Off to Wales with my great-grandmother’s diary

mary davies feb 1896 sm

Mary in February 1896, at the age of 24

My mother gave me my first diary when I was 13. It had a yellow cardboard cover and a tiny lock and key. I welcomed the chance to put down my secrets, especially to spill out the doubts and longings that ached in my boy-crazy heart. Afraid some nosy person might cut the cardboard strap that connected the lock to the back cover, I hid the little book in my closet in a box of Lincoln Logs that my brother and I were too old to play with. The words were definitely for my eyes only.

Ten years later, when I lived in a New York City commune devoted to truthfulness, all of us kept journals to deal with the jealousies, guilts, and self-criticisms our intertwined lives entailed. Writing about my emotions helped keep them from clogging up and either sending me into a deep depression or exploding in anger.

My diaries, like many people’s journals nowadays, served as therapeutic tools. I get the feeling from my great-grandmother’s travel diary and her father’s Civil War diary that the medium in the 19th century had a different purpose.

There is no self-analysis in either of those precious documents, no attempt to vent grief and anger. Among the marching and camping, William Davies notes matter-of-factly that his feet are bleeding from his new, too-tight boots, that his friend John Jones died of pneumonia and was sent home in a metallic coffin, that he and his comrades spent a night burying the dead after an assault on Vicksburg, what he called “a trying time for me and the rest also.” But he goes no deeper into his emotions. In fact, when John Jones dies, he stops writing for two weeks.

Of his biggest trauma, three months as a prisoner of war in the hell of Andersonville Prison, he wrote only two sentences. Far from working through his pain, he refused to dwell on it or to inflict on his future readers anything that might be too upsetting. I think he was keeping a record, for himself and for his family, of events he knew were significant. I wonder how his wife felt about his omissions. Was she glad to be spared his suffering? Or did she long for more details, to know what had been in his heart, especially when it seemed the pain continued to haunt him after the war?

Mary Davies’ 1892 diary covers three months in Wales, her father’s birthplace. The writing is almost as restrained as William’s, although she describes places—farmhouses, ancient castles, landscape, a tin works—in extravagant detail. It reads like a travelogue she would be happy to show her mother, her brother and sister, and curious acquaintances at home. There are few conflicts and almost no descriptions of people that might offend or cause envy—although she names every person who went for a walk with her or invited her to their house. I find her reticence about her emotions intensely frustrating. Of course, I’m grateful beyond words to have both of these documents offering windows into past lives. But couldn’t Mary have spilled a few secrets of her inner world? I suppose not, if the writings were destined for other readers.

I’m about to go to Wales with a transcript of her diary in hand, seeking the places she visited 124 years ago. The book I’m writing about Mary is composed of both actual letters she kept and letters I make up to fill in the gaps—as well as letters I write to her, mulling over her life and its impact on me. Sometimes she answers my letters. I will be looking at Wales through her eyes, trying to intuit the emotions she left out of her journal. I hope she’s paying attention.

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