the picture that must go with you into the grave, the picture of her who had the happiness of pleasing you enough so that you did not hesitate to offer to share your life with her, even when you had seen her only a few times. You often told me that this was the only occasion in your life when you acted without hesitation, with the absolute conviction that you were doing well. My Pierre, I think you were not wrong. We were made to live together, and our union had to be.

Your coffin was closed and I could see you no more. I didn’t allow them to cover it with the horrible black cloth. I covered it with flowers and I sat beside it. . .

They came to get you, a sad company; I looked at them, and did not speak to them. We took you back to Sceaux, and we saw you go down into the big deep hole. Then the dreadful procession of people. They wanted to take us away. Jacques and I resisted. We wanted to see everything to the end. They filled the grave and put sheaves of flowers on it. Everything is over, Pierre is sleeping his last sleep beneath the earth; it is the end of everything, everything, everything. . .’

7 May 1906
‘My Pierre, I think of you without end, my head is bursting with it and my reason is troubled. I do not understand that I am to live henceforth without seeing you, without smiling at the sweet companion of my life.’

11 May 1906
‘My Pierre, I got up after having slept rather well, relatively calm. That was only a quarter of an hour ago, and now I want to howl again - like a wild beast.’

14 May 1906
‘My little Pierre, I want to tell you that the laburnum is in flower, the wisteria, the hawthorn and the iris are beginning - you would have loved all that. I want to tell you, too, that I have been named to your chair, and that there have been some imbeciles to congratulate me on it. I want to tell you that I no longer love the sun or the flowers. The sight of them makes me suffer. I feel better on dark days like the day of your death, and if I have not learned to hate fine weather it is because my children have need of it.’

There is some evidence of Pierre Curie having written a diary as a young man, but I can find (on the internet) only three extracts. The first two are from Eve Curie’s book, as above, and the last, brief one is from the Institut Curie website.

‘Woman loves life for the living of it far more than we do: women of genius are rare. Thus, when we, driven by some mystic love, wish to enter upon some anti-natural path, when we give all our thoughts to some work which estranges us from the humanity nearest us, we have to struggle against women. The mother wants the love of her child above all things, even if it should make an imbecile of him. The mistress also wishes to possess her lover, and would find it quite natural to sacrifice the rarest genius in the world for an hour of love. The struggle almost always is unequal, for women have the good side of it: it is in the name of life and nature that they try to bring us back.’

‘What shall I be later on? I am very rarely all under command at once; ordinarily a portion of my being is asleep. It seems to me that my mind gets clumsier every day. Before, I flung myself into scientific or other divagations; today I barely touch on subjects and do not allow myself to be absorbed by them any more. And I have so many, many things to do! Is my poor mind then so feeble that it cannot act upon my body? Is thought itself unable to move my poor mind? Then it is worth very little! And Pride, Ambition couldn’t they at least propel me, or will they let me live like this ? In my imagination I shall find most confidence to pull myself out of the rut. Imagination may perhaps entice my mind and carry it away. But I am very much afraid that imagination, too, may be dead . . .’

‘Life should be made into a dream and a dream into a reality.’

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Happy birthday

The Diary Junction Blog is one year old today.

It’s been a fun journey, absorbing diarists from all corners of the planet (Brazil to Japan, Australia to Spain) and a wide range of topics such as politics, sport, travel and relationships.

Thank you to anyone and everyone who’s dropped by for a read.


Egyptian diary in Pisa

An Italian diary, nearly two centuries old and detailing archaeological sites in Egypt that were subsequently destroyed, has just been found in a library at Pisa university. The diary was written by Dr Alessandro Ricci, an explorer, draughtsman and medical doctor. There is not much information about him on the internet, though he took part in the important Franco-Tuscan expedition to Egypt with Ippolito Rosellini, said to be the father of Italian Egyptology. Oh, and he died of a scorpion sting.

Last month, the Italian news service Ansa revealed the story of Dr Alessandro Ricci’s diary; and, since then, it’s been widely reproduced across the internet, but without any additional facts or embellishment. So, most of the information in this article is based on the Ansa-sourced story (as on the Archaelogy Daily News website, for example).

Ricci was born in Siena and left Italy in 1817 to travel to Egypt, staying first in Alexandria and then travelling through Nubia, where he found tribal fighting and hostility from the local governor. In 1820, while in Cairo, he joined a military expedition to the Siwa Oasis - 560km west of Cairo - organised by the Viceroy Muhammed Ali, who is sometimes called the founder of modern Egypt (see Wikipedia). Indeed it was Ali who claimed the Siwa Oasis for Egypt. During the trip, Ricci carefully copied inscriptions he found at the temple of Amun and mapped out the area around the oasis. Later that year, he travelled to Suez and to Mount Sinai, where he spent some time at St Catherine’s Monastery.

In 1821, Ricci returned to southern Egypt, joining another military expedition, this one led by Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha. He returned to Italy in 1822 and set to work organising the drawings and notes he had made in Egypt. A few years later, in 1828, these notes would be of much service when he returned to Egypt, serving as a draughtsman and doctor, on the so-called Franco-Tuscan expedition. This was organised by a French philologist, Jean-Francois Champollion, and Ippolito Rosellini, of Pisa university, who would later be called the father of Italian Egyptology (see The Travellers in Egypt website). It lasted a year, and explored up river on the Nile as far as Wadi Halfa, but soon after it was over Ricci was bitten by a scorpion. He was paralysed and eventually died in 1834.

Ricci’s journal - the one that has just been rediscovered - concerns his first period in Egypt, the five years to 1822. ‘This is an exceptional find for the field of Egyptology,’ said Marilina Betro, the professor heading a Pisa university team researching the Franco-Tuscan expedition. This is partly because, Betro explains, Ricci describes and draws sites that were already destroyed by the time of Champollion-Rosellini expedition, but also because he writes about much more along the way, ‘the customs and habits of the people he met, the fighting strategies of armies, the condition of women and even the treatment of animals’.

The whereabouts of Ricci’s journal appears to have been a mystery for decades. Ricci gave it to Champollion in 1827, prior to the Franco-Tuscan expedition, apparently believing the French expert would publish it. But then both Champollion and Ricci died a few years later. Although Rosellini asked French authorities to return the journal to Italy in 1836, it remained in France.

The diary then vanished for several decades until surfacing in 1928, when an Italian architect working for King Fuad I of Egypt bought it in a Cairo bookshop (these details are all from the Ansa news story). This architect showed it to the Italian Egyptologist Angelo Sammarco, who recognised its value and was keen to organise its publication. A synopsis of the diary appeared in 1930 but the project never got any further. After he died in 1948, all trace of the journal vanished - until recently, when it was found at Pisa university by researcher Daniele Salvoldi.

‘Now, two centuries after it was written, our goal is to get this book published,’ said Betro.

(Postscript: See From Siena to Nubia: Alessandro Ricci in Egypt and Sudan, 1817-22 published in 2018 by Bloomsbury.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Impropriety in the pew

Poor John Skinner. His parishioners just wouldn’t stop messing about in church, something which made him very grumpy. One hundred and eighty years ago today, for example, he was complaining to his diary: ‘I said aloud that, as there had been great impropriety of behaviour in that pew, I requested there might be no repetition of it this evening. John Rossiter stood up in the pew and looked very insolently at me, but I took no notice.’ Skinner did have other reasons to be grumpy and he would, a few years later, do away with himself.

Skinner was born in Claverton, near Bath in 1772,  and educated first at Cheam School then at Trinity College, Cambridge. After reading for an MA he entered Lincoln’s Inn but soon decided on the church for a career, and was ordained priest in 1799. After a brief curacy at Brent Knoll in Somerset, he took over the living at Camerton, Somerset. He married and had five children, but his wife died young, and his eldest daughter, Laura also died. Thereafter, he seems to have been mostly unhappy, with no intellectual companionship and regular feuds with farmers. He took refuge in studying antiquities, and undertook many exceptions of ancient sites in the southwest. He committed suicide, in 1839, by shooting himself in a wood nearby his home.

Skinner is largely remembered, however, because he wrote a diary, nearly 100 volumes of which are stored in the British Library. An essay by Virginia Woolf on Skinner (made available thanks to Ms Spachman on a website devoted to Woolf) provides a little more biographical information, most of it culled, in fact, from the diaries. Wikipedia and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required) also have some further details.

These diaries were first edited by Howard Coombs and Rev Arthur N Bax and published by John Murray, London, in 1930 as Journal of a Somerset Rector. Bax says the diaries are filled with sketches and records of tours of little general interest. If he visited the British Museum, Bax explains, he would begin to catalogue its contents, and hundreds of pages are filled with archaeological detail and theory - ‘mostly dead stuff’. Nevertheless, he adds, Skinner’s observations about his parish do throw light on the life of a Somerset village at the beginning of the 19th century.

Bax also suggests that the Skinner’s diaries come to life after the death of his wife and daughter. Here is more from his introduction: ‘His wife and daughter died of consumption, the daughter was laid in the same grave as her mother, and when after her death he examined a cabinet he had given her for her collections of coins and shells, he found everything was arranged with the utmost neatness, and she had some years before begun to keep a Journal. This last blow came near to breaking his spirit, though he struggled gallantly to resist the tendency of his life to shrivel, and from this time the extracts of the Journal tell their own story.

Hitherto, the Journal had been little more than a record of his archaelogical explorations and of his tours; but now that his wife and Laura are both gone, it becomes his confidant. His books are ‘his friends and consoler’; he finds them ‘the same to-day, to-morrow, and the next day.’ In the Journal he records the daily happenings, his reflections on them, and the actors in them. It becomes the mirror of his feelings; in it he makes confession, and as he turns its back pages he judges himself.’

Thelma Wilcox has a piece about Skinner on her North Stoke blog, and picks out one or two diary entries. Here is one from 1820, a few months after the death of his daughter.

‘I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent by myself, an obscure imdividual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks.’

As the diary progresses, Skinner seems to get grumpier and grumpier, and there is much about quarrels with members of his own family. But he also seems to lose patience with his parishioners. Here is Skinner confiding in his diary exactly 180 years ago today.

10 May 1829
‘During the Prayers at Morning Service Cottle’s son was hawking so loud when I commenced the service I was obliged to look at him in order to check him from interrupting the service. The pew which Burfitt built without any authority from me or the Ordinary, has been more than once the scene of great impropriety of behaviour during Church time, for the sides being higher than the seatings, so that the congregation are not able to see the people who are sitting down, they talk and laugh and misbehave themselves greatly. This evening the pew was filled by two sons and a daughter of farmer Skuse, a son of Hicks, John Rossiter, and a female in mourning; the elder Skuse I saw talking and laughing with the person in black, and I said aloud that, as there had been great impropriety of behaviour in that pew, I requested there might be no repetition of it this evening. John Rossiter stood up in the pew and looked very insolently at me, but I took no notice.’

The Diary Junction

Friday, May 8, 2009

A soldier of fortune

General Patrick Gordon, a Scottish-born soldier of fortune who became a friend and military adviser to Russia’s Peter the Great, is today being celebrated and discussed at a conference organised by University of Aberdeen. Also today, the conference is hosting a party to launch the first volume of a new and complete set of Gordon’s diaries in the original English - although, it seems, three volumes have already been published! A complete German version was printed over 150 years ago, but until now only extracts have ever been published in English (and those extracts are freely available on the internet).

Gordon was born in 1635 into a landholding family in Auchleuchries, Scotland, but he went abroad, to Poland, to study at a Jesuit college. In 1655, war broke out between Poland and Sweden, and Gordon turned to soldiering, fighting for both sides on different occasions, until 1660 when peace was signed. The following year he joined the Russian army under Tsar Aleksei I, where he remained under successive regimes, while also studying military techniques. In 1678, he defended Chigirin (now in Ukraine) when beseiged by the Turks; and, in the 1680s, he was promoted to general after warring with the Crimean Tartars.

During the 1689 revolution in Moscow, Gordon and his troops played a decisive role in favor of Tsar Peter I against the Regent, Sophia Alekseyevna. Subsequently, he became the Tsar’s close friend and chief military adviser, and was allowed to train the army according to European methods. When Peter was travelling in Europe, in 1698, Gordon quashed a revolt by the Strelitzes who were trying to restore Sophia to the throne. He died in 1699 with the Tsar at his bedside.

Gordon wrote a diary for much of his life, and this was preserved in manuscript form in the archives of the Imperial Russian foreign office. A complete German translation, edited by Dr Maurice Possalt, was published in the mid-19th century; but only parts of the diary ever appeared in English, in 1859, thanks to the Spalding Club which published Passages from the Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (AD 1635–AD 1699).

However, according to an Aberdeen university press release and conference schedule, the first volume of a full set of Gordon’s diaries in English is now being published. In fact, a launch party is taking place today (8 May) at the conference convened by the university especially to discuss Patrick Gordon (and the Scottish diaspora in Eastern Europe).

Professor Paul Dukes, who worked with the university’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies to bring about publication of the diary, says ‘Gordon was a truly remarkable man and the diary is an outstanding historical source . . . He was a fascinating and very accomplished character resembling many before and after him, who left Scotland to make their way in life and had a profound effect on the history of their adopted land. Now, with the publication of his diary in Scotland, and in his own tongue at that, he has at last come home.’

The diary is being edited by Dr Dmitry Fedosov and is to be published in six volumes by MAIK Nauka/Interperiodica, a company established in 1992 by the Russian Academy of Sciences and US company Pleiades Publishing. (All volumes and editions can be found at the Aberdeen University Online Store - search for Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries, 1635-1699.)

A short essay on Gordon’s diary can be found on the website of Xenophon Group International (which says it was set up to promote the study of military history). One passage relates to how Gordon came to enter the Russian army. Quoting from the essay: ‘They arrived at Moscow on 2 September 1661 and were allowed an audience with the Tsar. The Tsar thanked Gordon for his kindness to Russian prisoners in Poland. On 6 September the boyar, Elia Danielovich Miloslavski, took Gordon and his comrades to a field. He was the Tsar’s father-in-law and in charge of the ‘Stranger’ Prikaz. At the field the boyar ordered the officers to demonstrate their skill with the musket and pike. This Gordon did not consider proper, as an officer’s job did not include such menial tasks. Gordon related:

‘Wee found the Boyar there before us, who ordered us to take up pike and musquets (being there ready) and show how wee could handle our armes; wherewith being surprised, I told him, that if I had knowne of this, I should have brought forth one of my boyes, who perhaps could handle armes better as I myself; adding, that it was the least part of an officer to know how to handle armes, conduct being the most materiall. Whereat, he, takeing me up short, told me, that the best colonell coming into this countrey must do so; to which I replyed, Seeing it is the fashion, I am content. And so haveing handled the pike and musket, with all their postures, to his great satisfaction, I returned.’ ’

But far more of Gordon’s diary can be found on the internet. The 1859 Spalding Club edition - Passages from the Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (AD 1635–AD 1699) - is freely available at Internet Archive. Here is Gordon’s own short introduction at the start of the diary:

‘I AM not ignorant that it is thought as hard a taske for any man to writt the story of his own lyfe, and narrative of his actions, as for one artist truly to draw his owne picture ; yet, haveing proposed to my self to writt only by way of a journall, without makeing any reflections by blameing or commending any of the passages of my lyfe (following herein the counsell of Cato, Nee te laudaveris, nec te culpaveris ipse), I think it not uneasy especially not intending it for publick view, as also leaving to others, if any shall take paines to read it, the free censure of any thing here done. I have mentioned no more of publick effaires as came to my knowledge relateing rumours for such and thruths for verity. Some publick effaires (military I meane, for with those of state I have medled very litle, being out of my spheare) I have touched in a continued series, and others interlaced with the story of my owne lyfe (defective, I confess, and that for want of documents and intelligence) being such things the most whereof I have been present at and seen myself. To conclude, I cannot tell you a better or truer reason for writing this, as that it is to please my owne fancy, not being curious of pleasing any bodyes else, seing omnibus placere hath been reckoned as yet among the impossibilia.’

And here are several extracts from the very end of Gordon’s diary:

2 July 1698
‘To-day, seventy men were hanged by fives and threes on one gallows. Numbers more were sent away to confinement.’

4 July 1698
‘In the morning, the four Strelitzes condemned last Saturday were brought out and beheaded. With few exceptions, all those executed submitted to their fate with great indifference, without saying a word, only crossing themselves; some took leave of the lookers-on. One hundred and thirty had been executed, about seventy had been killed in the engagement or died of their wounds, eighteen hundred and forty-five been sent to various convents and prisons, and twenty-five remained in this convent.’

July 1698
‘The tidings of the formidable revolt of the Strelitzes reached the Czar at Vienna, towards the end of July, and hastened his journey homewards.’

17 September 1698
‘Many Strelitzes were brought up and put to the torture, his Majesty being desirous to institute a stricter examination than ours.’

19 September 1698
‘I was unwell and kept the house. A sharp enquiry was made into the Strelitz business.’

20 September 1698
‘More Strelitzes put to the question. A number were directed to prepare for death.’

3 October 1698
‘I was at Preobraschensk, and saw the crocodile, swordfish, and other curiosities, which his Majesty had brought from England and Holland.’

1 November 1698
‘Orders were issued not to give support to any of the wives or children of the executed‘ Strelitzes.’

31 December 1698 (the last entry)
‘Almighty God be praised for his gracious long suffering towards me in sparing my life so long. Grant, gracious God, that I may make a good use of the time that thou mayest be pleased yet to grant me for repentance. This year I have felt a sensible decrease of health and strength. Yet thy will be done, gracious God!’

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Humboldt’s genius

It is one hundred and fifty years since the death of the great German geographer Alexander von Humboldt. When travelling, it seems, he was a careful and meticulous diarist, although I cannot find any published editions of his diaries in English. However, a large collection of letters to his friend Karl Varnhagen von Ense along with many diary entries by Varnhagen about Humboldt is widely available on the internet.

A detailed biography of Alexander von Humboldt can be found at Wikipedia, and a briefer one at ThoughtCo. He was born in Germany, in 1769, into a prominent Pomeranian family, his father being an officer in the Prussian army. He enrolled in various universities, before undertaking geology at the Freiberg technical university, where he studied under the famous geologist A G Werner. In 1792, when still only 22, he was appointed government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. Five years later, his mother died leaving him a wealthy man, and he soon set about planning a major expedition to Latin America with a French botanist, Aime Bonpland.

For five years, from 1799 to 1804, the two explored over 6,000 miles of Central and South American territory, collecting plant samples, meteorological observations and information on the earth’s geomagnetic field. On his return to Europe, Humboldt remained in Paris to write and publish 30 volumes of information accumulated during the expedition, creating a work that, Wikipedia says, ‘may be regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography and meteorology’.

In 1827, Humboldt returned to Berlin and took up teaching, tutoring the Prussian crown prince and lecturing on physical geography at the university. In 1829, he travelled through Siberia, at the invitation of the Russian government, to visit the gold and platinum mines. The later years of his life were devoted to studying magnetism, and to writing Kosmos. This latter work (five volumes, the last of which appeared posthumously) was focused on physical geography and the natural sciences, and tried to unify the various branches of scientific knowledge. He died on 6 May 1859, one and a half centuries ago today.

Humboldt certainly wrote diaries on his travels in Latin America. Ulrike Leitner has a note about them on the University of Potsdam website. She says that in compiling his diary, Humboldt considered ‘all observations worthy of writing down, but his preference for precise measurements [was] especially remarkable’. Humboldt’s diaries, she believes, are ‘the essential source for a full account of his stay in Mexico’ since an unfinished work on his American journey (published in French in three volumes as Relation Historique du Voyage aux Régions Équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent) ends with his arrival in Columbia in 1801. She explains that Humboldt referred to his diaries regularly and made them ‘the basis of his publications on the results of the American journey, especially for the Relation Historique’. He later took the diary notebooks apart and had them bound into nine volumes.

Leitner gives one example from Humboldt’s diary, dated August-September 1803: ‘[it was one of the] most exhausting periods of my life. I climbed all mountains using my barometer. In Valenciana I descended three times to the bottom of the mine, two times in Rayas, in Mellado, in Fraustros, in Animas and in San Bruno. I visited the mine of Villalpando, spent two days in Santa Rosa and in Los Álamos [. . .] I had a dangerous fall on my back in Fraustros, and experienced extreme pain for 14 days due to a sprain of the base of my spine!’

Elsewhere on the same university website is a short conference paper brief by Michael Zeuske of the University of Cologne. It focuses on the Diario Habana 1804, Humboldt’s last unpublished diary, and was written during or soon after the Haitian revolution. Zeuske is particularly concerned with Humboldt’s attitude to slavery and some conflicts between the stance he always takes when writing in his diary and the actual relationships he has with slaveholding elites in Cuba and Venezuela.

These references apart, I can find little evidence of Humboldt’s diaries on the internet, and I can find no sign of them ever having been published in English. However, his letters are a different matter. A large collection written to his friend Varnhagen von Ense were published (by Rudd & Carleton, New York) the year after his death with a selection of extracts from Varnhagen’s diary about Humboldt.

A short preface written by Humboldt’s niece, Ludmilla Assing, says: ‘The following letters of Humboldt furnish a contribution of the highest importance to the true, correct, and unveiled representation of his genius and character. That they should be delivered to publicity after his death was his desire and intent, which have found their positive impression in the words preceding this book as its motto. Never has he spoken out his mind more freely and sincerely, than in his communications with Varnhagen, his old and faithful friend, whom he esteemed and loved before all others. . . The interest of Humboldt’s letters is sometimes pleasantly heightened by entries in Varnhagen’s diary - they will indicate the verbal sentiments of Humboldt in addition to those written by him.’

Here are a few of Varnhagen’s diary observations about Humboldt taken from the book - Letters of Alexander von Humboldt to Varnhagen von Ense from 1827 to 1858 with extracts from Varnhagen’s Diaries, and Letters of Varnhagen and other to Humboldt - which is freely available at Internet Archive and other websites.

3 May 1837
‘In the evening, at the Princess of Pueckler’s, the long-promised lecture by Herr von Humboldt. The lecture was very fine, and made an excellent impression. I had a conversation with General von Ruhle on Humboldt’s genius. He totally agreed with me, saying, ‘When he shall have died, then only shall we understand well what we have possessed in him.’ ’

19 April 1839
‘I saw Humboldt to-day, who told me many things, and showed me a beautiful portrait of Arago, which pleased me very much. He talked much about the difficulties between Russia and England, as to their interests in the East Indies and in Persia, and repeated what he had heard about it from the Russian Emperor himself. The Czar was in a great passion against the English, and thought it highly important to oppose their supremacy in Asia. Humboldt agrees with me that the English have nothing serious to fear for the next fifty years from Russia in the Indies, but that fear and jealousy may engender a quarrel in Europe prior to any conflict in the East, although conflicting parties will certainly think twice before allowing it to come to that pass.’

9 June 1839
‘Humboldt agrees with me in the assertion made by me at different times, that too much cannot be inferred from the silence of the historians. He refers to three highly important and undeniable facts, which are not mentioned by those whose first duty it should have been to record them. In the archives of Barcelona, no vestige of the triumphal entry held there by Columbus; in Marco Polo, no mention of the Chinese wall; in the archives of Portugal, nothing of the travels of Amerigo Vespucci, in the service of that crown.’

30 April 1841
‘Humboldt has a great many enemies, as well amongst the savans as at court, who are constantly seeking an opportunity to malign him, but the moment he is praised all vituperation ceases for it is all vituperation. It is seldom that anybody is able to maintain it. Some time ago a gentleman said to me, that he did not know what to think of Humboldt, and that he could not come to a conclusion concerning him. I answered: ‘Think always the best of him, believe him always capable of the best action, and you always will be nearest the truth.’ Another said, same day, sneeringly: ‘Humboldt was a great man before he came to Berlin, where he became an ordinary one.’

4 July 1857
‘Yesterday Humboldt spoke of the time when he lived in a house at the side of George’s Garden, and was so assiduous in his magnetic observations that he once stinted himself of sleep for seven successive days and nights in order to examine the state of things every half hour; after that he changed the watch with substitutes. This was in 1807, just fifty years ago. I often saw the little house in which the experiments were made, when I visited Johannes von Mueller, who also lived in a house at the side of the same garden; or Fichte who lived in a garden house in the middle of the garden. When old George, a wealthy distiller, showed the garden to his friends, Humboldt went on to say, he never failed to boast of ‘his learned men’. ‘Here I have the famous Mueller; there is Humboldt, and there is Fichte, but he is only a philosopher, I believe.’

(Postscript: Many of Humboldt’s travel journals can now be found online thanks to edition humboldt digital; and there is also much information about his American travel journals, as well images of various pages, at the 
Alexander von Humboldt Portal.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

A free black female

‘A beautiful May-day - one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen.’ So wrote Charlotte Grimké - a young African-American woman fond of riding horses - one and half centuries ago today. She would go on to become a well-known anti-slavery campaigner and teacher. Her diary is considered one of the few extant documents detailing the life of a free black female in the north before the civil war.

Charlotte Bridges was born in 1837 into a prominent black Philadelphia family. Her grandfather had been a very successful businessman and a significant voice in the abolitionist movement, and her father and his brother-in-law were also abolitionists and members of the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, an anti-slavery, slave assistance network. Charlotte was sent to school in Salem, Massachusetts, where she was the only non-white student in a cohort of 200. In 1856, she began work as a teacher there, and was the first African-American ever hired. She became a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and proved to be an influential activist. Two years later, she contracted TB and returned to Philadelphia, where she wrote poetry while convalescing.

With the coming of the Civil War, Charlotte made her way to St Helena Island, South Carolina, where she became the first black teacher involved in the Sea Islands mission. Though wanting to feel a bond with the islanders, her upbringing and education meant she had more in common with the white abolitionists. She wrote about her time there in essays for the Atlantic Monthly.

In the late 1860s, she worked for the Treasury Department recruiting teachers. In 1878, she married Presbyterian minister Francis J Grimké. They had one daughter who died in infancy. Thereafter, Charlotte helped her husband in his ministry in Washington, organised a women’s missionary group and continued her civil rights efforts. She died in 1914, after many years as an invalid.

Wikipedia has more information on Charlotte’s life, as does the Black Past website. But today, Charlotte is best remembered for her diaries, particularly because they provide important first hand documentation of the life of a black woman in the period. They were first edited (by Ray Allen Billington) and published in the 1950s by Norton, New York. Then, in 1988, Brenda Stevenson edited them for publication by the Oxford University Press as The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké (available to preview at Googlebooks).

Here are two extracts I’ve culled from the Stevenson
 edition - the first is dated May day, exactly 150 years ago.

1 May 1859
‘A beautiful May-day. - One of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. Had a delightful drive through the country to Attleborough. The trees are perfectly beautiful - in full bloom. The grass is green, the birds as mirthful, the sky as cloudless, and the air as warm as in summer. Had a pleasant day at the C.’s delightful place. Am almost as deeply in love with Sallie C. ad G. is. She is a dear, warm-hearted girl! Saw some perfect violets.’

6 May 1859
‘Had a splendid ride of three miles, on horseback, to L.’s greenhouse. Before I reached it the air was laden with the fragrance of mignonette and heliotrope. Within was a scene - beautiful as fairy land - roses verbenas, clematic [sic], all kinds of flowers, in full bloom. One division of the greenhouse was filled with geraniums in bloom - the finest collection I’ve ever seen. My sturdy old horse - “Joe” - came back quite rapidly, and I enjoyed the sunset ride perfectly. No exercise is so thoroughly exhilarating and delighful to me as horseback riding. It makes me feel younger and happier.’

And here are two more extracts taken from a website of resources for teachers hosted by PBS:

5 November 1862
‘Had my first regular teaching experience, and to you and you only friend beloved, will I acknowledge that it was not a very pleasant one.’

13 November 1862
‘Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [a leader of the Haitian revolution who died in 1803]. They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their own color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort), and high purpose.’